Dozens of studies show that stress compromises the immune system. Therefore, it stands to reason that divorce puts anyone dissolving a marriage at some risk of disease. The more stressful the divorce, the more likely it is that illness will follow.
I lay staring at the ceiling and willed myself to go back to sleep. It said 2:27 on the clock. Again. The kids would migrate to my bed soon. This was our new routine; I was unable to sleep a full night and they reverted to needing to sleep with Mommy. At least the dog was snoring peacefully!
The year that I separated from and then divorced the father of my two young children was the year I became an insomniac. During the light of day, it didn’t seem so bad; people asked how we were and I brushed them off with a joke or a trill “yup, fine!” but in the dark of night, alone in my king-sized bed, it was anything but fine. I was anything but fine. I was skinny as hell, which people commented on- “what are you DOING? You look great!” but that didn’t mean fine. It meant I was exercising a lot, drinking a ton of caffeine, and generally pushing myself beyond the limits of what my body, and mind, could or should do.
The Holmes and Rahe Scale lists divorce as the second most stressful life event that can impact your health. Actually, 5 of the top 10 on the list are related to marriage, separation, and spouses; and now, looking back two years later, I am not surprised. When you are going through the motions, really down in the weeds of the day to day of new co-parenting arrangements, papers to sign, lawyers to pay and court dates looming on the calendar, nevermind just actual life, you don’t notice how stress creeps into everything you do.
If I could go back and give advice to myself, wide awake and worried at 2:27 AM with divorce stress, here’s what I’d say:
1. Put yourself first. When a flight attendant tells you to “put your oxygen mask on first” if there’s an emergency, it’s because you cannot help anyone around you if you, yourself, are not breathing. That’s a simple lesson, but wildly applicable when going through a divorce. Figure out what it is that makes you feel whole and happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s painting pottery, long walks, gossip magazines or running half marathons, but do it. Schedule time to recharge yourself and make this a priority.
2. Meditate. This might feel a little new age (trust me, I had a hard time with this one!), but when I say “meditate” I just mean to find some quiet space; if that involves actual meditation, or perhaps yoga, then awesome. Learn from someone who did the opposite: yours truly. When I was newly separated I made sure there was absolutely no down time for any of us; empty space meant space to grieve and I wasn’t ready so I pushed it away, which was 100% not healthy. Carving out time for deep breathing and space to feel your feelings will help all of you in the long run.
3. Lean on friends. You have a tribe of people, and now is the time to lean on them. And if you find yourself suddenly missing your tribe, which unfortunately can happen in the process of divorce, find a new one. There are online and in person groups of people going through separation and divorce, and even having just one person you can text, call or email to vent to or ask advice of, is paramount. Also, say yes to “girls” or “boys” nights out-- you need your people. Even if you’re not ready to talk about ANY of it, tell them that, and then get to it.
4. Be honest. I was the Queen of telling people that I was “fine.” Fine was code for “I am NOT fine and you should probably be worried about me.” I kept that up for the first year and swallowing my feelings did me no favors. It was when I was finally honest with myself and those around me that I started to feel more authentically myself, which was key to my healing process. You don’t have to tell the world all of your deepest, darkest feelings, but you do need to find a way to release some of it; be it a preacher, therapist, or best friend, being honest with someone is a key way to release tension.
5. Say no. “No” is indeed a full sentence and when you are going through a divorce you get a free pass to say no to anything that complicates your life or adds stress. If the thought of a PTA bake sale, planning the company picnic, seeing distant relatives at a family reunion, or going to a wedding make your blood pressure rise, just say no. All of those functions and commitments will be there when you emerge from this process, you can say yes then. Also, hear me on this one: the only person who expects you to be doing everything right now is you. Be kind to yourself-- and get comfortable with no.