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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.