Your Brain on Divorce: How to Take Charge

Your brain on divorce responds with the “Fight or Flight” response. A “Pause and Plan” approach is far more helpful.
Your brain on divorce responds with the “Fight or Flight” response. A “Pause and Plan” approach is far more helpful.

by Jann Glasser, Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Coach/Psychotherapist, and Collaborative Coach

During your divorce, you may find your heart pounding and your thoughts racing as if you were driving in the Indy 500. An email, text or voicemail from your attorney, accountant or spouse in your inbox may result in fear and dread as immediate reactions. This is one example of the brain on divorce; easily triggered, distraught and overwhelmed. You are trying to function while stressed, sad, and sleep deprived, reacting as if under attack.

Divorce is one of the most significant losses and stressful life events people experience. Unlike other losses, there is no bereavement leave from work, no sympathy cards, and no rituals that bring your friends and family around you to acknowledge the loss. Life goes on without skipping a beat. You are expected to go on.

Not only are you expected to go on, but you are also expected to gather all financial paperwork, other information, make time in your schedule for additional meetings, phone calls, emails, help your kids cope, and be prepared to make major parenting and financial decisions that have long term consequences. No wonder you’re exhausted and overwhelmed!

Being such a stressful process, divorce can bring someone to their knees even if they generally cope well at other times, turning a well-adjusted, reasonable person into a raving maniac. When you understand what’s going on in your body and mind under stress, it can help you have compassion for yourself and also choose effective coping strategies.

Your brain is responding to the divorce as a threat. The part of your brain that manages emotion and the fight-flight-freeze response (the limbic system or mid-brain) kicks into high gear. We commonly refer to it as “the right brain.” This part of your brain is essential to keeping you alive. It looks out for threats and is quick to react.

However, it is not helpful for planning, making decisions, and considering consequences of your actions. The part of the brain that takes control when you are upset, angry, or scared (during much of your divorce!) is responsible for your racing heart, tight chest, and flushed face. It contributes to your confusion and indecision. When your brain is preparing for a fight or to run for your life, it has shut down access to the “thinking, reasoning” part of your brain (left brain). Unfortunately, it is this part of your brain that needs to be in charge when negotiating your divorce settlement, making financial decisions, working with your co-parent, parenting, and planning for your “new normal” and future. Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D. of the University of Kentucky, aptly describes this part of the brain as controlling the “Pause and Plan” response.

Coping effectively during your divorce involves shifting from the “Fight or Flight” emotional “right brain” responding to threat and putting the “Pause and Plan” within in your “left brain” in charge. This part of your brain executes a plan after evaluating information and considering consequences. When you are able to do this, you increase self-control as well as your ability to manage emotions, evaluate information, make decisions, and make plans.

How can you access “Pause and Plan” when your brain is locked down in threat mode? The following options help strengthen your “big brain” and promote resilience:

  • Make sure you have the energy needed for your brain to optimally function. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep are essential to your body having the energy it needs.
  • Excess sugar and alcohol are not your friends now. Drowning your woes in a gallon of ice cream or a bottle of booze won’t help you cope for long..
  • Pause. Your emotional “right brain” is lightning fast. Your body and mind need time to slow down the reaction and realize your current situation, while stressful, is not life or death. Breathing slowly is a great way to use your body to send signals to your brain that you are not in mortal danger. Meditation, or daily mindfulness exercises can be a huge help here. It also gives you time to begin to think, engaging your “left brain”
  • Heighten your awareness. Observing yourself and your situation is a function of the left brain. When you pause to observe what’s going on, you activate that part of your brain. This opens up options for you to consider and the opportunity to be less reactive.
  • Seek support from others. Believe it or not, there is “good news” in how our body responds to stress. Not only does our body release adrenaline to help us jump into fight-flight action, but it also releases oxytocin (sometimes called the bonding, love, or cuddle hormone). This hormone encourages us to seek out support and physical contact from others. It also seems to help heal and regenerate heart cells! Our body and mind, in its’ infinite wisdom and complexity, is actually built to help us manage stress and heal a “broken heart.” Seeking out supportive relationships as well as receiving and giving hugs can help you calm down, pause, feel protected from attack, and as a result, be able to access your thinking brain.
  • Change your mindset. Stress itself is not the main problem that creates the negative impact on our health and well-being, but it’s how we perceive the stress that is the problem. Instead of interpreting the stress in your life, the divorce, and your reactions to it as harmful to you, you have another option. If you interpret this hard time in your life as a difficult challenge; one that you have the courage and strength to rise above, you can emerge stronger and better. You will also be less negatively impacted by the stress!
  • Practice self-compassion. Exercising this part of your brain not only can help you feel better about yourself, it can also contribute to self-control and motivation towards long-term goals. Next time you feel like getting down on yourself, try a little tenderness instead.
  • Beef up the parts of the brain you want working for you during this difficult time; don’t keep them in hibernation or overcome by volatile emotions. Emotions are faulty navigational tools when used as the primary source of decision-making.
  • Be open to new information and experiences. By definition, many aspects of your life change in response to divorce. You probably will have to take on some new roles, behaviors, and skills. You may even want to try something new.

New experiences, even those we don’t want, create opportunities for growth. Considering new perspectives, trying new things and being open to new information literally helps your brain grow. This can contribute to making better decisions, being more motivated, exerting more self control and being more compassionate. These not only are keys to well-being and resilience, but a new, improved you and a life well lived.

If you are struggling with the stress of divorce, consider this knowledge about the brain and what you can do to optimize your resilience and essential brain functions during this difficult time. You might find the outcomes of your efforts are the silver lining in the divorce cloud, and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Divorce is painful. There is no way around it. The good news is that your mindset about it has a great impact on how damaging this stressful event will be to your mind and body. Attitude is everything!

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