Anxiety After Divorce
The dictionary defines anxiety as, “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Well, it’s no wonder then that anxiety becomes a constant companion for many facing divorce, which certainly epitomizes an “imminent event…with an uncertain outcome.”
It’s normal to feel anxious before, during and after divorce. You’re experiencing a period of loss and transition at the same time you may be struggling to reconnect with your very identity and purpose. That’s stressful no matter how you look at it.
Anxiety around divorce can be focused on one or more specific areas, or it may be more generalized and diffuse. The feeling may be clear-cut and easy to recognize or it can manifest in more subtle ways. Regardless of the particular nature of your divorce-related anxiety, the more you understand it, the better you can learn to navigate – and eventually curtail – it.
What You’re Anxious About
The Practical Concerns
These are often the first worries that manifest – How will I pay the bills without their income? Where will I live? How will we manage custody? What will the legal process be like?
There are so many important details of daily life that divorce impacts. And most of these have to be dealt with yesterday. Add the very real financial costs of divorce and it’s no wonder you’re losing sleep.
Personal Strength and Fortitude
“I’m not strong enough to get through this” is one of the first thoughts that many people have when they realize that divorce is imminent. The emotions threaten to drown you and the sheer amount of tasks you have to complete is completely overwhelming.
Maybe you’ve never been tested like this before and so you have no track record with which to reassure yourself of your tenacity. Or maybe you’re worried about the duration of this transition – how can you keep going when the finish line isn’t even marked?
The Impact on the Kids
From the first moment you gazed into your newborn’s eyes, a need to protect them from all harm has permeated your every cell. Yet no matter how deftly you wield your shield, you cannot block all of life’s slings and arrows from reaching your child. And for many children, their parent’s divorce is the first major emotional injury they face.
It’s difficult to watch your child suffer. Their pain ricochets through you like an unreturned racquetball in an empty court. You feel helpless as your normal platitudes and kisses fail to sooth this particular wound and guilty that you failed to protect them in the first place.
It’s no wonder you’re anxious. You worry about the impact that this family transition will have on your children. You agonize over the pain they’re facing. You stress about how this might affect them moving forward. You lose sleep over the relationship they have with their other parent. And most of all, you constantly question if you’re doing the right thing, making the right decisions.
I remember being so afraid of my emotional response. It felt like being pulled along by some powerful riptide, threatening to drown me at any moment.
The emotional reactions after divorce are strong, variable and unpredictable. You never know if you’re going to break down crying in the middle of a work presentation, burst into inappropriate laughter in a meeting your attorney or fly of the handle in a fit of rage because a form asked for you to indicate your marital status.
And this uncertainty combined with a feeling that you no longer have control over your inner world, leads to a great deal of anxiety.
“Will I ever be happy again?” you wonder. And your anxious brain is ready with a reply – “No.”
You worry that the best years have already happened and that it’s all downhill from here. You wonder if this divorce will always be your defining moment. And you stress as you contemplate the thought that maybe you’re broken and that you cannot be repaired.
The Views of Others
You feel like those around you are judging you, labeling you as a “quitter” or quietly assuming that you failed as a person in order to have a failed marriage. Their voices – real or imagined – join your own, doubts and criticisms circling around your head like tubes in a lazy river.
This anxiety may extend to your general social standing and connections. Maybe you are now losing the family that you’ve grown to love and cherish. Perhaps you worry that you no longer fit into the “couples only club” that is your primary friend group. Or, in your cultural or religious group, divorce may be viewed as a sin and you’re shunned for your circumstances.
New Relationships and Finding Love Again
You worry that your ex was your soulmate and that you somehow screwed up your only chance for love. The thought of dating again is downright terrifying and you wonder if anybody will love the older, more jaded, and less tolerant version of you. And that’s of course assuming that there are even people out there that you’d be interested in.
Finding love is only the starting place for your anxiety. Then comes the question of keeping it. After all, you don’t have such a great track record right now. You worry that you’re going to end up in this same place again.
How the Anxiety Manifests
A Feeling of Being “Driven”
Anxiety has energy. It is an accelerant. A propellant. The focus of this drive can vary, turning towards everything from your performance at work to finding out every detail possible about the person your ex cheated on you with. Sometimes anxiety feels like you’re being driven by a motor but you’re spinning your wheels.
You may be obsessively wondering how your ex could have acted the way they did. Or maybe you’re fixated on something you did that contributed to the collapse of the marriage. Anxiety often causes our thoughts to become trapped like the water above a blocked drain, as we desperately sift through them looking for a way to control the outcome.
Avoidance and Distractions
Anxiety is not a comfortable feeling. So when something causes undo stress, we often avoid it in order to eliminate that discomfort. This can manifest by intentionally or subconsciously avoiding locations or situations that you know will trigger an emotional reaction. Others may turn to distractions (everything from dating to work) in an attempt to give a wide berth to anything that may cause anxiety to spike.
A Sense of Futility
Anxiety is the world’s greatest pessimist. It will always tell you that not only is the glass empty, but the glass is cracked and will never hold anything of substance again. If you’re feeling defeated and assuming that it’s a permanent state, that may be your anxiety talking.
Are you feeling a need to redecorate your entire home? Or maybe move to a new home – or country – altogether? Do you have trouble staying still and you seem to always find something to keep you busy? Anxiety has its own fear – a fear of stillness and quiet. So when you’re anxious, you’re often restless.
How to Handle Your Anxiety
Call in the Professionals
Get help if you need it! There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, admitting a need for and accepting help are great signs of strength.
How do you know if you need help with your anxiety? Here are some signs that it’s time:
- Your anxiety is interfering with your ability to carry out the basic functions of daily life
- The divorce is history, yet your anxiety still remains
- Symptoms of depression are present along with the anxiety
- You’re turning to substances to help you manage your anxiety
- Your children are being impacted by your anxiety
- You want to improve your anxiety but you don’t know how
Exercise won’t cure anxiety, but if you exhaust the body, it has a tendency to tire out the mind as well. And when it comes to worrying, a tired mind is a happier mind.
Play around with different types of exercise. Perhaps you do best with yoga and its emphasis on breathing through discomfort. Or maybe running helps you process your thoughts and gives you a sense of progress. You may find that you’re drawn to martial arts, where your anxiety can be funneled into strikes and you gain a sense of power and strength.
The what doesn’t matter here. The regularity and commitment does. Figure out what works for you and practice it frequently.
Learn to Recognize Anxiety
Be aware of how anxiety manifests in your mind and body. Does your chest get tight? Your stomach upset? Your brain on overdrive?
Just being aware of these signs can 1) give you a sense of control over your anxiety and 2) provide you with an opportunity to do something about it. You’ve heard about love languages. This is the time to become fluent in your own fear language.
Face Your Fears
When we avoid situations that cause us discomfort, we allow them to grow in size and power. Think about all of the times you’ve been afraid to do something, from jumping into a pool as a child or having a difficult conversation as an adult. How many times did you discover that the anticipation was worse than the reality? Quite a bit, I expect.
And also think about your mindset before and after you faced that fear. Before, you were fixated on the situation, playing out all of the possible outcomes and worrying about every one. After? Well, it no longer seemed so important and all of that mental energy no longer had to be allocated its direction.
It’s pretty simple, really. Not easy, but simple.
Avoidance makes your anxieties grow. Facing your fears diminishes their power.
Chart Your Progress
When it comes to healing from divorce, progress is so slow that it’s often imperceptible from your viewpoint. So document your journey. Bring awareness to your progress.
Journaling is one way to accomplish this. You can go back at any time and read your earlier entries to get a feeling of how far you’ve come. This serves to both help you recognize your strength and also gives you hope that things will continue to improve.
Question Your Conclusions
Anxiety lies. Just think about it – when you’re sifting through all of the possible outcomes, how many of them or positive or even neutral? Not very many, I expect. Yet, the reality is that many outcomes fall into these categories. But anxiety always assumes the worst.
So learn to question your conclusions. Where is this assumption coming from – facts or fears? If it’s the latter, you have permission to ignore the advice.
Implement a Gratitude Practice
When you’re grateful, you’re in the moment. When you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. Take some time every day to focus on those things that bring you joy and appreciation. Write them down in a place where you can return time and time again to literally count your blessings.
Listen to Others
We don’t do well when we live only within the echo chamber of our own minds. So allow other voices in. Hear their perceptive and their wisdom.
From others, we gain insight into ourselves and inspiration to keep trying.
Accept Anxiety as a Natural Response
We have evolved to experience anxiety as nature’s way of keeping us safe. We are primed to feel fear and uncertainty around novel situations to help guide our decisions in a safe direction.
Anxiety is natural. However, modern life doesn’t present us with the simple dilemmas our ancient ancestors faced. The question about whether the meat gained from hunting the large game is worth the risk has been replaced with the constant worry about your child’s ability to navigate the emotional fallout from divorce.
So it’s important to both accept your anxiety as a natural response to a potentially threatening and new situation and also expend effort to lessen your anxiety since the potential triggers are ongoing.
And always remember – you may feel anxious at any given moment, but YOU are not your anxiety.