by Patrick Gaffney

Dozens of studies show that stress compromises the immune system.  Therefore, it stands to reason that divorce puts anyone dissolving a marriage at some risk of disease.  The more stressful the divorce, the more likely it is that illness will follow.

Stress was first studied formally in 1935.  While introducing certain stimuli to lab mice, endocrinologist Hans Selye saw that there was a whole set of physiological responses the mice had in response to these stimuli:  breathing gets shallow, digestion stops, blood flow is diverted from skin and organs to the adrenal glands, for example.  It turns out that all mammals have a very similar reaction when stress is brought into their environment.

While humans are no exception, our response differs in important ways.  Perhaps the greatest factor distinguishing the human stress response is that we experience chronic stress — stress that lingers for much longer periods of time — rather than the acute stress that happens when one is in momentary danger.  Many people are subjected to stressors every day – ranging from being in rush-hour traffic, working a high-stress job, or living in a dangerous neighborhood. When we don’t get a break from stress, our bodies begin to break down.

The second way the stress systems of the human body are different from animals is our higher cerebral functioning:  we have the ability to make up stories.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky writes in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, that the stress response in us was actually designed to be triggered in the face of real danger — like when we were being chased by a leopard out in the wild.  This kind of event is usually intense (since it’s life threatening) but short-lived.

Mammals are wired for acute stress in response to real danger – not the chronic stress we endure based on deadlines, the stock market or the amount of money in the bank.

With all the pressures and worries we have in our lives today, living with chronic stress is the norm, not the exception.  Now, add divorce to that mix.

There are two types of chronic stressors with marital dissolution.  There are the “known” stressors: having to start over; making the decision to keep the house or move; the loss of the familiar life and lifestyle; paying high attorney bills; having less money to live on; holding your kid’s reaction to the divorce and not being able to tuck them in on a nightly basis.

Then there are the stressors caused by the “unknowns:” wondering if the settlement will be fair; who will get what assets (and debts); wondering if you’ll be able to find a job after being a stay-at-home-rent for the past ten years; not knowing how to make ends meet on less money; wondering how the kids will fare; fearing the familial, social and emotional ramifications, and so on.

Here are some positive ways to cope with a stressful divorce:

  1. Ask for help and let help in.  You don’t have to do everything alone.
  2. Get as much information as you can about the divorce process.  Information makes people feel more empowered.
  3. Face each obstacle as it arises.  Letting things build up may allow you to avoid stress in the moment, but you will eventually have to deal with it.  If you put too much off, you may be completely overwhelmed and become immobilized.
  4. Talk about your grief with others and allow yourself to feel whatever you feel.  People often add a layer of shame and stress by telling themselves they “shouldn’t feel this way,” or “should be over it by now.”
  5. Integrate regular exercise into your day – especially cardio-vascular workouts.  There is a great deal of evidence proving that exercise can help you feel better physically, emotionally and mentally.
  6. Find a creative outlet.  Singing, drawing, writing, dancing, photography, etc. can be tremendous stress relievers.
  7. Be willing to make mistakes (mistakes are going to happen no matter how well prepared you are – it’s just part of the process).
  8. Accept your new reality and move on when it’s appropriate to move on (this doesn’t mean you have to like it!).
  9. Have trust/faith that things will work out.  Trusting that there is a benevolent force working on your behalf will likely make you feel better than if you believe the world is out to get you.
  10. Vision.  Picture your ideal outcome and keep that idea in your head.  You are far more likely to improve your outcome by preparing your mind for positive events than by thinking you are doomed to live out the rest of your life depressed and unhappy.1

As a family law and divorce attorney in Clearwater Florida, I endorse this approach to coping with stress.

1 This blog was taken from:  Susan Pease Gadoua, L.C.S.W.  Contemplating Divorce.  “Where are You on the Divorce Stress Scale?” July 30, 2012.  Retrieved from: