THE BLOG

How To Take Back Your Power After A Divorce

06/13/2012 02:44 am ET | Updated Aug 12, 2012
  • Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. Director, EMDR Institute; Senior Research Fellow, Mental Research Institute; Founder, EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs

Any relationship break-up can be tough, but divorce can feel like a blow. We may walk away physically, but often our minds hold on. Rather than moving confidently into the future, we may find ourselves stuck in the past. Sometimes time isn't enough to heal all wounds. If you find yourself stuck, it's vital that you take steps to regain your psychological equilibrium.

There are obvious, simple ways to start. For instance, set up exercising time to work through the negative feelings. Taking a brisk daily walk is a good way to relieve the stress and is as important for your mind as it is for your body. Also, spend time with family and friends so that you can feel nurtured. While it's important to express your emotions and ask for help, try not to dwell on the negative. It's important to arrange activities with family and friends that will bring you joy. Don't try to get updates through friends and social media profiles about what your ex is doing. Instead, concentrate on your own well being by taking control of your reactions. Don't get sucked into feeling bad just because negative emotions arise. It's a challenge, but it's doable with the right tools and an understanding of what's wrong.

We all know people who have been so emotionally damaged by divorce that they have remained bitter, angry and emotionally unavailable years after separating from their spouse. Friends reassure and counsel them and often grow impatient -- not understanding why they can't "snap out of it." The answer lies in how the brain itself works. It has an information processing system that under normal circumstances takes a disturbing event and makes sense of it. Basically, it's "digested" and what is useful is learned and what is useless is discarded. So, optimally a person would learn from the divorce experience what the warning signs are of picking the wrong potential mate, what went wrong and what they want and will do differently in the future. In time, the divorce would be viewed as an unfortunate event that took place in the past. But sometimes the experience is so disturbing it overwhelms the brain's ability to process. When that happens, the past remains "present."

What's happening then is that the memory of the event has become stored in the brain with the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that occurred at that time. Because the brain couldn't process the event, the negativity keeps coming up and can poison the present. The major categories of negative emotions people experience during a divorce can be verbalized with statements such as, "I'm not good enough," "I'm not safe" and "I'm not in control." The feelings of anger, sadness, resentment, insecurity and fear that continue to arise can suck us in. But just because they come up doesn't make them true.

We associate posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with major trauma such as combat, rape or serious accidents. However, recent psychological research has shown that common life experiences such as family arguments and divorce can cause even more PTSD symptoms than major trauma. So, if you find yourself failing to move forward in life, take the steps needed to heal. It's important to remember that you're in charge and capable of handling your own thoughts and feelings.

Self-help techniques can often do the trick and may make it possible to deal with negative emotions, images and thoughts that arise. For instance, here's one from my book, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy: Whenever you find yourself bothered by negative self-talk (you know, that voice that tells you how defective you are), notice how your body feels. Then think of a cartoon character with a funny voice like Elmer Fudd, Popeye or Daffy Duck and make your critical inner voice sound like that character. For most people, the disturbing feelings will go away.

Remember, just because negative emotions, images and thoughts are there, doesn't make them true or useful. Whether the images are of a past fight, an infidelity or thoughts of "what if" or "I should have," you can learn how to get rid of them. If self-help techniques aren't enough to change your negative reactions, then it's time to take further steps. These can include getting EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. EMDR therapy is a research-supported trauma treatment that includes a component of eye movements, taps or tones. The therapy stimulates the information processing system and causes rapid connections to be made in the brain. You don't have to talk about the event in detail or do homework. There's no reason to suffer or rehash the divorce endlessly. If you break your leg you'd be willing to go to the physician to align it so it can heal. Likewise, if your broken relationship is causing intrusive thoughts or images of the event and you can't seem to shake the negative feelings, be willing to reach out for professional help so your brain can "digest" the experience. In this way the divorce can take it's proper place in the past and you will be back in control.

It's also important not to blame yourself for the negative reactions you've been having. The chronic negative thoughts and feelings are generally caused by the way your brain is storing the information. Sometimes the reason for the suffering is a combination of experiences in addition to the divorce. For instance, if you find you are having extreme difficulty adjusting, the reason may lie in earlier experiences in your childhood that are hindering your recovery. Research has shown that childhood experiences can make us vulnerable to current stress and other problems. Regardless of the reasons, EMDR therapy can help you process your divorce and other negative experiences. That means moving from feelings of pain and vulnerability to feelings of strength and resilience. You can learn from the past and then let it go. Don't let it poison your future.