Divorce can traumatize. This should not be news to you.
Whereas physical trauma happens to your body, psychological trauma affects your brain and your mind. The traumatic response is characterized by debilitating anxiety, overwhelming vulnerability, flashbacks and an inability to cope.
In a traumatic divorce, survival instincts often get triggered out of nowhere; fight, flight or freeze. You find yourself in the midst of unnecessary litigation, public screaming matches, physical aggression or you just shut down. Sound familiar?
Traumatic experience, like a violent crime, natural disaster, illness, or the unnatural death of a loved one, threatens your well-being. "Will I survive this?" Divorce may not be a battlefield wound in Afghanistan, but believe me -- it can traumatize.
The many faces of trauma
There are three basic kinds of trauma and divorce can trigger one -- if not all three.
Acute Trauma: Things can be fine, then a single, horrible event threatens your life and safety; this is acute trauma. A divorce can trigger sudden violence; think about the danger of an unstable parent losing a custody hearing. Eventually, you may be safe, but nightmares follow.
Complex Trauma: You're trapped in a life of hostility and rejection. It's like a thousand cuts, rather than one big one. Children experience complex trauma when they cannot get away from a relentlessly critical parent. A hateful husband or wife can segue into a hateful ex. Sometimes there is no good escape, even after you've left.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): The classic form of PTSD dealt with victims of war, who would have flashbacks of battlefield trauma months, if not years, later. In the heat of a malignant divorce, you can develop PTSD. You may have flashbacks of abuse, or anticipate being attacked, many months down the road.
The traumatic divorce
Love changes the physiology of the brain. You experience trust at its most basic level. That is why lovers are so openly vulnerable and often act like happy kids together.
Some divorces end relatively smoothly, with friendship and respect trumping anger and retribution. And some divorces traumatize.
You trusted and lost. Your brain was open to love and safety, and now it has to cope with betrayal and abandonment. You no longer feel safe. You feel alone, and your brain is programmed to protect you -- even if you end up in more trouble because of the inability to assess a threat accurately.
Many people experience trauma of one kind or another. Perhaps you were traumatized by your ex or by your parents -- or both. The key is to overcome the instinctual fight-flight response in favor of what's best for you and your children. Here are six ways to succeed:
1. Acknowledge that your divorce may have been traumatic: Trauma is an inexplicable violation of your trust and safety. It's devastating, but you must find a way to think clearly; there's a lot at stake.
2. Grieve: You must mourn whatever you lost -- a betrayal, the loss of family, the loss of love, safety, a violation to your body or dignity, etc.
3. Consider traditional psychotherapy, which can be enormously helpful: One should never grieve alone, and telling the tale of the trauma can help you gain some mastery over it. Also, therapy helps with family history. Often, present day traumas link back to hurts of childhood, which have made you more vulnerable.
4. Look into new psychological technologies: Some people can learn to lessen the fight-flight response with approaches like EMDR, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, CBT, DBT or Somatic Experiencing.
5. Consider medications: Sometimes intelligent psychopharmacology can keep you from being triggered time and again. Plus, trauma often coexists with other psychiatric problems like depression.
6. Join divorce support groups: You are not alone. Support and sharing puts things into a clearer perspective and can be soothing.
The effect of a traumatic divorce should gradually become fainter with time, but will never be forgotten; this kind of trauma leaves its mark. Good therapy can help you with the realization that you're not a trauma victim, but rather a person who experienced trauma. There's a difference. You learn to own your trauma and deal with the injustice of it, but somehow build a healthy life, nevertheless.
When dealing with divorce, you need to think and react intelligently. Triggering will happen. But, you can ride the wave and react better.
Finally, you may not be alone in the world. You may be a mother or a father, boyfriend or girlfriend, or now, a husband or a wife. Getting past trauma is good for you. It's also good for those you love.
Follow Mark Banschick, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarkBanschickMD