Divorce is by far one of the toughest life-changing events that people experience. No one will deny that, especially if you are in the midst of going through it. Navigating the process of divorce with all its ups and downs while trying to connect the dots and make sense out of the unthinkable creates a cascade of emotions that often leaves you grappling to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. I have had clients say it’s like a punch to the gut. It feels unreal, surreal. They feel like they are living someone else’s life, stuck in first gear.
Divorce affects us both physically and emotionally. The physical effects of divorce are vast. Body aches and pains, sleep difficulties, lack of motivation, headaches, increased blood pressure, increased risk of developing infections, chest pains, upset stomach and a decrease in eating are common. It can exacerbate problems that were already present and cause new health issues to rise.
Emotionally, divorce affects us in significant ways. Feeling depressed and anxious are all too common and manifest themselves in different ways. For example, the debilitating effects of divorce can lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the result of experiencing a traumatic event and can include car accidents, rape, physical assaults, and even verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. According to Collee Cira, PsyD., a Psychologist who specializes in women and trauma, states, “basically any kind of scary or disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope falls into the PTSD category”.
“Exacerbating this situation, many women do not realize they are victims of PTSD. This is because women tend to internalize and instead of looking for answers in their world or circumstances, they assume there is something wrong with them. Women might not attribute their own thoughts, feelings, emotions or behaviors to something that happened to them because they just figure this is who they are.”
Further, according to the American Psychological Association, “women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, experience a longer duration of posttraumatic symptoms and display more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma.” When PTSD symptoms are left untreated it can have drastic mental health implications which can lead to physical health issues as well, including headaches, stomach problems and sexual dysfunction.
Both the emotional and physical effects can be immediate once the divorce process begins or a slow simmering effect where you recognize on some level that you feel changed emotionally but can’t quite put our finger on it. What you do know is that you simply feel and think differently and that something is off.
Symptoms of PTSD take on both physical and emotional aspects. You do not need to have all of these to have PTSD.
Becoming emotionally or physically upset when reminded of the situation through triggers, which can and often do expand over time. Often when you experience a trigger. A trigger is a visceral reaction to a stimulus that at times seems to come from nowhere – on a subconscious level, but upon further inspection, you recognize its origin. And, it is not uncommon for our ‘realm of triggers’ to magnify over time. Reliving one trigger can encourage other triggers to arise. This is all too common. This can leave you feeling like you are being swallowed up by the number of stimuli that keeps you emotionally vigilant and on the lookout. It can also be emotionally charging as our system that remains ‘on guard’ and wanting to either fight, flee, or freeze.
Experiencing nightmares and flashbacks are also common. Thinking about the events of divorce and what led up to it can leave us feeling unsettled. Flashbacks to happier times, the actual trauma (especially with physical or mental or emotional abuse, finding out about an affair, catching a partner/husband having an affair) or to continual contentious times can leave you feeling disoriented. You may wake up feeling tired, groggy, exhausted, and unfocused. Nightmares upend our sleep cycle and cause sleep deprivation. And we all know that not getting a good night sleep consistently affects a person in profound ways. You feel unsettled.
Avoiding situations means that you will stay away from people or places that remind you of the divorce. You refuse to think about the situation. Although this is often done for self-preservation, it can also leave you feeling isolated. You avoid anything that reminds of our partner, the divorce, or the factors surrounding the divorce. You don’t want to talk about the situation. Throwing yourself into distraction and being obsessed with that activity at the time rather than thinking about the event you experienced, only increases feeling isolated and reinforces the avoidant behavior.
Feeling numb is typical. It leaves you feeling checked out. Sure, you are going through the motions because often you have to. You have to get the kids off to school, go to work, and pay the bills. But you do these things in a fog. On the outside, you may appear to be ‘ok’ but inside you have no idea what’s going on. The downside to feeling numb is that if you are not careful, you can turn towards addictions (drugs, alcohol, shopping, sexual indiscretions, among others), which is all too common.
Irritability, feeling anxious, on guard, unable to focus being easily distracted. You will feel anxious and edgy. Different things and experiences create different anxiety levels. You may easily feel irritable, take your anxiety or anger out on another person. This is because until you identify the reason for the anxious feelings, the feelings have to go somewhere.
You may feel uninterested in life. This can take the form of what is termed anhedonia – the loss of interest and pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. For women who have to continuously interact with abusive or narcissistic partners many, life is even more challenging because it often feels like it never ends.
However, there are things that you can start to do to tackle both the physical and emotional aspects that arise during a divorce and if you are experiencing some of the symptoms inherent in PTSD. Taking care of yourself physically and taking the steps to promote a healthy lifestyle during this very difficult time is vital.
Making changes to tackle the emotional aspects of PTSD is more challenging but can be done over time.
Even though a traumatic event such as divorce can leave you feeling disillusioned and stuck, increasing your awareness is key and the first step to recovery. This will allow you to take the necessary steps to move through it, addressing the physical and emotional toll it is taking on you so eventually, you are able to get your life back on track.
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