Take Care

Nurturing your body through the stresses of separation and divorce is absolutely vital.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: October 29, 2014
Health and Well Being

Your teenager has "borrowed" your car -- again -- without permission, so now you can't drive your daughter to Brownies, and she is throwing a huge hissy fit in the middle of the kitchen. There's a message on your answering machine from your ex saying he/she can't take the kids this weekend because he/she got a fabulous deal on airfare to Florida and is leaving tomorrow for 10 days of sun and sand with his/her new love interest. The house is a mess, your savings account is down to (low) double-digits, and your son says he "just has to have" that new pair of $150 running shoes or he'll be branded as a "loser" at school.

Suddenly, you don't feel so good: your stomach is upset, your chest feels tight, and you can feel a wicked migraine/backache/cold coming on. "This is so unfair!" you think. "My life is so difficult, and now I have to deal with illness on top of everything else!"

The stress in your life has risen beyond your ability to cope with it, and your body will respond with a "breakdown" wherever it's weakest: if you tend to catch cold easily, you'll come down with a cold or flu; if you have a "bad back," it will get worse; otherwise mild allergies will become moderate to severe -- you get the picture.

According to the noted Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), except for the death of a spouse or child, divorce produces more stress than any other life event. If you ignore or deny your feelings of stress, you'll end up sick or injured (clumsiness often goes along with stress) -- and then you'll feel even more stressed at having to cope with your disability in addition to all the other challenges you're facing. Divorce-related stress is unavoidable, but you can learn to manage your stress so that it doesn't seriously damage your body and spirit.

The only thing that's required of you is a genuine willingness to change -- everything else will grow out of your commitment to health and happiness. Without that commitment, however, any steps you take towards better health will be severely limited in scope and efficacy. Purchase a health-club membership or a piece of exercise equipment, and you'll stop using it after a month because you "just can't find the time"; or start purchasing wholesome, fresh ingredients to prepare nutritious meals and you'll be back to fast food or dinner-in-a-box in a matter of days; try to quit smoking or drinking and you'll fall off the wagon as soon as the going gets tough.

What's your motivation?

The secret to long-term success seems to boil down to two main elements: motivation and support. Fear can sometimes be very motivating -- for instance, your uncle dies of lung cancer and you quit smoking -- but it often isn't enough to effect permanent change. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, the author of Eight Weeks to Optimum Health and Spontaneous Healing, you first have to identify the pay-offs as well as the costs of a specific behavior in order to change it.

For instance, let's say you love rich, high-fat foods. You know that your father -- who ate the same way you do now -- died of a heart attack at 50, and that you have high blood pressure and bad knees from the 40 extra pounds of fat you're carrying. Obviously, you should change your eating habits. But still you can't quite resist a double helping of fettuccine alfredo followed by a chocolate Ċ½clair. "I've had a rough day," you think. "I deserve this delicious food -- and it makes me feel so good!" So the satisfaction of eating the foods you love outweighs the fear of dying of a heart attack like your father. And as long as the rewards are greater than the costs, you won't be able to change your eating habits.

Now let's look at another scenario. You're offered the opportunity to spend a year living rent-free in a gorgeous villa in Italy. All you have to do in return is to take care of the owner's stable of horses -- which requires a high level of physical fitness. Now, it's always been your dream to spend a year in Italy, and you've always loved horses -- suddenly, you're excited about starting a diet and exercise regimen. Why? Because the cost of remaining fat and sedentary has now risen to include missing out on your dream year abroad -- and just like that, the rewards of overindulging in rich foods are no longer greater than the costs.

"Even though I recognize the efficacy of fear in facilitating behavioral change, I feel that seeking positive reinforcement (a reward you can enjoy) is better than pursuing negative reinforcement (avoidance of something you do not want to experience), because research shows that positive reinforcement is better at maintaining new behavior," writes Dr. Weil in Eight Weeks to Optimum Health. "If fear is your motivator, when fear subsides, so does motivation. Fear can also paralyze you, preventing you from moving at all," he continues.

So find a "rewarding" reason -- one that really inspires you -- to make positive lifestyle changes, and you're just about assured of success. And if you can enroll people in supporting you to meet your goals -- whether they be friends, family, or a support group designed for your specific needs -- you're home-free.

Getting support

Sarah, a busy accountant and single mother of two teenagers, never seemed to be able to make it to the gym. Either she was working late at the office, or rushing home to prepare a meal for her kids. For her, the breakthrough came when she gave up trying to be Superwoman and admitted that she needed help to attain her goals. "The solution was so simple, I'm embarrassed I never thought of it before," she says. "I asked my best friend to sign up for aerobics classes with me, and not to let me weasel out of coming to a single one -- no matter how good my excuse was. And I asked my kids to take turns preparing dinner on the three nights a week that I would be coming home late after working out."

And she found a reward that was "juicy" enough for her kids, too: that she would take a month off the next summer to take them camping in the Rockies with their favorite cousins. Obviously, she needed to be very fit for the trip, and her kids had lots of motivation for helping her get and stay fit. "It was hard at first -- I was scrambling to get out of the office in time to make every class," Sarah remembers. "But after a couple of months, working out had become part of my normal routine -- like going to work or brushing my teeth."

Managing stress

If you're facing the challenges of divorce right now, it's probably safe to say that stress is your constant companion. Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., have found that emotions can cause chemical reactions in our cells. This means that negative emotions (such as fear, anger, or even fretting) can have a detrimental impact on every part of your body -- including the organs that support your immune system. If stressful thoughts and feelings can actually damage your physical health, you can see why managing stress properly -- and taking better care of your body -- is so vital at this stage of your life.

So how do you relax and de-stress? If you're like most people, what leaps immediately to mind are "treat" behaviors: smoking, drinking, taking drugs (prescription or "recreational"), eating a carton of chocolate ice-cream -- whatever gives you feelings of pleasure and well-being, no matter how transitory. Unfortunately, all of these are band-aid solutions -- they temporarily ameliorate some of the symptoms without addressing the root of the problem -- and none of them contribute to health and vitality.

Scanning for tension

A good place to start an effective stress-reduction program is to find out where you hold stress in your body. The first time you try the following exercise, you should probably be lying down with your eyes closed. Take the phone off the hook, and tell your kids or housemates that you don't want to be disturbed for at least half an hour. In this exercise, you'll be scanning your body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, looking for places where you hold tension then consciously letting that tension go.

Focus your attention exclusively on one part of your body at a time, starting with your feet. Wiggle your toes. Rotate your ankles, and flex your feet so your toes are pointing up towards the ceiling, then down and away from you. Is there any tension in your feet or lower legs? If so, intentionally increase the tension for a few seconds, then exhale deeply and relax that part of your body, imagining the tension flowing out of you with your breath. Move your attention upwards to your thighs, buttocks, and hips. Flex each muscle in turn, checking for tension and discomfort, then let it go with a deep exhalation. Repeat for your stomach, chest, and shoulders. Pull your shoulders up towards your ears, hold them there tightly for a few seconds, then drop them down as far as they will comfortably go while you exhale. Now examine your throat, mouth, cheeks, eyes, forehead, and scalp. Notice any tension, exaggerate then release it.

The benefits of this exercise are twofold: first, you'll discover where you hold stress in your body; and two, you'll give your body a break by releasing tense areas.

Yoga and you

Yoga is an excellent way to treat mind and body simultaneously. From the Sanskrit word yuj, which means "to yoke," yoga is designed to yoke or join the mind, body, and breath. Hatha Yoga (the most common type in North America) can help you release built-up tension and stress, strengthening the body while calming the mind.

Once you've learned the poses, all you need to practice yoga is a quiet, comfortable place and about 20-40 minutes each day to breathe and stretch your stress away. "Before trying yoga or meditation on your own, you should meet with a qualified instructor to learn how to do it properly -- which poses you should practice, and which you should avoid," says Helen Goldstein, director of The Yoga Studio in Toronto. Your instructor will guide you through the correct positions, and teach you the basics of proper breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques. "People who practice yoga and meditation report they have more self-confidence, sleep better, eat better, and that their stress and anxiety levels are greatly reduced," says Goldstein. "And 20 minutes of meditation has the positive effects of two-to-three hours of sleep."

Food for thought

At its most basic level, food is fuel for the body. Whether you're in training for the Boston Marathon, someone who goes for daily brisk walks, a skinny couch potato, or a chubby couch potato, the food you eat has a lot to do with your mood, energy levels, stamina, and ability to fend off disease. Your diet has a lot to do with the way you live your life -- and how long that life is going to last. Even if you look slender on the outside, your diet could be setting you up for a whole host of medical problems: from indigestion to clogged arteries to cancer. Your food choices can put you on the road to wellness and vitality, or chronic fatigue and disease.

The first thing you need to do for yourself is get a little education about nutrition in general, and your nutritional needs in particular. Visit your family doctor; ask for a referral to a nutritionist; go to a health spa; read Andrew Weil's Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, Covert Bailey's Fit or Fat? (Houghton Mifflin), and James Meschino and Barry Simon's The Winning Weigh . Discuss possible nutritional plans with your doctor to make sure they won't exacerbate existing health problems. Exercise some common-sense when choosing a new diet regimen: steer clear of anything that promises miraculous results in days, or advises you to eat from only a single food group (e.g., grapefruit three times a day).

And then -- and this is key -- listen to what your body is telling you about the food you're putting in your mouth. For instance, if you get violent heartburn every time you eat green peppers, stop eating green peppers! The best way to "cure" indigestion isn't by taking pills or potions: it's to stop (or at least reduce) your consumption of foods that cause your stomach to protest. Aside from stomach upsets, start paying attention to how you feel after eating certain foods. Happy and energetic, or grumpy and tired? How do you feel after eating a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a milkshake? An apple? A piece of cheesecake? A spinach salad?

During her stormy divorce, Teri found herself "living on various stomach medications. My digestion had never been the greatest," she says, "but it became much worse during my divorce. I had heartburn every day, and alternated between constipation and diarrhea." She went to her doctor, who told her she had an "irritable bowel," prescribed stronger medication to help control her symptoms, and basically told her to "get used to it." She also recalls being exhausted and ill a lot during that period. "I seemed to catch a new cold every four to six weeks. Even when I wasn't actually sick, I felt too tired and depressed to cope with much of anything."

Feeling that she had nothing to lose, Teri checked into a strict vegetarian health spa with personal trainers, chiropractors, naturopaths, reflexologists, as well as a physician on staff. "About the third day of the program, I suddenly realized that I was experiencing no stomach pain, no heartburn, and no diarrhea. For me, the answer was simple: my body can't handle meat. I have been a vegetarian for three years now, and I'm happy to report that my stomach problems haven't returned, and I have more energy now than I did 20 years ago. Learning to feed myself as a vegetarian was difficult at first," she admits. "You really have to think about what you're going to eat in order to get the full range of nutrients. But the extra time it takes to buy and prepare my meals is worth it." Teri also exercises for an hour at least five times a week -- alternating walking during lunch hours with aerobics and weight-training at her gym.

Does this mean you should rush out and become a vegetarian? Maybe, and maybe not -- it all depends on what your body tells you. "The first point to realize is that we are all different and our bodies need varying regimes," notes Jane Alexander in Detox for Body, Mind, and Spirit). "What suits my body might be anathema to yours... Finding the right diet for you will be a case of trial and error," she adds.

Here are some suggestions on using food to improve your mood:

  • Cut back on caffeine, including coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate. Women take note: caffeine has been found to play a huge role in PMS, from breast pain to mood swings. For some people, one cup a day is too much; you'll need to experiment to determine your threshold.
  • Drink pure water. Ideally, you should be drinking about two liters of filtered water every day. This is one of the simplest, and yet most vital, steps you can take to improve your health.
  • Go low-fat. Aside from improving your general health, some studies suggest that a low-fat diet may help stabilize your mood. Some easy ways to reduce your fat intake include avoiding fried foods, choosing leaner cuts of meat, and removing the skin from poultry before cooking it. Buy only skim or 1% milk, and low-fat or nonfat cheeses and yogurt. Increase your consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, and products made from whole grains (your body will thank you for the extra fiber, too).
  • Take your vitamins. A deficiency in B vitamins -- particularly thiamin, riboflavin, folate (the naturally occurring form of folic acid), and B6 -- can exacerbate depression. Taking vitamin C is probably a good idea, too. It boosts your immune system, which probably isn't in tip-top shape right now.
  • Butt out. Aside from increasing your risk of lung cancer and heart disease, smoking triggers the release of stress hormones in the body.

In Stress Management for Dummies, author Alan Elkin suggests that you "Avoid highly sugared treats. They'll give you a boost in the short run but let you down in the long run." He also suggests that you choose snacks that have "high energy proteins and are high in complex carbohydrates. They'll give you a longer-lasting pick-me-up." Elkin offers loads of great stress-busting tips and advice in this highly-readable book -- everything from overcoming anger to goal setting, meditation to organizational skills.

Exercise your options

As Teri discovered, adopting a nutritional program that suits your individual metabolism and caloric requirements can clear up a lot of physical ailments. But if you really want to look and feel great -- and help minimize the negative effects of divorce-related stress on your body -- you need to do more than just eat right. You need to exercise.

What's the best form of exercise? The one you'll do. The best exercise equipment in the world won't do you a bit of good if you can't bring yourself to use it more than once a month.

If you've been sedentary for the last few years, you must see your physician before you start to exercise. If you haven't had a full physical examination in the last year, now's a great time to have one. Please be aware that pushing your body too hard too fast is a recipe for disaster -- at the very least, you'll probably sprain or tear a muscle; at worst, you'll have a heart attack.

Unless your doctor vetoes the idea, a good place to start is by taking daily walks, slowly increasing the speed, distance, and duration. If you can't stand the idea of walking "aimlessly," give yourself errands to accomplish on your walks: instead of driving, walk to the bank/post office/milk store. Arrange to go for walks in scenic areas with friends so you can enjoy their company as well as the surroundings while you walk.

If your lifestyle can accommodate it, consider getting a dog: you're guaranteed daily exercise, and it's nice to come home to a happy, enthusiastic welcome instead of an empty house. (Also, you've probably heard of the therapeutic side-effects of pet ownership: that stroking an animal lowers your blood pressure and decreases tension.) If owning a dog is out of the question, you could always "borrow" one: your neighbor would probably be thrilled if you offered to take her dog for a daily walk in the park.

To derive the maximum aerobic benefits from walking, you need to be working in your "target zone," which involves maintaining a pulse that's somewhere between 65 and 80% of your maximum heart rate. You really need to be tested to accurately determine your unique maximum heart rate (it depends on many factors including age and the actual size of your heart), and then do some trial and error tests to determine whether you should be closer to 65% or 80%. All this work and calculations are, frankly, quite aggravating for most people, so here's an easier way to figure out whether you're working at the right level of intensity: you should be working hard enough to be breathing harder than normal, but not so hard that you couldn't carry on a conversation consisting of short phrases. For example, if you were walking/jogging with a friend who asked you whether you'd seen any good movies lately, and you were only able to force out "Yes!" while gasping for air, then you need to slow down. If you can rattle off a thousand-word review of the film without coming up for air, you need to pick up the pace. If your answer sounds something like this: "Yes, I rented Instinct last night (pant, pant). Anthony Hopkins plays a professor (pant, pant, pant) who is in jail (pant, pant) for killing three park rangers in Africa (pant, pant)," then you're working at a good pace for you.

In their book The Winning Weigh, doctors James Meschino and Barry Simon state that "Aerobic exercise lowers psychological stress by balancing and regulating hormones that promote high blood pressure. During periods of stress, the amount of adrenaline hormone in your system increases. During aerobic exercise, your body releases adrenaline slowly and regularly; after exercising, your level of adrenaline returns to the ideal baseline."

Walking can also help you sleep better at night -- good news for those suffering from divorce-related insomnia. In a study involving more than 700 men and women, researchers discovered that people who walked at least six blocks a day at a normal pace experienced fewer sleep-related problems such as nightmares, or trouble getting to or staying asleep; in fact, they were one-third less likely to have trouble sleeping until their wake-up time than people who didn't walk at all. And those who walked the same distance at an aerobic pace were 50% less likely to suffer sleep problems than non-walkers.

Dr. Weil, who has seen people achieve maximum fitness through walking alone, offers the following benefits of walking in Optimum Health:

  • You already know how to do it
  • You can do it anywhere
  • It requires no equipment, just a good pair of shoes
  • It carries the least risk of injury of any form of exercise
  • It can provide a complete workout, equal to or better than any other activity

Touchy situations

Chances are, there wasn't a lot of positive touching during the last months -- or even years -- of your marriage. You've probably heard about the therapeutic benefits of touch, which include reducing stress and blood pressure and increasing relaxation and feelings of well-being. If you are without a romantic partner right now, how can you take advantage of these benefits? The simple answer is to get a massage. "The primary aim of massage therapy is to reduce someone's response to stressors by decreasing the sympathetic nervous system's contribution to the stress response, allowing a parasympathetic or relaxation response to occur," says Martin Jureczek, a Registered Massage Therapist (RMT) who works with clients at Capucci Salon & Spa in Toronto.

Massage is one of the oldest natural remedies around: rubbing a sore spot on your body seems to be a basic instinct, like eating when you're hungry or the "fight or flight" response. If you've ever had a full Swedish massage, you know how relaxing it can be. But many experts believe that it offers other benefits as well, including:

  • Reducing muscle tension, swelling, and inflammation
  • Relieving "tension" headaches and chronic pain
  • Soothing the nervous system
  • Improving blood circulation
  • Aiding digestion
  • Increasing joint mobility.

Other common types of therapeutic touch include: Reiki, Shiatsu, Feldenkrais, Rolfing, and Craniosacral therapy. Some involve deep, vigorous massage; some work on acupressure points; and others involve the lightest of strokes. Reiki, for instance, "promotes and accelerates healing of the physical body-mind through the use of gentle touch," says Reiki practitioner Kimiko Nishimura. "A form of energy healing, Reiki releases pent-up tension in the body, encouraging a return to balance, peace, and calm."

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ancient help for modern problems.

Ayurveda, which means "science of life" in Sanskrit, is arguably the oldest medical system in human history, dating back to approximately 1000 BC. Yet its guiding principles can be found in modern scientific practices such as bio-feedback and neuro-associative conditioning. According to Ayurvedic doctrine, our minds have a deep physiological effect on our bodies: essentially, our thoughts and feelings manifest physically in our bodies, creating health or disease. An experience such as divorce creates stressful thoughts and feelings, which in turn creates a corresponding physical manifestation -- such as insomnia or indigestion.

According to Ayurveda, controlling the physical symptoms of stress is a matter of contacting our own awareness, bringing it into balance, and extending that balance to the body. Ayurveda argues that the connection between the mind and the body is iniated in a place somewhere between the two -- a "place" where thought is materialized. The emotional climate here defines you as an individual, and it can be used in controlling the effects of stress.

In Ayurveda, stress is manifested when the balancing point of one's life -- one's prakruti -- is thrown off-kilter. The solution is to incorporate a combination of dietary, meditative, and physical measures to help restore a sense of balance. The most accessible of these is the dietary aspect. Ayurveda says that by cleansing our digestive system and eliminating the toxins created internally by stressful situations, balance can be restored. This can be done by a series of specified liquid diets, set up on a weekly basis. The idea is that by giving our digestive system a chance to catch its breath, we strengthen it and stimulate the elimination of toxins.

The meditative aspect of Ayurveda is comprised of two facets: "mindfulness" meditation and "primordial" sound meditation. In mindfulness meditation, stress is reduced by focusing on one's breathing. Psychologically, this focused meditation iniates a sense of calmness on an otherwise frazzled mind. Physiologically speaking, deep, relaxed breathing has been proven to activate the body's lymphatic system, which is the main engine for eliminating toxins in the bloodstream. In primordial sound meditation, the sounds are chanted as "mantras." In essence, these mantras -- which are made up of sounds in the Sanskrit alphabet -- function as interruption patterns. Because they're free of the associations of "real world" words, primordial sounds temporarily interrupt our continuous internal dialogue. Think of it as a sort of filter against the "white noise" of stress.

Divorce is a pivotal point in the life of anyone going through it. And as is the case of any pivot point, it is easy to lose one's balance. What Ayurveda offers is a clearly defined way to recover that center -- a holistic harbor in the emotional storm. If you would like to learn more about Ayurveda, here are a few resources to get you started: Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, by David Frawley and Discover Ayurveda, by Hope Anglea Murray and Tony Pickup. 

Seeing results

If you invest the time, energy, and commitment into caring for your body properly, it will repay you generously. But as an impatient North American, you're probably wondering when the rewards will start to show up.

"Both from observing the effects of natural therapies and from watching people try to make lasting changes in how they live, I have concluded that two months ... is the critical time for you see effects of therapeutic regimens as well as to replace old habits with new," says Dr. Weil. "If you can follow a program of healthy living for two months, you will have made the commitment of time and energy necessary for it to work."

The information in this article is for information-purposes only. Do not begin any diet or exercise regimen without checking with your doctor first.

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August 08, 2006
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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