Mental Health: 10 Tips to Help if Split is Causing Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks

Since your marriage fell apart, you’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding. Sometimes can barely catch your breath. You go about your day with a strange feeling of detachment, almost like you’re watching someone else’s life. You may be suffering from anxiety because of the stress of divorce, and you’re not alone.

According to U. S. Surgeon General, about 30 to 40 percent of those undergoing divorce report a significant increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety (Brown & Harris, 1989). Any life change is anxiety and stress producing but divorce is one of the worst because it creates an unknown, unpredicted situation with lots of insecurity, low self-esteem and fear,” said Lucinda Bassett, CEO of the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety.

The strong feelings of panic can create uncomfortable a number of physical symptoms, including sweating, chills, chest pain, shaking, tingling or numbness, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness, lightheadedness, a fear of losing control or going crazy and fear of dying. For some, these panic attacks can be so severe that they mimic a physical illness.

People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor as they try to figure out what’s wrong. Even though the unnerving feelings you are having may be a panic or anxiety attack, they don’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. What you are experiencing may be just a normal anxiety response to divorce.

“Acute stress disorder is a normal response to a really shocking traumatic event. If you’re going through a divorce it’s very normal and appropriate to have several weeks where you can’t sleep, cry a lot or feel frightened, angry, hurt, sad, scared, and abandoned,” says Jerilyn Ross, M.A., L.I.C.S.W., author of Triumph Over Fear. Here are 10 tips to help you deal with those feeling.


1. Realize the feelings are normal.

“When someone is facing a major life change, it can be frightening and full of unknowns. So, a whole range of emotions are brought to surface and it’s normal to feel anxious,” Ross stated.

2. Let yourself mourn.

Set the timer, put on a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song and be sad for a half hour. Cry. Be angry. Journal. Then, make sure you have someplace to go afterward.

3. Observe your thoughts.

Your emotions can create a panic attack whether you’re sitting in your living room or the courthouse. That’s because constantly worrying about your divorce can create a biochemical reaction. Your adrenalin rushes, causing your heart to beat faster and your mind to race. Ask yourself, “Is this thought I’m having right now a productive thought? Is it helping me in any way? What would help me?” says Ross.

4. Do some stress management.

“When we’re stressed all the things we normally do to help us feel good, like exercising, eating well, and socializing are often the first things to go by the wayside. Those are the very things that people need to do to keep stress at bay,” Ross states. “So, take some slow deep breaths; sign up for a yoga class; go for a walk; stock up on those fruits and veggies, and work at going to bed at the same time every night. Especially, get your exercise. Exercise is critical because it increases your serotonin and your sense of well-being. You’re not going to feel like doing it; but, once you’re there, you will feel better afterward,” says Ross.

5. Record your triumphs in your diary.

Yes, you’re going to have days when taking a shower is a major accomplishment. So, get yourself some gold stars and paste them into your journal and celebrate the fact that you at least got dressed.

6. Develop a strong support team.

“Vulnerability to depression and anxiety is lessened by strong social support. Many people go into marriage thinking they’ll have a life partner. One of worst side effects of divorce is it destroys the whole dynamic of the family. The family is the nucleus you were hoping would be there for you through the years. Divorce destroys it forever. So, whether you’re the one leaving or the one being left, divorce is very painful. And, it’s extraordinarily painful if you’re in your fifties or sixties because of the fear of being alone,” stated Lucinda Bassett, CEO of the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety. So, make a list of people you can count on and ask them to call you and get together with you regularly.

7. Expand your social network.

You need to be around people where you’re engaged in interesting activities. Join a book club or sign up for a trip. The point is to be with people who aren’t completely preoccupied with divorce so you can get away from it for a while. “As hard as it is, being with people who are having a ‘normal’ life is really important,” Ross said.

8. The anxiety may be a symptom of a depression.

Many people going through a divorce experience depression. While you can be depressed without having anxiety, anxiety is a common symptom of depression. The U. S. Surgeon General reports that 42 percent of people with depression reported symptoms of worry, psychic anxiety, and somatic anxiety of at least moderate severity (Fawcett and Kravitz, 1983).

9. Get help.

“If the anxiety is consistent, chronic, and interfering with daily activities like sleeping and eating well; or if you find you’re not socializing, having difficulties at work and experiencing stress related illnesses such as asthma or irritable bowel, the anxiety is interfering with your life. Seek professional help. Chronic anxiety is not good for you,” said Ross. Part of that help may be medication. Medications as an adjunct to therapy can sometimes be helpful if you’re having a really hard time because they can take the edge off it. But, don’t treat going through divorce as a disease. Medications are not a treatment for getting over divorce and you shouldn’t take medications as a way of making the feelings go away because you need to go through the period of mourning,” says Ross. If you’ve experienced anxiety and panic attacks before the divorce, it is possible that you might have an anxiety disorder. People with an anxiety disorder have a persistent, irrational, unrelenting, chronic kind of fear that is very much biological as well as psychological. Anxiety disorders often start in someone’s twenties. While major stressors can exacerbate them, they are not caused by stress. Therefore, if someone doesn’t have an anxiety disorder, divorce won’t cause one. However, if you have been a victim of domestic violence, it is possible that you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Seek help.

10. Be patient.

“Divorce is one of life’s major stressors and it takes years to heal from it,” Bassett states. “Still, life will get better and in all likelihood, you will not lose it.” The U. S. Surgeon General reports that although some stressors are so powerful that they would evoke significant emotional distress in most otherwise mentally healthy people, the majority of stressful life events do not invariably trigger mental disorders. Rather, they are more likely to spawn mental disorders in people who are vulnerable biologically, socially and/or psychologically (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Brown & Harris, 1989; Kendler et al., 1995). So, relax. Take some slow deep breaths. Take things one day at a time. Take care of yourself. Develop coping skills and surround yourself with people you can talk to. Eventually, life will settle down and so will those crazy feelings.

In crisis? Call 1-800-273-TALK

Anxiety Disorder Association of America
Information on a range of anxiety disorders.

American Psychological Association
Includes a link for common questions about panic disorders as well as one for finding a psychologist in your area.
In addition to information about anxiety, this Web site includes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) definition of ‘Anxiety Disorders.

The Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety
Lucinda Bassett’s Web site. Good information and a great self-test to help you determine if you’re suffering from anxiety.

National Institute of Mental Health
The largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to research focused on the understanding, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders and the promotion of mental health.

National Mental Health Association
Mental health information and fact sheets by audience and issue.
Free mental health and addiction resources.

The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders
Jerilyn Ross’ Web site. Offers brief descriptions of the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders.

U. S. Surgeon General’s Report on Anxiety Disorders
Comprehensive explanation of how anxiety disorders affect us.