Life can be hard and divorce can make it even harder, so did you know that divorce impacts your health?
Knowing that about 50% of marriages in America end in divorce and 1 in three marriages in Australia end in divorce, doesn’t make your own divorce any easier. The emotional and mental toll, often felt through bouts of anger, sadness and loneliness, also effects your physical health. “Every thought, every action, every word that you say creates a physical response by the brain,” says Kathleen Hall, a stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network. “[During a divorce], you’re sorting through core issues from the time you were born, about marriage, love, children — it’s like a bomb being dropped on everything you’ve ever thought or perceived about yourself in life. It’s going to have every physiological affect that you could imagine.”
If you’re a female, then there’s some bad news. Women who divorced at least once were 24% more likely to experience a heart attack compared to women who remained married, and those divorcing two or more times saw their risk jump to 77%. Matthew Dupre of Duke University and his colleagues found that men weren’t at similar risk. This is all from a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. Heart attack chances for men were only seen to go up if they divorced two or more times compared to men who didn’t split with their spouses. If men remarried, their heart risk did not go up, while for women who remarried, their chances of having a heart attack remained slightly higher, at 35%, than that of divorced women.
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Divorce really does seem to be heartbreaking, especially for women. The study observed people over an 18 year period, so could look at short term and long term effects. The long term scope of the study revealed the impact that social and life events can have on the physical functioning of the body. “The health consequences of social stresses are real,” says Dupre. For women, the 77% higher risk of heart attack connected to multiple divorces was on par with well-established factors such as hypertension (which boosts risk by 73%) and diabetes (which elevates heart problems by 81%). It’s not that divorce should be avoided to save you heart; rather Dupre puts it this way: “women who are stably married are at an increased advantage of preventing heart attacks than women who have not experienced a similar level of stability in personal relationships.”
How Divorce Impacts Your Health
The biggest contributor to this increased chance of a heart attack is because of spikes in the stress hormone cortisol. It can push up blood pressure, blood sugars and cholesterol outside of the usual normal for a particular person. Your GP, knowing that great periods of stress can play out in how your body functions, will be more carefully monitoring these specific areas for any potential problems. Letting them know about your everyday circumstances rather than keeping it to yourself could possibly save your life.
“Stress is caused by when you feel out of control,” says Hall. “And this is the worst out-of-control thing you can possibly go through. That’s going to cause the body to have a fight-or-flight response of fear and panic.”
Divorce impacts your health due to the stress of pain, grief, uncertainty and fear.
Anxiety and Depression
Chronic stress can certainly lead to anxiety, especially when your usual support system has been undone. A support system is essential in helping to control this, and if it’s interfering with everyday life then you need to seek the help of a professional.
Although it may seem fairly obvious, a 2013 study from the Clinical Psychological Science journal confirmed that people going through a divorce are more likely to experience depression. It mainly affects those who have already suffered from previous depression. During the study, almost 60 percent of people with a history of depression who got divorced suffered from a “depressive episode.” Compare that with only 10 percent of people without a history of depression who found themselves suffering from the condition.
It’s not unusual to have trouble sleeping when we are under stress, but it can become a vicious cycle. “In the sleep world, stress is to sleep as yin is to yang — opposite forces that are forever linked,”says sleep specialist Chris Winter, MD. “Stress prevents sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and its consequences.” But, with some discipline in prioritising sleep and developing good habits you can begin to see some positive changes to your stress levels. Long term sleep deprivation can play havoc with your blood pressure and with your mental health, so it’s wise to get some help if you’re having trouble sleeping for more than a couple of months following a divorce.
Who Am I?
We can struggle with our identity when key relationships are shifted. One 2010 study found that our sense of self is disrupted after a break-up. “We know that relationships change the way we think about ourselves,” says study author Erica Slotter of Northwestern University, “When a relationship ends, that sense of self ends.” Divorce impacts your health emotionally and mentally, as well as physically.
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Digestive Issues and Weakened Immune System
A ‘funny-tummy’ is common when we are stressed or anxious, but over long periods of time these issues can progressively worsen and we end up with heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome and reflux. Stress also means that our immune system is affected and we end up with colds and flu more easily than usual. Our emotional life can make us more prone to illness.
Comfort eating is a contributor here, but even more so is our friend cortisol again. Yale research has found that extra abdominal fat in otherwise thin women was correlated to higher cortisol levels. So, ‘stress made me fat’ is partly true, but reaching for healthier foods will help to control what can easily become a very large issue.
What to do?
Being prepared will help you get through a difficult time. Now you know that divorce impacts your health, you can take proactive steps to reduce the negative consequences. Look after yourself. Speak kindly to yourself. Be patient with the healing of your heart and settling into new routines. In a study looking at the long term effects of divorce, most people reported feeling better by the time they’d reached the two year mark. That might seem like a long way off now, but take each day one at a time.
“You need to have more compassion for yourself, because then your body will have less of a response,” says Hall. “And optimism: If you really know that you’re going to make it through it and you have confidence in that, then you’ll also have less of a physiological response.”
A healthy diet, exercise and good sleep and relaxation are all important in helping to alleviate the stress of divorce. How you think about yourself and your future will also affect your wellbeing. You may not always be a good judge of how you’re going, so enlist the help of friends to be honest and to check in on you. Divorce is not the end of your life, but the start of a new chapter. If you haven’t been so good at it, today can be the beginning of looking after you.
Please contact us today if you’d like to speak to one of our friendly family lawyers. We offer a free, 10-minute consultation.