Stress levels increase at the end of a marriage, and almost always continue to increase while going through a divorce or having to co-parent with an unreasonable ex. How you handle divorce related stress and anxiety can impact your loved ones – especially your children – so it’s important to understand the underlying causes of these emotions and how to control them rather than have them controlling you.
This podcast will give you a better understanding of the underlying causes of your divorce related stress and anxiety, and offer useful coping mechanisms to help you deal with those feelings. Psychotherapist Alison Fosbery explains how a separated or divorced parent’s behavior can impact their child’s development, and educates parents on how to help their children acquire healthy habits when it comes to coping with stress and anxiety. Her practical strategies offer long-term physical and emotional benefits for parents and their families.
Host: Martha Chan, Co-Owner of Divorce Magazine and www.DivorcedMoms.com
Speaker: Alison Fosbery, MA, Registered Psychotherapist
With an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Counselling Psychology, Alison Fosbery is a Certified Positive Psychotherapy Practitioner. Practicing for more than 10 years, Alison helps her clients deal with anxiety, depression, resentment, and conflict as a result of divorce and issues related to co-parenting, managing children, and the children’s ability to cope. www.alisonfosbery.com
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Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Managing Divorce-Related Stress
Martha Chan: Welcome everyone to The Divorce School. This session is about stress and how to manage it. My name is Martha Chan. I’m the founder of The Divorce School. I’m also the co-owner of DivorcedMomscom, one of the largest websites on the internet that is 100% dedicated to helping moms go through divorce. I also co-own Divorce Magazine, which we have been publishing for the last 20 years. We have dealt with many topics through our websites and magazine. By far, the topic on stress has got to be one of the most popular. Considering divorce and going through divorce is likely one of the times where the stress meter can get up high. The level of stress can get even higher if you are co-parenting with your ex or if you’re raising your children without the support of an ex. Well, if you’re being stressed you’ve come to the right session at The Divorce School. Our faculty member Alison Fosbery who is with us right now, will be showing how stress impacts us and our children and how it is that we could better handle it. So welcome, Alison.
Alison Fosbery: Thank you so much for having me.
Let me start by telling our viewers a little bit about you. Alison is a registered psychotherapist who is passionate about helping separated and divorced couples to arrive at common goals and get passed resentments. She’s been working with families for 10 years and herself is a child of divorce, so she knows a bit about divorce firsthand. She has contributed articles to Divorce Magazine and Huffington Post and has given various workshops. In fact, the very last one she gave was on stress. So Alison, before we talk about how to manage stress I know you have some interesting facts about evolution and how our history affects how we manage our anxiety in today’s world. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I’d love to and this is one of my favourite topics for sure. You know anxiety gets a really bad rap. You know, we see it as a negative thing but what’s really important to understand is it’s one of the most important things, one of our biggest tools that we need and it’s one of the reasons why we as a species have survived for so many years. So if you think of it in terms of caveman days, thousands and thousands of years ago, we needed an alarm system to tell us when something was wrong. So for example if there was a sabre-tooth tiger lurking around in the dark we would need something in our bodies to let us know either to run away, to fight back, which I wouldn’t recommend. They’re actually adding another one which is freeze. So I’m sure everyone’s heard of the fight or flight response.
Now we know there’s also the aspect of freezing which we can sometimes do in high stress situations. Sometimes a lot of people become paralysed but we really needed that alarm system to let us know to, as I said to either fight or run away. The issue with that though is if we look at today’s world a lot of us are having that same alarm system react when there really isn’t a threat to our survival and that’s a really good way to look at anxiety. It’s normal, we need it. We just have to learn how to control it and apply it when it’s really needed versus when there might be a situation that we can handle a little bit more calmly.
I have certainly heard of fight or flight. Can you help us better understand the underlying causes of stress and anxiety aside from thinking that well, we are stressed because of our divorce.
Right. Well, one model that I like to bring up is called the ABC model in psychology. And a lot of us walk around in our daily lives and we blame outside things for our stress. So the example I always like to talk about is when we’re sitting in traffic. We can apply this to a situation with divorce as well. So for example, my ex is just driving me nuts. He’s really increased my stress this week. And we blame that person. But what we know in psychology is there’s usually some sort of trigger. So maybe the trigger is your ex or let’s say being in traffic, that example that I love to use in therapy. There are some people that would see that trigger and deal with it a little bit differently, but when we stressed we have what’s called a belief. So we have the trigger and then we have the belief about that thing or person. So let’s say we have a belief about traffic, it gets us really worked up, we don’t like being late. So that belief is really what’s creating the stress, not the traffic jam.
If we look at let’s say what our ex is doing to stress us out, it really isn’t that person that’s making us stress, it’s our belief about that person our belief about what’s going on or our belief about how we are able or not able to handle that stress. It’s really the belief which causes our anxiety to raise. It’s really not that person or the traffic jam. And if that were the case you know everybody would be really stressed out in a traffic jam for example or everybody would be having really, really strong reactions to their ex-husbands or ex-wives. But there are those people that can look at it for what it is and adapt and really just find ways to calm down and to really look at the situation differently. It’s all in how we handle it.
So if I hear you correctly, what you’re saying it’s almost like we come with a certain belief. So let’s say a divorced mom who has to deal with an unreasonable, in her mind, an unreasonable ex, in terms of coparenting with a child. A divorced mum might be triggered by something but what is almost like the background that she comes with is that he’s unreasonable, so when he starts to talk then it just seems everything seems unreasonable and then it triggers stress. Am I hearing that correctly?
Absolutely. So I’m just thinking of an example actually right now, I was working with a couple just this week and the female understandably got really, really triggered every time her ex was late to pick up the children or to drop off the children. And we kind of picked that apart and learned that it wasn’t really about the lateness it was about 20 other arguments that they had had and which developed a belief in her and really a strong trigger. So the more we picked that apart and had her look at that those resentments a little bit differently, she was able to have a little bit more flexibility and have more understanding and empathy for him and his situation, having to be a single dad and from his perspective and drive around and work and do all the things that he needed to do. It was really quite remarkable the way in which we picked that apart and as I said to really figure out what was bothering her.
I can really relate to that scenario. Our viewers may not know, I’m married to someone who is divorced with two children and he would have to drive across town or I would have to drive across town to pick up the kids from school sometimes . . . And yeah, on occasions you’d get delayed by traffic and of course we could have started a little earlier but certainly being late can be a trigger for a lot of couples who are coparenting. And now that we understand what causes stress and anxiety, can you tell us if and how we can learn to take control of our anxious feelings?
Absolutely. Well the first step is always awareness. Usually when I meet with divorced parents, couples, the first thing I want them to do is simply learn to be aware of when their anxiety is going through the roof. And the first step to that is really connecting with the physical feelings of anxiety. So if we don’t start to learn how our own body is warning us about these stressors it makes it a little bit difficult. So that really is the first step. What does it feel like physically in my body when I am anxious, stressed out. A lot of people talk about their hands sweating, their heart racing, their muscles can tense up. Those are just a few examples, but things we really overlook and we sort of skip that step. All those things are happening in our body, we ignore it and we usually react negatively period and by then sometimes it’s too late. So it’s really important to first connect with the physical feelings so that we learn that okay, you know what I’m feeling my heart race right now, what’s going on, what’s triggering me right now, what is my belief about this situation that’s creating these uncomfortable feelings?
Alison, based on your practice with your clients, how long do you think those, I’m going to say signs or triggers, indicators, would have to take place before someone would notice it? Does it take like 30 seconds, does it take two minutes?
Well, it’s different for everyone, for sure. And that is why I assign it as homework. Adults, children, everyone that I see. Again, first step, I don’t really want you to do too much with it, I just want you to go home, pay attention . . . what do you notice? Write it down. Do you notice your – what’s first, your hands start to sweat, my heart races, it happens for about 10 minutes. Usually when they’re doing that and they’re doing that intuitive writing about it, it really slows the process down and it gives them time to use the logical side of their brain to come in to kind of navigate through this and really insert those strategies that they already have. A lot of people don’t realize that they do have a lot of things within them that that will work in terms of calming themselves down. I think it’s hard to answer that, it’s different for every person. But usually when that awareness comes into play, the rest is a little bit easy. Again, we need to know when that alarm system is going off, how to recognize it before it’s too late and before reacting.
I can totally see that. In fact I just might take that on myself. Thank you. I’m learning as I go here as well. So do you think that our own behaviours can impact the development of our children?
Without a doubt. We are essentially animals and we learn by watching other people. So, you know, a parent can tell their child until they’re blue in the face don’t be anxious or try these different strategies, but unless they’re doing them themselves, the child’s really not going to buy into it. They might say, yeah sure I’ll do it, yeah I’ll try that, you might even see them trying different strategies that you’re trying to teach them. But ultimately they’re going to see you when you have that breakdown in traffic, or when you lash out at your ex-husband or your ex-wife. That is what they’re really doing to take in and those behaviours are going to become ingrained in them. This isn’t about blaming parents, because of course I especially understand how difficult it is, and that reaction comes . . . it’s happened before we even realize. So, you know, this isn’t about creating guilty feelings in parents, but again, that awareness. What am I really showing my kids, what am I trying to teach them?
I wasn’t the first person to say this but children are not really going to do what you say, they’re going to do what you do. They’re watching. Those are the habits that they’re going to develop and that are going to stick with them over time, everything that they see you doing, really.
There’s no doubt that as parents we have to be aware that we are models for them, right, for one thing. And the other is that until we’re practicing what we’re preaching, it’s pretty tough to feel the experience or know what the hurdles are and have some compassion for what it is that we’re asking of our children, right?
Now Alison, for all the divorced moms and dads who are watching this video or listening in, what advice do you have to help them stay in control of their emotions and behaviours?
Great question. So on top of what I spoke about, the next step is okay, what do we do about this now. I’m aware, I know when my body is telling me that there’s something wrong even though there might not be a real threat. Again if we think of that, let’s say that sabre-tooth tiger, in cavemen times it’s not the quite same threat as today. Again, I’m not the first person to say that but we really need to update our software. A lot of us are working with old software. So we are still reacting to again that threat to survival when really, for example, the ex-wife being late to pick up her kids. It’s really not that big of a threat in the grand scheme of things . . . completely understandable that people get triggered by this stuff. But really being aware of okay, is there really a problem here. Is there a threat to my survival or a threat to my safety, security? When you look at it that way from a different perspective, it might be a little bit easier to curb and control how you react to these things.
But having said that there is a lot of research on meditation. It’s of course been around for thousands and thousands of years but the Western world is finally catching up to this. A lot of people in the West are claiming it’s their own idea which we know it’s not, but the research is really, really powerful. There’s so many physical benefits. Hypertension, heart disease, the list goes on and on, but it also teaches us how to tell our brains what to do versus the other way around. So you know, giving us the tools to shut up brain off if it’s thinking about something and we don’t want to do or if it’s focusing on something negative about our ex-spouse. We can learn to control those thoughts through meditation by practicing it every day. I always say at least five days a week would be great. And it’s really only, you know, if you can do 5 minutes a day it’s really beneficial and there’s really no excuse. It’s 5 minutes a day, we can all find 5 minutes. We can put our phones down for an extra 5 minutes to go and work on reducing our anxiety and to think of how it’s going to affect the next generation and generations to follow if we create the cycle of taking care of ourselves.
The reason why meditation works so well is because for that 5 minutes, let’s say, you doing your very best to keep your mind focused on what you want it to focus on. So a lot of people do a lot of deep breathing, mindfulness skill, what does the air feel like going in your nose, through your throat down into your lungs. It seems kind of strange for some people, but by the time your thought process goes to the air going through your nostrils into your diaphragm, you are not able to think about whatever it is that was stressing you out. Our brains can only really focus on one thing at a time. So again, by sitting down, intentionally focusing on something, whether it’s breathing, whether it’s counting, whether it’s reciting a mantra. Whatever you’re doing, you’re basically controlling your brain and saying this is what I want you to do right now, and not letting our brain just take over and run with thoughts that maybe aren’t realistic and maybe aren’t logical. So it’s kind of like doing push-ups for your brain and your emotion regulation.
You’ve got to work it out like, you know, when you go to the gym, you’ve got to think of it as, again, building a muscle. It’s not going to be easy, it’s very difficult for a lot of people. I made the big mistake of almost shaming myself because I would sit down to meditate and I would say oh my gosh my mind is drifting, I can’t do this, I’m not doing this right. Everybody’s mind is going to drift. Even the most seasoned meditators, their minds wander. It’s just an electrical impulse in our mind and sometimes it’s hard to really control that. The Dalai Lama, and this made me feel so much better, the Dalai Lama has said “1000 times my mind drifted, 1001 times I brought my mind back.” So it’s even a struggle for him. I can’t tell you what a relief that was to hear. You’re not doing it wrong if your mind is drifting. It’s going to happen. You want to do your best to not react to that.
Don’t do the shaming thing that I did, because that’s very counterproductive. I’m creating more stress by doing that. So anytime your mind drifts, just bring it right back and trying not to react to it and do that a 1001 times if you have to. But again, the research behind this is really compelling and I would say that’s a great place to start in terms of curbing our anxiety.
Oh, I certainly agree with you that there has been so many articles and books written on meditation and the benefits of it. It sounds to me that if we get to know our triggers and we know that the opportunities for us to be triggered is coming up. So for example my ex is coming to pick up the children and I know that when I see him and he starts being late and all that, and he’s late and he starts talking about the reasons why he’s late and it just really irks me now, then perhaps a good time to start meditating would be prior to his arrival, so that we could calm ourselves down and deal with whatever shows up. In a different manner, almost like deliberately clear our mind before we walk into a situation that triggers us.
For sure. I think that’s a great way to look at it. The way I always say it is, work it into your daily schedule. It’s just as important as getting up and brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t leave the house without brushing your teeth and getting dressed, I would hope. So you want to look at meditation in the same way. Do it every morning, but then do it at those times that you know are going to be, you know, an intense situation. So you you’ve already done it that morning, which is going to hopefully set the tone for the day, it’s going to make things, over time, a little bit more easy to deal with. But yes, absolutely, if you know a situation if triggering for you, do a quick 2 minutes.
There’s something you can do on the spot, really quickly as well. They call it the 478 breathing method. And what you do is, you inhale for 4, you hold your breath for 7 seconds and then you exhale for 8. The exhale for 8 is always tricky for me. I feel like I don’t have enough air left to exhale for 8 seconds. But again, the research behind this particular method is really incredible. It slows your heart rate down . . . it just kind of chills you out really. So that’s a quick thing to do, you know, kind of when you’re walking around, is just try that 478 method and it’s easy to remember as well. You know, you’re waiting in line at the grocery store and there’s a price check. We all, I think, kind of get a little defeated when we see that happen. Try that 478 method, just to keep your cool when you’re already late to drop off your kids.
That’s a great tip. Because what you’ve just pointed to is that we could do these things almost anywhere, anytime. But the majority of us, if we’re lining at the grocery store for our turn, we just turn to our phones, check messages. So instead of doing that, why not take the breathing exercise we just talked about. And I remember when I was trained to do meditation, we actually had a competition in our class to see who can stretch out the breathing in and breathing out and as long as we can. Obviously that’s not what we do all of the time, but that was just a fun exercise. Because some of us have to have some fun, right? Not some of us, most of us have to have some fun in doing these things. Especially at initial stages where it seems like a chore to be doing these things that we don’t have the habit of doing so. Now I know you believe divorced parents can learn to ensure that the kids are picking up healthy habits as well when it comes to anxiety. How exactly would a parent go about doing that?
Well again it’s through modelling. The parents that are avid readers, you usually see the kids picking up books as well. Even if that’s not happening right away with your kids, I promise you when they are 19, 20, 21 those habits will start to come into effect because that’s what they learned over all those years. Have 5 minutes every morning where everyone goes into their room after breakfast or whatever and everybody goes to meditate. If your kids are resisting it, keep doing it. Eventually they will pick up on it, they will see you doing it every day. This might sound a little daunting but even if it takes a couple of years for them to really pick up that habit just by modelling that behaviour and again that self-care and awareness they will pick it up eventually, even if it’s in adulthood. It will come, through modelling, absolutely is the best way. Again you can tell them what to do but they might not do it, right? And I think a lot of parents can relate to that. Why won’t my kids just do what I tell them to do? You have to look at what it is that you’re actually teaching them through your own actions.
And when you make mistakes, let’s say, you do lash out at the spouse in front of your child, be honest about it. Say you know what, I was feeling really anxious because . . . Anytime you can point out your feelings to your child and any mistakes you’ve made or anytime that you haven’t handled yourself the way you would like to or the way you would like them to handle yourselves, just be honest about it. Showing imperfection can sometimes teach them a lot as well, and show them how to connect to uncomfortable feelings. You just say, you know what, I messed up today, you know, I know you saw that argument between your dad and I and I was just not really feeling like I could control my anxiety today, but you know what, I did some meditation, it made me feel a lot better. Just talk to them about it. Of course you want to make sure you’re using age-appropriate language and maybe Martha we can get a little bit more into conflict and how that creates anxiety in our kids and how to avoid that. Maybe we can speak about that a little bit more specifically as well?
Yeah, so you know, I think even for parents who are together, maybe going through a separation, conflict is really, really important to be aware of, between couples. It’s one of the main things that can create anxiety in kids. For adults, if you picture let’s say three couples at a dinner party and one couple’s having an argument. You know, even those adults at the table, you can feel that tension. It’s uncomfortable. You might be thinking can I please get the bill, let’s get out of here, because it’s so uncomfortable. So, if you put yourself in a child’s position and it’s actually their parents having an argument, you know, to you and I, we understand that couples fight, couples say things, couples argue. Usually it can turn out okay, you know, the next hour, the next day. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out okay, sometimes the conflict builds and divorce is the result. But if you put yourself in a child’s position and their parents are fighting, to them it feels like their world is crashing down.
Again, to you and I it’s just an argument, but to them, they start to think, okay, my parents are splitting up, where am I going to live, where am I going to go to school, are my grandparents still my grandparents, are my cousins still my cousins, are we going to have any money, are we going to be on the street. And you know, this sounds a little dramatic to adults but this is really how kids start to think about these things, the second they hear any sort of fight between their parents. It’s really important to do it behind closed doors and as quietly as you can. A lot of parents think that when the kids go to bed they can’t hear. I can’t tell you how many reports I get from kids putting their ear against the door and listening to the entire fight. It scares them, it puts them at a heightened anxiety and that would definitely affect their sleep that night. They’re not sleeping properly, they wake up in the morning, they’re still thinking about the argument, they can’t make sense of it, they can’t really grasp the logic behind it.
They don’t understand that maybe mom and dad have made up. They don’t really see that part either. They just see, you know, okay maybe everything’s back to normal. They might still feel some tension, they’re feeling anxious about it and they go to school feeling that way. Okay, now they have to go into the classroom and deal with peer relations and their teacher maybe not being so happy with them . . . feeling excluded at school. We know bullying is a huge thing. There’s so many stressors, even for the child who’s not bullied. It’s hard being a kid. I know we lose sight of that as adults, but it really is difficult. So if you consider that and add the stress of them listening to their parents argue, even if it’s for five minutes that morning, it really causes a lot of anxiety and it creates a lot of anxiety disorders in adults. And again, I’m not here to blame parents, make parents feel guilty. It’s just something to be really be aware of, recognizing that kids don’t see conflict the same way we do.
They can’t brush it off like we do. They hang onto it and they worry about it. And again, they go to that worst case scenario, you know, am I going to be on the street with no money. It’s really, the things that they concern themselves with because they don’t understand that an argument can happen one night and then we make up and things are okay. Especially for kids of divorce, it’s kind of like their skin’s been burned. So anytime there’s conflict around, they’re going to be that much more sensitive to it.
Martha Chan: Well, I’m sure we could do an entire session just on anxiety on children to help divorced parents to be aware of the signals so that it doesn’t get out of control, from what I’ve just heard from you in the last couple of minutes. But our time is up for this session. Perhaps another time we could do another session on that, to help divorced parents to be more aware of the impact of their actions and what might some of the signs, symptoms be so that they could better notice when their children are stressed and acting out in ways that they may not have noticed. So thank you, Alison, for your tips and advice. To all our Divorce School participants, I hope you will immediately apply what Alison has just taught us in this session. Because if we don’t do it right away we just may postpone it and then never get around to it. We would love to hear from you as to how some of these tips that Alison has provided us has impacted you and how you deal with anxiety. So please come back and write your comments on our website so that we can get your feedback.
I also want to invite you to check out some of the other sessions that we have at the Divorce School. You can do so by visiting our website www.thedivorceschool.com. Thank you for watching. Once again, Alison, thank you very much for your time.