Except for the death of a spouse or child, divorce produces more stress than any other life event. This is a time of great upheaval, and sometimes it seems as if everything in your life is changing at once — whether you like it or not. Here’s something you might not know: the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are the same. So why not use the crisis of divorce as an opportunity to start making some positive changes in your life?
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. Find out what motivates you, then use it to inspire you.
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 you can’t quite resist a double helping of fettuccine alfredo followed by a chocolate eclair. “I’ve had a rough day,” you think. “I deserve this delicious food — and it makes me feel so good!” 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.
“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 (Knopf, 1997). “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.
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.”
Stress can be a constant companion during separation and divorce. Unfortunately, stressful thoughts and feelings can actually damage your physical health. 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, these behaviors temporarily ameliorate some of the symptoms without addressing the root of the problem — and none of them contribute to health and vitality.
Here are some better solutions. Consider practicing Yoga and/or meditation on a regular basis (daily is best). Yoga 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. 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 yoga instructor Helen Goldstein. “And 20 minutes of meditation has the positive effects of two-to-three hours of sleep.”
Massage is another great stress-buster. Experts believe it offers many benefits, such as: reducing stress and blood pressure; increasing relaxation and feelings of well-being.reducing muscle tension, swelling, and inflammation; relieving “tension” headaches and chronic pain; soothing the nervous system; improving blood circulation; aiding digestion; and increasing joint mobility.
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 (Elite Publications). 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.”
Feeling that she had nothing to lose, Teri checked into a strict vegetarian health spa with personal trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists, 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.”
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 (Key Porter Books, 1998). “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 (IDG Books, 1999), 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
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 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.
Walking can also help you sleep better at night — good news for those suffering from divorce-related insomnia. In one study, 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.
Sometimes, we develop pockets of fat that are extremely resistant to diet and exercise. Here’s an example: you exercise diligently five days a week for six months and are near your ideal weight; you’ve lost three inches off your thighs, two off your arms, but nothing from your waist or hips. Sound familiar? If this is your situation, you might be a candidate for cosmetic surgery.
Body Image and Cosmetic Surgery
Do you like the way you look (face and body)? If so, congratulations — you have a positive body-image! If, however, there’s some physical aspect that’s stopping you from getting out there and meeting new people — for friendship, support, or romance — then by all means explore your options for “fixing” your problem area.
This may or may not include cosmetic surgery. Despite the fact that 7.4 million people had cosmetic surgery in 2000, it is not the answer for everyone. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some people are just not appropriate candidates. Sometimes, a surgeon will decline to operate on an individual because the his/her desire for an appearance change is being driven by an emotional problem that no amount of surgery can fix.
Cosmetic surgery is not for you if:
- You’re in the throes of a severe crisis (your spouse just left you or died, or you lost your job yesterday).
- You have unrealistic expectations about what the surgery will do for you (you think you’ll acquire a celebrity’s lifestyle if your nose looked like his/hers; you want to look half your age, or half your size).
- You have a hidden agenda (you hope to win your spouse back or get a promotion by having the surgery).
“We don’t encourage people to have surgery in order to save their marriage, or to get into a new relationship,” confirms Dr. Atul Kesawarni (M.D., F.R.C.S.C.), who heads the division of plastic surgery at Toronto East General Hospital.
Before considering plastic surgery, ask yourself these questions:
- Why do I want surgery?
- What do I expect it will do for me?
You may be a good candidate for surgery if your goals are realistic, you have a generally positive body-image, but there’s some physical characteristic you’d like to improve or change. Under these conditions, even a small physical change can give a large boost to your self-confidence, says Dr. Kesawarni.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the most popular surgical procedures are:
- Rhinoplasty (nose reshaping)
- Liposuction (permanently removing exercise-resistant fat deposits)
- Blepharoplasty (correcting drooping upper eyelids or puffy bags below eyes)
- Breast Augmentation
The most popular non-surgical procedures are:
- Chemical Peel (resurfacing of the skin)
- Microdermabrasion (smooths lines scars, and wrinkles)
- Spider-vein removal (correcting drooping upper eyelids or puffy bags below eyes)
- Botox injection (smooths facial wrinkles by blocking nerve impulses)
- Laser hair removal (permanent)
Plastic surgery procedures can be stressful — both on the body and mind. Schedule your surgery at a time when you’re not suffering from exceptional stress, or physical or emotional burdens. Patients who go into surgery feeling preoccupied or pressured with other matters may face longer and more difficult recovery periods than those who are relatively relaxed.
If you invest the time, energy, and commitment into caring for your body properly, it will repay you generously. “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,” says Dr. Weil.
The information in this article is for information-purposes only. Do not begin any diet or exercise regimen without checking with your doctor first. To learn more about cosmetic surgery, check out: www.plasticsurgery.org, www.cosmeticsurgerycanada.com, or www.thebreastexpert.com.