How to survive divorce with your health intact - Felicity featured in The Daily Telegraph
How to survive divorce with your health intact
Divorce and the period leading up to it is without doubt one of life's most stressful experiences. As we disentangle our lives from someone we once loved and trusted, we encounter many difficult and distressing moments along the way. We endure the trauma of heartbreak and loss, as well as the build-up of chronic stress, both of which contribute to changes in our bodies.
The physical symptoms we experience are associated with an ancient system in our bodies that has evolved to protect us. When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system takes over, releasing high levels of adrenaline and cortisol and triggering what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This prepares the body to deal with the threat by either attacking or running away. Bodily changes that we might notice include an increased heart rate, short shallow breathing, muscle tension, tingling in the fingers and toes, sweating and churning stomach. These changes occur automatically in response to perceived threat and can be alarming if we don’t understand their source.
Over the longer term, an ongoing elevation in sympathetic nervous system activity can lead to the chronic stress cycle. This is associated with worsening cognitive function, poor memory and concentration, difficulty sleeping, aches and pains and increased susceptibility to illness. These symptoms themselves can become self-maintaining as our functioning at home and at work suffers, leading to more stress.
As we go through the process of relationship breakdown and divorce, these physical symptoms are likely to stay with us. They may be triggered when we encounter reminders of what has happened, and we can find ourselves reliving painful incidents, ruminating about them and re-experiencing the associated physiological reactions long after the event.
And to cap it off, going through divorce and separation can rob us of the sources of support and self-care that would normally help us to recover from stressful experiences. This is likely to make it harder to cope with the multiple demands encountered as we progress through the process and may hinder our ability to bounce back.
Why does rejection feel so painful and why do we crave someone so much after they've left?
On an evolutionary level, social connection is central to our survival. Therefore, when we experience rejection it threatens us at a very deep level, undermining our sense of belonging and acceptance and leading to feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
Rejection is experienced as a ‘narcissistic wound’. As social beings we have a strong need to be accepted and liked by others and rejection hurts because it implies that we are unlovable. It also subconsciously triggers difficult emotions associated with any childhood experiences of rejection and abandonment we may have had. This can undermine our self-esteem and sense of identity.
Confusion about why a cherished relationship has come to an end, as well as uncertainty about what the future holds can draw us into overthinking and rumination as we try to make sense of the turmoil. This keeps the pain alive and can prevent us from accepting the relationship is over and allowing ourselves to move on.
How can we take care of ourselves while this is happening? What simple, practical things can we do to try to calm our systems down a bit?
Using a technique known as slow rhythmic breathing will help to calm sympathetic nervous system arousal and soothe the stress response. This takes practice but can help when we are faced with reminders of painful events, conflict or difficult conversations about the break-up.
When you feel distressed it can help to ground yourself, using the senses to connect with times when you felt safe and calm. Memories of a favourite place, comforting objects or smells that remind you of better times can all have a soothing effect.
When we are with people who care about us, we feel calmer and experience a sense of comfort and belonging. Reaching out to friends and family can reduce sympathetic nervous system arousal and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system helping our bodies to relax and step back from ‘fight or flight’.
Practising yoga or mindfulness may also help, teaching you to focus on the present moment and to let go of the overthinking and rumination that keeps the pain alive.
Finally, because divorce and heartbreak are a form of loss, we need to allow ourselves time to move through the emotional stages of grief. This can be a difficult process, and at times we might become ‘stuck’ with a particular emotion. If feelings such as anger or anxiety become prolonged, professional psychological input can help in moving towards resolution.