Breaking Up: 7 Ways A Split Can Affect Your Physical And Mental Health

06/25/2013 12:42 am ET
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The fact that an estimated 50 percent of marriages in America now end in divorce doesn't make breaking up any easier to do. The staggering emotional impact of a break-up can not only leave you feeling completely broken -- loss, anger, anxiety, and loneliness are common emotions -- but can also take a significant toll on your health.

"Every thought, every action, every word that you say creates a physical response by the brain," Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network, tells The Huffington Post. "[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."

The pain of a divorce can feel like an assault on the body, mind and spirit, and that may not be far from the truth. Scroll through the list below for seven ways that a divorce could affect your physical and mental health -- and ways that you can take charge to begin the journey to healing.

1. Chronic Stress.

Divorce causes chronic stress because it is usually an ongoing event, says Hall. So instead of giving off adrenaline -- the chemical our body secretes during times of acute stress -- the body will continuously release the stress hormone cortisol. According to Hall, the release of large amounts of cortisol during a period of long-term stress, like during a divorce, can affect nearly every system in the body, including the blood pressure and heart rate.

"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."

2. Trouble Sleeping.

Has your divorce suddenly left you tossing and turning, unable to sleep at night? You're not alone. According to Hall, the body may be unsettled by no longer having a familiar partner by your side, causing physical stress that keeps you from getting the rest you need. High cortisol levels can also contribute to difficulty falling or staying asleep.

"In the sleep world, stress is to sleep as yin is to yang -- opposite forces that are forever linked," sleep specialist Chris Winter, MD told The Huffington Post in April. "Stress prevents sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and its consequences."

It's a vicious cycle: We can't sleep because we're stressed, and lack of sleep, in turn, becomes a source of stress in itself. But the good news is that by prioritizing sleep and implementing good sleep hygiene habits to ensure that you get your eight hours of rest each night, you can begin to lower your stress levels.

3. Weakened Immune System.

"Stress almost immediately affects your immune system -- you get colds and the flu," says Hall, who adds that autoimmune diseases, in which the body turns against itself, are also possible after divorce when immune functioning may be compromised.

When you're grappling with the swirl of negative thoughts and emotions that accompany divorce, don't be surprised if your immune system takes a sudden nosedive. An extensive body of research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology has demonstrated just how much of an impact our emotional lives can have on our immune systems. And it's not just a result of stress: Divorce-induced depression can also contribute to a weakened immune system, as can social isolation and feelings of loneliness, according to the American Psychological Association.

4. Depression & Anxiety.

Stressful life events can lead to clinical depression in those who may be susceptible, according to WebMD, and research out of Harvard University has found that chronic stress may also increase anxiety. When you're struggling with the loss and trauma of a divorce, the first step to avoiding mental health issues is getting help, says Hall.

"Do not pass go, do not collect $200 -- stop and get support. That is the most important thing during a trauma like this," says Hall. "That support system that reduces stress has been taken away from you, so the first thing you need is a new support system."

5. Identity Crisis.

A divorce can leave you struggling with a full-blown identity crisis, as you struggle to figure out who you are without your partner. A 2010 study found that that break-ups can seriously disrupt our sense of self. In the case of divorce, when your finances, home and family are connected with your former spouse, this clouding of self-identity could be particularly severe.

"We know that relationships change the way we think about ourselves," study author Erica Slotter of Northwestern University, told LiveScience. "When a relationship ends, that sense of self ends."

6. Digestive Problems.

Have you ever gotten a stomachache because you were so nervous? An upset stomach may be caused by acute stress, but longer-term tension may worsen digestive problems like heartburn, indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome.

If you're experiencing stomach problems as a result of break-up stress, womenshealth.gov recommends taking measures to reduce your stress levels in order to maintain a healthy digestive system. Try scientifically-proven stress busters like running, yoga, meditation or deep breathing.

7. Weight Gain.

Chronic stress, unfortunately, can take a toll on your waistline: Long-term stress has been linked with the storage of excess abdominal fat. Yale research found that higher levels of cortisol was correlated with extra abdominal fat in otherwise thin women.

Stress can also tip by the scale by leading to mindless munching. When we're under stress, we tend to get cravings for snacks that are high in fat, sugar and salt -- exactly the type of empty calories that lead to weight gain, and further increase our cortisol levels. Instead of reaching for the chips or ice cream, try reaching for some stress-busting superfoods instead to reduce tension and avoid putting on the pounds.

Self-care through a healthy diet, exercise, social support and stress-busting activities like yoga and meditation can play a significant role in chipping away at the stress of divorce. Take the first steps toward healing from your split with these healthy break-up dos and don'ts.

But dealing with negative emotions is just as important as good nutrition, adequate rest and exercise: Working to accept unpleasant feelings -- rather than suppress or ignore them -- and reframe worries or self-critical thoughts could minimize the physical and emotional impacts of stress and boost well-being.

"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."

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