THE BLOG
01/30/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2013

PTSD After Divorce

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When my husband left, I trembled for a year. That's not just some figurative language used to convey emotion; I literally shook. For a year. My body quaked from the aftershocks of the sudden trauma, my legs constantly kicking and my hands quivering. Those weren't my only symptoms, either. I had flashbacks and nightmares that took me back to the to the day where I received the text that ended my marriage. The 21-word incoming message read: "I am sorry to be such a coward leaving you this way but I am leaving you and leaving the state." From then on, the sound of an incoming message would actually send me to the floor, where I braced myself for another digital attack. I felt numb and had trouble remembering aspects of my marriage or my husband. I avoided sights and sounds that were associated with my marriage, often driving well out of my way to steer clear of my old neighborhood. I couldn't sleep; I was hyper alert, always scanning every room and ready to fight or flee at any moment. I could not eat and my weight fell to dangerous levels.

As far as I know, my life was never in actual danger. But apparently my mind and body never received that message. In an instant, the person I trusted the most became someone whom I feared. I felt threatened and unsafe. I didn't know what was real and who to trust. My husband never forced himself upon me, but I felt as though I had been violated when I learned I had been sleeping with the enemy. He never physically hit me, but the psychological blows left scars just the same. I've never been to war, yet every interaction with his lawyer was a battle that left me paralyzed with fear for my ability to survive.

I by no means intend to trivialize the horrors endured by those who have been the victims of abuse or those have been through war. Those are traumas on a scale well above what I have endured. What I have come to realize, however, is that trauma can come in many forms and in many degrees. The psychiatrist I saw that first year after my divorce stopped short of diagnosing me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the term came up as I described my symptoms, and the medications she prescribed are frequently used in the treatment of PTSD. Another therapist I saw also mentioned the disorder and used complimentary strategies.

PTSD happens when your mind cannot process the extent of the trauma. It's like a short circuit in your nervous system, where you have trouble distinguishing between real and perceived threats. We tend to think of PTSD as occurring only in life-threatening situations, but it can occur anytime there is an acute or prolonged trauma. Not all divorces lead to PTSD, but if it is sudden or abusive, the trauma can be severe and sudden enough to lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

According to The National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD includes flashbacks, bad dreams, staying away from triggers, feeling emotionally numb, feeling guilty, having trouble with memory, being easily startled, feeling tense and angry. Additionally, the diagnosis of PTSD requires that the symptoms persist beyond 30 days and that they interfere with daily life. There is a difference between normal grief, shock and anxiety and the pathology of PTSD.

PTSD occurs when a perfect storm of conditions are met. First, prior traumas can "prime" someone for PTSD as the stress can actually cause epigenetic changes, rewiring the body to be extra sensitive to further trauma. Women are also more likely to experience PTSD, possibly due to heightened fear conditioning. PTSD is also more likely to occur when traumas accumulate. When someone who has some of these risk factors undergoes a divorce, particularly one that is sudden or especially toxic, PTSD-like symptoms can occur. Sudden abandonment or attack by a loved one can trigger panic and disorientation as real as any physical threat.

During my divorce, I learned that most people assumed that depression would be the disorder de jour after a break up. They expected me to be sad and withdrawn, curled up on my bed with a box of tissues and endless pints of ice cream. Instead, I was hyper vigilant and always on the lookout for the next blow. It's important to realize that all divorces are not the same and we all respond differently. There is no "right" way to be after a divorce. I was embarrassed for a time to reveal the true nature of my symptoms. I felt like I wasn't permitted to feel that way since I didn't have a knife to my throat. I felt ashamed that I couldn't cope with the basics of eating and sleeping. I felt weak every time I over-reacted to a stimulus. Once I admitted my struggles, I was able to actively seek help to overcome them. I also learned that I was not alone in my reaction to the divorce.

There is help for those who are experiencing PTSD-like symptoms after a divorce. First, communicate your symptoms to your doctor or therapist. A checklist can be a useful tool, especially if you are having trouble putting words to your feelings. Be firm. I found that some therapists and doctors didn't really listen to me, rather they projected how they thought I should be feeling. Different therapies, including EMDR, have been shown to be effective against PTSD. There are medications that can be useful to limit the anxiety and to calm the mind and body. Additionally, mindfulness practices, including yoga and meditation, can also help to reset the sympathetic nervous system and regulate the release of stress hormones.

In my case, medication helped me survive the first year while a combination of mindfulness training, yoga and exercise has alleviated most of the symptoms permanently. I still have moments of unexplained panic where a slight trigger causes an extreme reaction, but those moments are thankfully few and far between. I no longer feel like I'm a prisoner to my anxieties, trapped in a purgatory where I'm forced to relive those awful moments time and time again. I am now able to visit those memories without panic and live my life without waiting for the next blow.

I never formally acquired the label of PTSD, but it served to be a valuable framework for me to understand and communicate my symptoms and to eventually overcome them. Labels, such as PTSD, can be helpful as we try to understand a complex situation, but even they only tell part of the story. Be gentle and understanding with yourself and others. Don't be quick to judge or make assumptions. Don't be ashamed to ask for assistance and admit when you cannot do it alone. Seek the help you need and know that it does get better.