The trauma of divorce upends your sense of safety, forcing you to question everything. Your emotions are likely a roller coaster back and forth through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
The very nature of your relationships, not just with your ex but even with some of your friends and family, may lack the clarity and stability it once did. Your finances and living situation are all in question.
Your hopes and dreams for the future have been bulldozed. Divorce is trauma, and, like other traumas, divorce often brings up old trauma from the past too. This can be overwhelming.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, irrational, or even outright crazy, you are not alone. There’s a psychological explanation for this: when we feel traumatized or under high levels of stress, the rational reasoning part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and moderating social behavior – disengages and we are left with our amygdala – our survival/reptilian brain, which is responsible for emotional reactions – doing the heavy lifting. This often leaves us with a fight, flight, or freeze response which can be frightening, confusing, and debilitating.
You’re not crazy — this is hard. But you’re going to get through it. There are things that you can do that will help you through the trauma of divorce. I can share both as a therapist who specializes in working with trauma and as a fellow divorce survivor who has been through it.
The prefrontal cortex is often described as subserving decision-making and executive control. Being under high levels of stress means that our body’s energy is used up in acting instinctively and making decisions based on short-term outcomes. Our prefrontal cortex loses out in the battle for our energy when high-stress is involved.
9 tips to engage your prefrontal cortex and regain your sense of safety during divorce.
Easier said than done, I get it. That’s why I am going to walk you through it as simply as possible.
1. Practicing mindfulness can engage your prefrontal cortex, which can reduce anxiety and increase your ability to think rationally.
- Take ten slow, deep breaths, breathing deeply all the way into your belly. Connect to your breath. During those ten breaths, pay very close attention to how your breath feels as it comes in and then again as it leaves your body.
- Engage your five senses: Right here in this moment, look around. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you feel on your skin? Just focus on the present moment. If your mind wanders, that’s okay. Bring your attention back to your five senses.
- Finally, now that you’re breathing and engaging your senses, ask yourself this: “In this moment, am I safe?” Unless there is a bear chasing you, the answer is “Yes.’
- Take a sip of water. When we are in danger, our mouth is dry. Notice the sensation of moisture in your mouth as a reminder that you are safe in this moment.
- Want to take this to the next level? Consider a meditation/mindfulness practice to keep you present. There are some great apps that will help you with this, including Insight Timer, which is my favorite.
2. Create a safe, calm space in your home.
Having a space in your home to unwind and calm yourself is important. This might be your bedroom or a chair or a corner of a room. This calm safe space is important. Make sure there’s nothing triggering there. Photos of your ex don’t belong there. Divorce papers also do not belong there. If it doesn’t bring you a sense of calm, it does not belong there.
3. Remember, thoughts and feelings pass.
This is really important. We all have thoughts and feelings we don’t like. No, you are not the only person who has wondered if it would be easier to be a widow. Sometimes, feelings are overwhelming and it feels dark – like it will never get better. I know this because I have felt that too, especially during my own divorce. And guess what? I’m not there now. It’s hard to believe when you’re in it but these feelings and ugly thoughts will pass. Notice them and do not let them define you. They are temporary.
4. Connect with people you care about and who care about you.
We are wired for relationships, and losing the relationship anyone has with their former spouse is extremely painful. You need to get your relationship needs met, and the best place for that is not a dating app. Reach out to friends and family. Plan activities that allow you to connect to people who you enjoy. When we feel dependent on romantic relationships to get our needs met, we feel more desperate and set ourselves up for unhealthy relationships. Make connecting with friends and loved ones a priority right now.
5. Move and engage your body.
Exercise, of any kind, helps balance your brain chemistry. This does not mean you have to go to the gym or engage in a rigorous workout (although if that’s your jam, do it). Go for a walk, dance, run, yoga — it doesn’t matter. Just move. You will likely notice a decrease in anxiety and depression just from a simple increase in physical activity. If you go outside, you get an added benefit of natural Vitamin D which is good for you too.
6. Up your self-care.
It’s easy to let the small things like water intake, diet, and sleep slide. Your mood will slide right along with it. It may require more effort right now, but how you take care of your body needs to be a top priority as it has an enormous impact on your mood and mental health. Make sure that you drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods throughout the day. If you are having difficulty sleeping, make getting sleep a priority. Trauma takes a physical toll too. Your central nervous system runs through every inch of your body. Taking care of your body is critical right now to your emotional and physical well-being.
7. Change your self-talk.
When we go through something traumatic, our brain tries to make meaning out of it and we often create negative thoughts that tie all of our trauma together as a result. These negative feelings may include thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not safe,” “I am not lovable,” “I am permanently damaged” — the list goes on and on. When this sabotaging self-talk comes up, notice it and remind yourself that it’s rooted in trauma, not fact.
Work on building healthy affirmations that are more supportive like “I am good enough,” “I am strong,” “My needs are a priority,” and “I am getting through this.” When these negative thoughts come up, make an effort to engage those affirmations and make them louder. It might feel uncomfortable at first. I get that. But changing the synaptic firing in your brain is almost always uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
8. Reach out for help and support.
The people who care about you want to be there for you. You are not a burden. Trauma requires support. There are also free online support groups such as the group I run on Facebook called “You Got This: Healing Through Divorce” and Divorce Care support groups in many areas. Therapy can be incredibly helpful. You don’t get points for suffering through trauma alone — healing through trauma requires support. Make sure that you get it.
9. Be gentle with yourself.
Treat yourself with as much compassion as you would a friend who was struggling through a deeply painful trauma. This is important for two reasons: one, you deserve it and you need it. And second, it sends the message to you that you deserve it and you need it which is equally important healing through the trauma of divorce.
Whitney Boole is a therapist, coach and writer in private practice in Hermosa Beach, CA. Her recent book, You Got This: Healing Through Divorce, shares therapeutic exercises for healing through the trauma of divorce as well as her own stories from the trenches. Whitney provides therapy for individuals and relationships, and she believes pain fuels growth and empowerment. She also runs a Facebook Group for people healing through divorce. www.whitneyboole.com