Natalie Greggs, a family law attorney who practices in Allen, Texas, likens divorce to a death. The accompanying stress and grief is comparable to a physical loss, she says, and affects you both physically and emotionally.
"I tell my clients, 'Imagine how you're going to react to this death, and how it's going to impact every part of your body -- your mind, your stomach, even your ability to walk," Greggs says. "Self-care is the number one thing that gets you through the day."
Not only does self-care help get you through the day during a divorce, it's also important for your future well-being. Research suggests divorced individuals face a heightened risk for certain long-term chronic health problems -- a scary prospect, considering that experts estimate the lifelong probability of a marriage ending in divorce to be 40 to 50 percent.
Going through a divorce? Here are some tips on how to stay sane, healthy and hopeful during the painful process.
Get some exercise. This is one of the first pieces of advice Greggs gives her clients. "If you're not on a regular exercise routine, get on one," Greggs says. "You don't have to belong to a gym. You don't have to do anything fancy. Just take a walk every day."
Exercise helps your body produce feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins. It also increases self-confidence, improves sleep and reduces symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression, says Lindsay Hunt, a certified integrative nutrition coach and personal trainer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Any type of physical movement counts as exercise: dancing, walking, yoga, swimming. The most important part, though, is finding something you enjoy. That way, you'll be likely to repeat it on a regular basis.
Hunt recommends finding a friend or workout buddy to hold you accountable. That person will make sure you have no excuse to stay on the couch.
Overhaul your diet. When we're sad, we tend to gain or lose weight. During a divorce, these ups and downs can quickly veer out of control.
"I had a slender client who, over the course of a year, proceeded to lose probably 50 pounds," Greggs recalls. "By the end of her case, she was skeletal." In contrast, Mikki Meyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in New York City, describes a patient who gained nearly 100 pounds.
If you're binging on unhealthy foods, Hunt recommends taking a pre-emptive approach. Eat three square meals a day, and make sure to combine protein, fat and carbohydrates. Doing so keeps your blood sugar stable, preventing dips that lead to cravings. And make sure to avoid sugar, artificial ingredients, salty foods, excessive caffeine intake and alcohol.
More motivation to consider your diet: It also affects your mood. "Eating the right foods may ease depression and calm anxiety" during a divorce, Hunt says. She recommends drinking plenty of water, as studies indicate that dehydration can increase cortisol levels, or stress hormones. Also, a diet high in antioxidants might ward off depression -- so make sure to fill your plate with fruits and veggies.
Additional research suggests omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty wild fish and nuts, support brain function and elevate mood. Steel-cut oatmeal is a soothing comfort food that provides serotonin-boosting complex carbohydrates. And bone broth is full of minerals, like magnesium, that the body can easily absorb. It's simple to make into soup and promotes healthy digestion when your stomach is upset.
Can't eat? Drink protein shakes or green vegetable juices, or add gelatin and quality whey proteins to your smoothies. And consider increasing your intake of protein and healthy fats, such as eggs, avocados and nuts. This way, you won't drop too many pounds.
"It is important to feed your body even if you are not hungry, as our immune systems become extremely vulnerable and weak during times of sadness and stress," Hunt says. "Finding foods that are comforting and easy to get down is important for your health."
Stick to a normal schedule. "Consistency is important" for your emotional health, Greggs says. "Show up to work on time. Have your routine. Make [yourself] and your children go to bed when you usually go to bed. Don't act like the divorce is ending your life."
Get sunshine. "Aim for sunlight every day," Hunt advises. Sunlight boosts the brain's serotonin supply. It also provides your body with vitamin D.
Take preventive health measures. Mark Hayward, a sociology professor and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas--Austin, researches the long-term health impacts of divorce. His findings indicate that the stress of divorce can accelerate the biological processes that lead to cardiovascular disease. Divorced, middle-aged women, he says, are more likely to develop heart disease than non-divorced, middle-aged married women.
And a recent study by sociologists at the University of Chicago showed that divorced or widowed individuals are 20 percent more likely than married people to have chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Bottom line? After a divorce, don't wait for years to see whether it affected your long-term health, Hayward advises. Instead, take steps to try to ensure your health isn't harmed in the first place. Seek preventive health education and medical care, and proactively engage in heart-healthy habits.
Locate a support network. "When people split up, they often lose their friendship bases," Meyer says. "Their friends usually pick one or the other; it's too difficult to have [both couple members] in their lives." During a divorce, this kind of social isolation can worsen depression and anxiety.
If you can't rely on your old social networks, Meyer says to find new ones -- just as long as they're free of your ex-spouse. Join a support group; attend Meetup.com outings; go to church.
"I don't care if it's a knitting class," Meyer says. "As long as it's yours."
Relax. Divorce-induced stress can induce all kinds of physical maladies. When it comes to her clients, Greggs says she's seen it all: gastrointestinal issues, hair loss, high blood pressure, crashing immune systems and more.
To keep stress at bay, Greggs tells her clients to get regular massages. Meanwhile, Meyer recommends her patients join a yoga group. "It helps them get grounded. They can breathe, calm themselves down and feel their body again," she says.
For those who can't afford these activities, Meyer suggests joining community centers, which offer low-cost yoga classes and programs. And for birthday and Christmas presents, she tells them to ask for gift certificates to see a massage therapist.
Stay mindful. Mindfulness is an Eastern philosophy that teaches individuals to be continuously aware of the present instead of worrying about the past or future. Greggs tries to teach it to her clients.
"Enjoy your children when you're with them. Or go outside in the morning, and just look at the sun rising. It's simple things like this that keep you grounded in reality -- not catastrophic thinking," Greggs says.
Consider seeing a therapist or another mental health professional. During a divorce, if you're genetically predisposed to clinical depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, you might want to consider visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist. For clients who aren't open to the idea, Greggs encourages them to visit a general medical practitioner for an overall wellness checkup -- including a depression screening.
Don't rush into another relationship. In the wake of a divorce, Meyer says her clients often engage in impulsive behavior. "This can lead them in a direction that is self-destructive," she says. "They get involved in bad relationships and repeat old patterns. They're trying to repair something from their past with this new person. And it's not something they're conscious of [at the time]."
Both Gregg and Meyer advise divorcees to stay single -- at least for a little bit. Instead of seeking comfort in a new partner, focus on yourself.
"My clients sometimes start crying, and they say, 'I'm never going to find anyone again," Greggs says. "And sometimes I'll just say, 'You don't need anybody. You just need you to be happy.'"