Divorce is the second most stressful life event, preceded only by the death of a spouse. And what is stress capable of? Expediting a severe bout of depression and anxiety to your limbic system (the brain's emotional center) if you're not careful. Acute and chronic stress, especially, undermine both emotional and physical health. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer than married people.
Another study in Psychological Science claimed that a person's happiness level drops as she approaches divorce, although there is rebounding over time if the person works at it. That's what these 12 tips are: suggestions for preventing the devastating depression that often accompanies divorce, and techniques that you can use to keep your happiness level steady or maybe even higher!
1. Lose yourself in a book (or an afghan).
I think the one thing that kept my mom sane the years after she and my dad split were the 75 afghans she knitted for me, my sisters, and anyone who got married during between 1982 and 1985. The mundane, repetitive gesture, she told me later, kept her brain on the loop that she was making with her big plastic needles, away from all the sadness in her heart. Swimming is the same type of activity for me. I count each lap, so if I start to ruminate too much, I lose track. For an OCD gal who needs to burn calories, it's a tragedy when that happens. A friend of mine who divorced last year said that losing herself in a juicy novel was a helpful diversion. Or I guess you could also watch reality TV, although I'd hate for you to sink that low.
2. Change your routine.
The year after my dad left, a counselor recommended to my mom that she go back to work. So she took a part-time job as a hostess at a nice restaurant downtown, working lunch hour. The job forced her to smile, meet new people, and be part of a fresh environment--all of which helped her to get out of her head for several hours of the day and gave her hope that there was new life out there, that her life wasn't over just because her marriage had ended.
3. Plan, plan, and plan some more.
In her book Solace: Finding Your Way Through Grief and Learning to Live Again, psychotherapist Roberta Temes suggests a few activities that are therapeutic during bereavement (and divorce is a kind of bereavement). One of them is planning. That is, planning everything. I know this works because I did it during the really low months of my severe depression. I planned when I would eat my bagel, when I would shower, and when I would relieve my bladder. I planned when I'd write my distorted thoughts into a journal, and when I would try to count my blessings. All the planning cut down on my ruminations. You think I'm crazy? Temes writes:
Use a calendar to make your plans. Plan when you will go somewhere new. Plan when you will buy yourself a new outfit. Plan to learn to knit and decide when you'll go to the yarn store. Plan to go fishing and call a buddy who likes to fish. Or, learn how to frame a favorite photo and plan when you will venture to a craft shop or to an art supply store. Plan to repair something in your house and plan to go to Home Depot or to Lowe's or to your local hardware store. Planning activities for your future will help you reach that future.
4. Clean out and organize.
A productive way to grieve the end of a relationship is to clean out the drawers, closets, and other corners of your house that may still contain your spouse's possessions, and replace them with new stuff. Your stuff. You don't have to do it all at once, of course. As I said in the last point, you can plan each stage of the excavation. By manually picking up each item, recalling certain memories, and ever so tidily boxing them up for either him, Goodwill, or bulk pickup, you are acknowledging and bidding adieu to the marriage, while creating a space in your life for something new.
5. Preserve your energy.
In her book, Ready to Heal, Kelly McDaniel urges people who have just ended a relationship to preserve their energy, to avoid cluttering their days with too much activity. She writes, "The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [of a relationship] is equivalent to working a full-time job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you've ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solution." You feel tired? You're working two jobs ... that's why!
6. Defy the stereotype.
Mary Jo Eustace will make any reader, but especially those who have lived through divorce, laugh out loud with her memoir, Divorce Sucks. I loved the part where she challenges the divorcee to debunk the hurtful stereotypes of divorced people. Writes Eustace: "Our marriages didn't work, so people assume we don't quite work. And this is why it's very important for those of us who have survived the hell of divorce to start redefining what the landscape of the divorced woman [or man] can look like. People can have us over for dinner, even a couple's dinner party, and we promise we won't seduce anyone's husband or dance on the table, expressing ourselves through modern movement and our ability to do the splits."
7. Take the high road.
My friend and mentor Mike constantly reminds me that it's better to be happy or at peace than it is to be right. So, as I'm loaded and ready to fire off a nasty email to some jerk who could potentially make my life hell, I will stop and consider Mike's pearl of advice. Then I drag the email over to the cute trashcan on my monitor.
I have no doubt your ex-spouse is responsible for a mother load of terrible things, legal pad after legal pad of inexcusable grievances you could report to your attorney. And you would be absolutely entitled to seek revenge (or even justice) for his all of his misjudgments. But is it worth it? That's the question you might need to stick to your bathroom mirror on a sticky note. A friendly divorce isn't necessarily a fair divorce. Which one do you want?
Want to learn more? Check out these five additional ways to beat depression after a divorce.