Divorce is stressful -- there's no two ways around it. Between financial concerns, finding a new home, legal proceedings, taking care of the kids and their emotions, taking care of your own emotions -- even separately all of these are difficult to handle, and tackling them all at once may seem like too much.
It probably does not come as a surprise to you, therefore, that anxiety and stress disorders are common among recent divorcés. Some choose to deal with this stress by taking anti-anxiety medications. Often, this is an appropriate decision: research has shown that medication, especially when combined with treatment from a competent therapist, can give a person what they need to begin the path to recovery. But in the long run, is the best way to manage stress really with a drug that might induce dependence or have other side effects?
1.) Psychotherapy. Unless you are overwhelmed by your anxiety and need relief immediately, give therapy a chance. There is a technique called CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that can be very effective in a few sessions. Or, if you have a history of trauma or abuse leading to anxious feelings, you may want to try EMDR or Progressive Exposure Therapy. These two techniques are proven to relieve intrusive anxiety caused by past or present trauma.
2.) Breathing exercises and meditation. When was the last time you were conscious of your breathing? The proper circulation of oxygen and carbon dioxide is vital to the body's functioning, especially the brain. In times of stress, however, people can unconsciously deny themselves the oxygen they need, either holding their breath or entering a constant, low-level state of hyperventilation without realizing it. Healthy breathing and meditation have been studied extensively and have helped many to balance their emotional state. Check out the book Wherever You Go, There You Are for more info.
3.) Sleep. Sleep is another biological imperative that is often overlooked. It is the brain's one opportunity each day to relax and sort itself out. Although it may not be possible to always get the 7-8 recommended hours per night, there are things you can do to help get the most out of what sleep you do get. Some of this advice you've probably heard before, such as taking a warm bath before bed and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon. Supplements like melatonin, a natural hormone that helps promote rest, can also help. And if you're a drinker, note that although a drink or two may get you to sleep, it will also cause you to wake up more often during the night and feel less rested the next day -- a paradox called REM rebound.
4.) Exercise. Everybody knows how important exercise is to physical health, but sometimes people forget that it plays a role in mental health as well. During exercise, you release more feel-good neurotransmitters and endorphins which can help improve self esteem, sharpen your cognition, and reduce stressful thinking. Just half an hour of jogging or bicycling can transform your emotional state. Or, if you're looking for a new challenge, give yoga a try -- studies show that it can help reduce the physical stress response (heart rate, blood pressure) and lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression to a noticeable degree.
5.) Diet. The usual advice, such as eating varied and nutrient-rich meals, applies here, but there are additional factors you can consider when trying to curb anxiety. Many stressed people eat high carbohydrate meals like bagels, bread, pasta, and so on, which make you feel good temporarily but will inevitably trigger an insulin surge and a "crash" later on. Make sure you get your requisite amount of B vitamins and iron (a good multivitamin may really help here) and omega three fatty acids (think fish). Good hydration also encourages the body to process toxins and can keep you more alert -- it may be a wise move to replace caffeinated beverages and alcohol, both of which are linked to anxiety, with water.
6.) Acupuncture. Though "mainstream" than other items on this list, there is a good deal of support for the idea of acupuncture as an effective method of decreasing stress. An integral part of traditional Chinese medicine for 5000 years, scientific studies have shown that it is helpful in promoting blood flow throughout the body and encouraging relaxation, as well as releasing the same endorphins that cause people to feel good while exercising.
7.) Caring for others. Research has indicated that viewing human faces decreases symptoms of anxiety, and contact with loved ones can be even more therapeutic. Whether you choose to reconnect with family and friends, or volunteer for a charitable cause, you will be giving back to the world while doing something healing for yourself. Let a friend or family member talk to you or give you a good hug. It helps.
So, if you're struggling with the stresses of divorce and are considering medication, consider these other options first. Pills do work, but you may find that the medicine you really need is just to develop healthy habits for your body and mind.
Follow Mark Banschick, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarkBanschickMD