Divorce anxiety

What is divorce anxiety?

Originally published on 3rd February 2022 at 12:54 PM

Reading time: 2 mins

Divorce anxiety is the term given to the intense feelings of worry experienced when going through a divorce. As with any anxiety, it will include negative thoughts about the future, and an unpleasant physiological response.

The words ‘negative’ and ‘unpleasant’ can sound a little trivial, and fail to capture the intensity of the experience. Divorce can be so uprooting, and leave someone feeling so unsafe and uncertain, that the body is in a constant state of high alert: tense muscles, quicker heartbeat, headaches, lump in the throat, faster breathing etc.

Being in a constant state of threat leaves us unable to experience joy, as we feel overwhelmed by stress. We might find ourselves also irritable and snappy, with small things triggering an outburst of tears or anger.

Our sleep and appetite might also be affected as the stream of worries prevent us from relaxing, and that lump in the throat means that the last thing we want is a big meal.

Divorce anxiety is not a clinical term in itself; it is a term someone has come up with to capture the experience of going through a divorce. If you feel overwhelmed with your anxiety for a period of several weeks, and feel that you aren’t coping anymore, then you might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. By ‘not coping’, this might mean when you stop seeing people, stop going to work, have panic attacks or simply feel that there is a possibility of having a breakdown.

If this is the case, your GP might offer you therapy or medication. My advice is definitely to take the therapy. Medication can be useful if you are having so much anxiety that you can’t do the things you need to. The therapy will help you mentally process the end of your relationship, the medication helps by possibly reducing the anxiety enough for this to happen.

Causes of divorce anxiety:

It is natural (indeed likely) that anyone will have a lot of anxiety while going through a divorce, even if you are the one deciding to leave an unhealthy marriage. This is because any change and unknown situation will make us feel some degree of worry, and divorce affects nearly every aspect of our life. Therefore, nearly every part of our life is now uncertain from our children’s well-being, to family, work, home, finances and friends.

The negative thoughts might include things like:

  • uncertainty about the future, and worrying you will be worse off;
  • not knowing where you will live, or what your financial adjustment will be like;
  • worrying your children will be emotionally harmed by the divorce;
  • worrying you will not see your children enough;
  • feeling as though you have failed in some way;
  • blaming yourself for bad choices or other mistakes;
  • guilty for ending the marriage or for having potentially contributed to the end of the marriage ie. through an affair.
  • fearful you will never meet anyone again;
  • worrying that others will judge you negatively; and
  • worrying about having to start work after many years looking after kids.

Once you start having these kinds of anxious thoughts, your body will respond accordingly. This means that your body will start to put itself in ‘fight or flight’ mode: your heart will beat faster, your breathing will be shallower, your muscles will tense, amongst other unpleasant physical sensations.

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Symptoms of divorce anxiety:

  • negative thoughts about the future;
  • negative thoughts about yourself;
  • tense muscles;
  • quicker heartbeat;
  • headaches;
  • lump in the throat;
  • faster breathing;
  • restlessness;
  • disrupted digestion;
  • difficulty sleeping;
  • irritability.

Dealing with divorce anxiety:

Anyone feeling and thinking in this way, will, of course, look to soothe themselves. Normally, people try to avoid whatever causes them anxiety, but you can’t really do this with a divorce. You can try to avoid divorce by staying in an unhappy marriage, but, once you are in the process, you have stopped avoiding, and are exposed to feeling the pain and grief of the end of the relationship, as well as uncertainty about the future.

In order to numb the pain, people sometimes try to drink, have relationships with new people as soon as possible (often a bad idea), have sex, comfort eat, take drugs, try and go out as much as possible, or just stay in bed trying to sleep off the grief. These are unhealthy ways of dealing with divorce.

Instead, the first thing you need to do is to accept that ‘the only way out is through’. This means accepting that there will be pain, but that it will get easier over time (we promise it does). Once you stop struggling to avoid it, and instead accept it with compassion, things always seem more bearable.

Self-compassion often comes up as an important factor in well-being. Self-compassion entails acting the same way towards yourself when you are struggling in life, as you might act towards someone you love. So, instead of just trying to ignore pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’, you pause and kindly tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?’

With this approach, you can help give yourself what you need, as far as possible. It might involve a cup of tea, calling a friend or asking for a hug. It will definitely involve the basics of self-care such as exercise, eating regularly, getting dressed, seeing people and keeping to a routine.

The reason why we focus so much on the moment is that it can help stop you from becoming overwhelmed by any situation.

"Rather than thinking into the future about all that needs to get done, or judging yourself for past mistakes, you are simply focused on trying to make the present moment that little better. This approach is commonly known as mindfulness."

Improving your present will also start to help bring into focus how you want your future to look. You might even draw or visualise what you want the future to look like. Once you have established what you want, and how to get there, you can start to feel a sense of purpose again, as we act towards a shared goal.

Other research has shown that trying new things, or things you used to love and have given up (perhaps your visualising might have thrown up a few suggestions) is also a helpful way out of grief and into a better life.

Finally, therapy is important, even if it is done in a group. There is so much to reflect on at the end of a marriage. You need to think about how you went from loving someone to the marriage ending. What you brought to the relationship (the good and the bad), as well as your partner. And if you are reading thinking that it is all their fault (even if they have had an affair), then I am afraid you still have some work to do.

Divorce anxiety is difficult to bear. But, if you can avoid trying to shut it down, you will, one day, have benefitted from having used it as an opportunity to look at your life and make great changes.

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Dr Isabelle Hung
Dr Isabelle Hung
Dr Isabelle Hung is a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with adults who are struggling with mental health, and/or feel stuck in their lives. She is the co-founder of divorceclub.com, and also works for UCLH and the Schoen clinic, as well as writing for a number of publications and websites.

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