✝︎ Self-Care and Divorce: Keeping It Together When Your World is Falling Apart

a mother practicing self-care

by Kim Johnson

A divorce is one of the most stressful, life-changing events you can suffer. In fact, it is second only to experiencing the death of a spouse. In many ways, it can feel the same as you watch the demise of your marriage.

A Breakup is Painful

Divorce is devastating emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. The process is exhausting, whether you wanted it or not. Your breakup turns your whole world upside down. The painful emotions can be overwhelming even if the marriage was already imploding. It’s the loss of a partnership, dreams, goals and commitments you shared with someone you loved. You’re suddenly in uncharted waters and everything is in chaos: Your routine, responsibilities, your home, your relationship with extended family and friends, and your future. You can even doubt who you are as a person.  

Not only is your life a mess, your future is a huge question mark as well. As you rip apart your life piece by piece, it can feel as if you’ll never feel whole again. Roller coaster emotions leave little, if any, strength to think about yourself. There is stress, stress and more stress. And this stress creates long-term effects which can be destructive to your health. 

The Stress Response

Stress is defined as the natural way the body responds to challenging events. For instance, you’re trying to get your kids ready for school. They aren’t cooperating so you realize they are going to be late for the bus. The emotional pressure connects with the control tower in your brain and it sends out a 911 call for stress hormones to respond.  These are the ones that activate your “fight or flight” response (adrenaline). Your heart races and your muscles tense, ready for action. You hit warp speed as you finally get the kids out the door, just in time. 

The quick hit of adrenaline was just the rapid response you needed. That’s not a bad thing. But when you’re in a situation which causes this response to fire continuously, your health will suffer. A flashlight is a great example. When the light is needed, you turn it on. When you’re finished, you switch it off, and it’s ready for the next time you need it. However, if that flashlight is never turned off, the batteries will eventually wear out. It’ll be dead and of no use. 

This is the same for your body. It’s been specially designed by God to handle small doses of adrenaline. The rush is there when we need to cope with a challenging situation. But your body was not designed to take the long-term effects of chronic stress without adverse consequences. 

Stress and Your Body

Chronic stress, the kind that happens as you journey through the divorce process, can cause a myriad of health issues. Because of the extreme impact of the situation, the adrenaline constantly courses through your entire body. It’s not a normal stress situation. Consequently, your body remains in the “fight or flight” mode and this is when the damage is done.

Emotional symptoms of stress include: 

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or at the end of your rope
  • Difficulty relaxing or calming your mind
  • Feeling guilty
  • Experiencing low self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Isolating yourself from others 

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Stomach issues including diarrheaconstipation, and nausea
  • Changes in appetite – overeating or not eating enough
  • Aches, pains and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Nervousness

Mental symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worry and racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • Poor judgment

By itself, divorce is a demanding situation. And now with the added pressure of the pandemic, you most likely have experienced some of these symptoms.  But are you putting on a brave face and disregarding the warning signs? Are you easily frustrated and angered? Is fatigue making it difficult to meet your responsibilities? Do you constantly forget things? Your body is trying to get your attention. Ignoring the messages might work for a while, but just like the flashlight, it will catch up with you. 

Constant stress is a real threat to your health and the following are just some of the results: 

  • Depression, anxiety and personality disorders
  • Cardiovascular issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms
  • Eating disorders
  • Menstrual problems
  • Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux, gastritis, and irritable colon
  • Weakened immune system leading to viral illnesses

You may still believe it’s not that serious. Or, maybe it seems there is nothing you can do to stop the train wreck. While this may be true to a point considering the divorce process, there are still steps you can take to lessen the physical impact of it. The very first one is to start taking care of YOU

What is Self-care? 

Self-care has become a buzzword. Wikipedia describes it as “a human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated, for the purpose of the maintenance of health and wellbeing.” In other words, it is refreshing yourself emotionally and spiritually, replenishing yourself physically, and renewing yourself mentally, so you can cope with your journey. 

In case you have some misperceptions in your mind, here is a list of what self-care is not

  • Escape from your emotions
  • Wine time
  • Whine time
  • Social media time
  • Self-improvement
  • Addictive behaviors (drinking, drugs, shopping)
  • A waste of time or a luxury

There are more things which could be added to the list of what self-care isn’t, but hopefully you get the picture. It’s allowing yourself to take care of you.

Understanding the meaning of self-care, however, may still not motivate you to do it. Going through the divorce process makes you feel out-of-control in so many ways. So, the thought of actually doing something for you alone, makes you feel guilty even before you try. That’s so normal. Hanging by a thread makes you feel you’ve got to put all your strength into just hanging on. But that’s the very reason you must at least try. Taking the first step may be difficult, but once you do, you’ll see why you need it. 

The First Step

As you are already aware, going through a divorce is like trying to keep a thousand plates spinning at the same time. With so many other things to think about, you are always last on the list. There is hardly time to think, let alone recognize and address your feelings. And that makes knowing what you need a fundamental aspect of caring for yourself. 

There’s only one way to do this. You must stop and acknowledge where you are emotionally. Be honest and don’t act like things are great when they aren’t. You know how frustrating it is when your friend says, “I’m fine” and you’re sure that’s not true. Playing the same game with yourself is just as aggravating. When you admit your feelings, even just to yourself, it will help you begin to exercise some control over the roller coaster ride. 

To get started, here are a few questions to ask yourself. 

  • Are you in denial? If you didn’t want the divorce, you may be acting like it’s not going to happen. That’s understandable. Yet, learning to accept what you cannot change takes less energy. Fighting the inevitable is exhausting. Accepting the circumstances will help you start focusing on things you can control. 
  • Are you angry all the time? Being angry about your divorce is normal. Everyone experiences anger and when managed correctly can be a positive thing. However, when it consumes you, this powerful emotion can lead to bad decisions and bad behavior. Getting a handle on your anger will help redirect your attention to taking better care of yourself. 
  • Are you depressed? Feeling down is typical when going through a divorce. However, you could be on the verge of depression. Being caught up in the chaos of this situation makes it easy to miss the signs. That’s why it’s important to examine your emotions so you can address them personally or with a medical professional. 

These are just a few questions to get you started on the journey to your emotional intelligence. Having feelings come fast and furiously is daunting. So, it may take some time to sort through them. Don’t let this stop you. There is great benefit in getting to know and understand all of your emotions. This website has some easy information to help you dial down on your frame of mind. 

While there will continue to be ups and downs in your life, you’ll be on your way to better coping skills when you recognize and own up to what you feel. You want to thrive, not just survive. How you accomplish the next part of your life will benefit from focusing on your well-being at this moment. 

Tips for Taking Care of  You

Improving your welfare doesn’t need to be just one more burden on your “do” list. The following tips will give you some suggested places to start.

  1. Take care of yourself physically. Your physical health encompasses more than making sure you don’t get sick or taking your vitamins. And it doesn’t have to include an expensive training program. Focus on simple goals and changes you can make to help you feel better.
  1. Take care of yourself emotionally. Hopefully, you have already taken the time to sort through the emotions you’re experiencing. They will continue to happen, but there are some things you can do to manage them so they don’t control everything you do.
  1. Take care of yourself mentally. The way you think and the things that fill your mind greatly influence your psychological well-being. Just as it’s important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, your mental health is vital as well.
  1. Take care of yourself spiritually. Jesus was an excellent model of self-care. People desperately wanted to be near him. So, hundreds of people would gather when he came to town. And even though he loved them, he didn’t allow others to control him. Mark 6:31 is just one example. Jesus practiced self-care throughout his ministry by eating healthy, getting enough rest, exercising, and taking time to be alone.  Even Jesus had his limits so you can acknowledge and attend to yours.

In the following paragraphs, you will find specific suggestions as you work to take care of you. Try one or try them all. Decide what works best and do it.

Successful Self-Care

When thinking through this information and how you will begin to practice self-care, you may feel intimidated. Try to remember that the journey is just as important as the end result. Divorce is awful, but it’s also an opportunity to become a new and better you. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up. Persevere but give yourself permission to take this slowly. Remember, self-care will help you lessen the impact and stress of your divorce. Taking care of you will enable you to move on and enjoy the next season of your life.  

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”   -Dolly Parton

SUGGESTIONS FOR SELF-CARE

EMOTIONALLY

  • Get enough sleep. The pain of divorce often impacts sleep patterns. Try going to bed earlier, listening to soft music or reading before bed. Lavender essential oil has been shown to help people sleep better. Or, talk to your doctor.
  • Stay hydrated. Sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget to drink enough water. To stay rejuvenated all day, keep a water bottle handy.
  • Eat healthy. Being busy or distracted makes eating right very difficult. Be aware of grabbing quick snacks loaded with salt or sugar. Try to include more veggies and fruits in your day. Or, you may be experiencing the exact opposite and aren’t hungry because of the emotional upheaval. Taking care of yourself includes making sure you are giving your body what it needs nutritionally.
  • Go outside. Whether it is for a quick walk, a cardio run, or just to sit and read, get outside. Exercise and sunshine are known for their encouraging and uplifting benefits. Decide what makes you feel the best and do it.
  • Develop an attitude of gratitude. Being thankful goes a long way in helping you emotionally. It can be the difference between staying negative or having hope to move forward

PHYSICALLY

  • Say yes to yourself and your needs.  Giving yourself permission to take care of you will alleviate feeling guilty when you do.
  • Maintain healthy emotional boundaries. This can be important especially if you are dealing with a high-conflict ex. You can decide what you will allow and what you won’t. Practice saying yes and no honestly. Too often we tolerate unacceptable behavior which hurts us emotionally. Give yourself permission to put yourself first in those situations and just say no.
  • Be aware of your self-talk. Having to struggle with a painful situation can make you become hard on yourself. Thinking things like, “I’m so stupid,” or “I’m ugly,” or “I can’t do this,” are all linked to your emotions. Check yourself when you realize you are going down that rabbit hole. Stay positive.
  • Cultivate a personal belief system that brings you hope and faith. Research has shown a lifestyle that includes spirituality is generally healthier. A spiritual practice can help sustain you on a daily basis, especially when going through a divorce. This will give you confidence as you cope.
  • Spend time with friends and family. There is nothing better than being with people you love and who love you. This is very important to your emotional health. Take time to be with those who recharge you emotionally.
  • Update your physical appearance. This doesn’t need to be a drastic change. However, trying new makeup, a new hair-style, or even just putting on something other than sweats, can be invigorating. 

SPIRITUALLY

  • Read the Book of Psalms. When you need spiritual encouragement, this book in the Bible is perfect.  The Book of Psalms is full of prayers and hymns which can speak to the pain you are feeling. You will know more about God and feel closer to Him.
  • Read the Book of Proverbs. This book is full of wise sayings. It will help you know yourself better and find wisdom for everyday life.
  • Meditate. This is a form of prayer and is helpful in calming your mind and connecting your heart to God.
  • Listen to worship or inspirational music. The hurt from divorce can often be like a brick wall surrounding your heart, holding in the ache and keeping out the joy. Listening to music can be the one thing which penetrates the pain. The right song can deliver the perfect message to bring balance in the chaos.

MENTALLY

  •  Keep your mind sharp. Doing puzzles, learning about a new subject, taking a class or learning a craft are just some of the ways you can keep your mind in tip-top shape.
  • Read a book, listen to podcasts or do other things that are inspirational.
  • Stay positive. There is a strong connection between the mind and the emotions. Maintaining a positive outlook, along with your attitude of gratitude, will be constructive for your mental health.
  • Carve out “me” time. With so many spinning plates, finding time to feed your mind may be difficult. Plan times during the day when you can relax. Listen to an audiobook while you drive, pray while you walk, relax during your lunch break. Taking a few short minutes here and there is much better than nothing at all.
  • Unplug from social media. Being tied to technology can be mentally draining. Set a specific time to be away from your social media accounts. Turn off the notifications that constantly ping so they won’t distract you. Read a magazine or a book, meditate or pray. Do something that will give your mind a break from the busy.
  • Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts can be helpful. When you are going through a divorce, there are so many thoughts racing through your head, seeing them on a page will give some perspective.

Stress Busters

Imagination regeneration when you can’t quiet your mind.

  • Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes and get comfortable, either sitting in a favorite chair or lying down.
  • Think of an image – a place, a scene, a memory – that relaxes you.  (Use all your senses to bring it to life.  What do you see? What do you smell? What do you feel?)
  • Let yourself completely immerse in your image, allowing it to relax you completely.

Progressive Relaxation when your body won’t relax.

  • Lie down or sit, as comfortably as you can, and close your eyes.  (Preferably somewhere you have privacy.)
  • Tense the muscles of a particular body part.  (Example: make a fist and notice the tension in your hand and arm.)
  • Hold the tension in the body part for about seven seconds.
  • Release the tension quickly, letting the muscles go limp.  (Notice how your muscle feels better after the release.)
  • Repeat steps 1 through 4, using the same muscle group. Move to another muscle group. (Repeat steps 1 through 4).
  • Work through the steps until you know you’re more relaxed.

Anti-Stress snacking to help your mood.

  • Avoid highly sugared treats.  They’ll give you a boost in the short run but let you down in the long run.
  • Stick with snacks that have high-energy proteins and are high in complex carbohydrates for a long-lasting pick-me-up.
  • Specific foods to boost your mood and help alleviate some of your stress: A piece of fruit such as an orange, peach, apple or banana, handful of mixed nuts, spinach salad, soft pretzel, air-popped popcorn or low-fat yogurt

Three quick foods for a pick-me-up.

  • When you are frazzled. Eat celery or carrots. These contain amino acid tryptophan that releases serotonin, a calm-inducing brain chemical.
  • When you have low energy. Eat mushrooms. These are high in B vitamins which help to release energizing hormones.
  • When you feel depressed. Eat peanut butter. This contains amino acid phenylalanine which slows the breakdown of endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemical) so you will feel better longer.