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Your Brain on Divorce

Life can bring us challenges that we can never be fully prepared for. Going through a divorce is often one of those experiences that turns life as we know it on its head. There are changes from where we are living, to who is raising our children, to dividing assets, to shifts in our friendships, to the upheaval of our small but meaningful routines. Even when the decision to divorce is amicable, the change each family member must go through brings challenges that are likely to impact our mental health.

Experts Consider Divorce to be a Kind of “Trauma”

Divorce is a stressful life event, and it is also a multifaceted loss. Many experts even consider divorce to be a traumatic event, because it brings so much unwanted and unpredictable change. Stress and trauma will trigger the nervous system into a state of arousal that is optimal for facing a threat, which is why it is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. However, it becomes physically and emotionally taxing when our stress response is left on too long, especially chronically. Trouble with sleep, difficulty concentrating, and feeling disconnected from life are some unwanted impacts to our mental and physical health when our stress response has the switch left “on” for too long.

Turning The Dial Down

Getting back into a parasympathetic resting state, which researchers refer to as our “rest and digest” or “tend and befriend” state of being, will be helpful in managing your stress during or after divorce. This is also the state we want to be in when we are present and engaged with others. When we are stressed, we are less equipped with patience and we are running on a shorter fuse.
Going through a divorce has both predictable challenges such as making the decision to separate, enlisting the help of a lawyer, and telling family and friends. Divorce also brings challenges that we may not yet know how to handle. If we have young children and are going through a divorce, we know how hard this stress can be on families. Slowing down—whether that be with our breath or in your day—will help with staying mindful of what is working well and where you can step back and take each day one at a time.

Mixed and Moving Emotions

Emotions that are felt during divorce are often mixed and sometimes difficult to make sense of, but if you are going through a divorce, you will likely meet all stages of grief. Grief includes not only unique stages but also a mixed bag of emotions. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt and shame
  • Relief
  • Joy
  • Resentment
  • Yearning
  • Numbness
Leaning on friends and family, as well as enlisting the help of a therapist who is well-versed in navigating divorce can help you process and feel supported as you find meaning and move forward. Though isolation is sometimes an easy way to cope, sharing how you are feeling with trusted others can help with battling shame and feeling resilient.

Cycle of Grief

Grief is a normal response to change, and moving through the stages of grief can sometimes take longer than we expected. Grief is also not linear; it is more like loops and twists and we may visit several stages again and again or even hang out in one stage longer than the others. It’s important to remain patient and compassionate with yourself since there is no “right” way to move forward. Others may be well-intentioned in encouraging you to move quicker or differently, but remember that “anything that a person feels inside of their own personal grief is correct.”

How the Brain Feels Pain

Our brain registers both physical pain and emotional pain in similar areas—the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex—as well as other combined neural networks in the brain. Whether you feel sadness, guilt, and shame, or anger, your brain will process your emotions as painful experiences and send cues to your body that basically say, “this is terrible, get me out of this”. Our natural inclination is to push pain away, but most times that is like trying to push a beach ball underwater. Recognize that pain is an expected part of divorce and that the pain will not last forever.

Relationship Between Physical Pain and Social Pain

Studies have shown that social rejection can also trigger physical pain. This is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation where our nervous system evolved to register social exclusion as a threat to survival. If we were separated from our pack, we would be vulnerable. So then, when we are cut off from our social supports, as what happens in divorce, it’s no wonder this is a deeply despairing and painful experience.

Steps to Healing

a woman going through a divorce is lying on the couch trying to block out the stress
If you’ve found yourself going through a divorce, know that you are not alone. As common as divorce may be, no one enters marriage with the idea that they will divorce. There are many books and programs designed to walk a person through steps to heal, but it is really very important to remember that every divorce is different and there is no right timeline for moving past divorce. There are no right or wrong steps to take in your journey forward. What is important is that you are supported in your process and that you take steps forward that feel right to you. If you feel you could benefit from more support in your life, contact us today to be connected with a member of our care team.
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