About Health: Caring for Yourself During Divorce Can Make a Real Difference

During her divorce nine years ago, Shannon Habas didn’t want to be at home. She found reasons to stay out as long as possible, skipping sleep and not eating. “I either stayed in bed all day or kept myself so busy that I didn’t have to go home,” said Habas, who is now remarried. “I became a workaholic and a churchaholic. I didn’t want to face going to that lonely place.”

She also lost weight, getting down to only 80 pounds on a 5-foot-7-inch frame. “I was so depressed and so sad, I couldn’t make myself chew a piece of food,” she said.

Finding inspiration in God and her second marriage, the 32-year-old concert promoter and clown performer eventually began to focus on getting healthy and helping others. When she couldn’t find a divorce support group in her area, she felt called to lead one herself and is now a facilitator of a “Divorce Care support group one of thousands worldwide at Christian Life church in Columbia, S.C.

She also began to exercise, something she hadn’t done before. At first, she could only walk the block from the parking lot to the gym before getting worn out. Now, she works out for an hour and a half some days. “God created me to do something with my life and not just lay in bed,” she said. “I began to want to be the healthy me I could be.”

Physical health often gets forgotten when a person is coping with the emotional stress of divorce, said Dr. Lorna Hecker, marriage and family therapy professor at Purdue University Calumet and director of the university’s Couples and Family Therapy Center.

“They’re trying to learn how to function in a new role as a single parent or a single person,” she said. “It requires learning new skills. They may not have support, or they may not have cooked a meal before by themselves. They may be too busy as a single parent to take care of themselves.”


The mind and body are linked together like old friends. When one is hurting, the other feels that pain and responds with symptoms of its own. Health problems can cause depression, and emotional stress can cause changes in weight and sleeping, and in some cases even mimic a heart attack. Emotional stress comes from many sources, but one of the most traumatic is divorce. This was documented in 1967 when two researchers published a Holmes-Rahe social readjustment rating scale, still in use today. The scale gauges the stress of various life events and the illness that can result. The life event with the highest stress value is the death of a spouse. The second is divorce.

“Emotional distress, when very prolonged for weeks to months, can disrupt a number of important body functions,” said Dr. William R. Lovallo, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “Parts of the brain associated with negative emotions are also associated with the production of stress hormones.”

The stress hormone cortisol is present in the body during normal times, said Lovallo, also president of the American Psychosomatic Society and author of “Stress and Health: Biological and Psychological Interactions.” He said, “Cortisol is a very important hormone for normal functioning. The body uses it every day to help with our energy stores so we have fuel to operate on.”


“Cortisol is secreted in a regular pattern daily, based on waking and sleeping. If a person sleeps too much or too little, the cortisol pattern changes. This is often experienced by people going through divorce who aren’t sleeping well,” Lovallo said. “In addition, because your brain is producing a lot of negative emotions, it is producing more cortisol than normal. Now there are two things going on. Your daily cycle is disrupted and now you have more cortisol.”

High levels of cortisol can also suppress the immune system and make a person susceptible to disease. All of these things can happen, Lovallo said, to someone without any history of health problems.


One of the most common symptoms of emotional stress is weight loss, Lovallo said. “Some studies have called divorce, and other major life events, triggers.” Charles Stuart Platkin, author of the syndicated nutrition and fitness column The Diet Detective and founder of DietDetective.com, points to a 2006 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which found that many people who maintained weight loss had a trigger event, like a divorce.

“The weight loss can be managed in a healthy way,” Platkin said, “especially since divorce is a time when people are examining their life. You look at your life and make an assessment,” he said. It can be a way to trigger something healthy that can last the rest of your life. You can take control of it.”

“The key, is stocking up on healthy foods that are easy to cook at a time when you may not have the energy to think about food.” He also suggested exercise. “To most people, it sounds boring and uninteresting, but it doesn’t have to be,” he said. “When you have control of your physical being and are eating better, it gives you strength, especially during a difficult time.”


Angie Holoubek, a 36-year-old marriage and family therapist from Wichita, Kan., said despite the advice she often gives her clients, she found it difficult to focus on herself while going through divorce two years ago. “There was a significant chunk of time where I wasn’t doing anything for my health,” she said. “I was just trying to make it through each day. The things I advise my clients, I couldn’t apply to myself. It’s next to impossible when you’re going through it.”

“It’s something she sees daily with her clients. I’m constantly seeing men and women both, who are going through divorce or relationship problems, having physical symptoms, whether it’s gaining too much weight or losing weight,” she said.

She said she advises people going through divorce to do something special for themselves. “You need to pamper yourself,” she said. “I teach men and women both what pampering means. I had to force myself to start doing for me.”

Steve Grissom, founder of Divorce Care , the group Habas works with, said the nonprofit program touches on maintaining physical health. Divorce Care is 13-week support group and seminar for people going through divorce and is offered at thousands of churches. “We know there are many physical manifestations of divorce,” Grissom said. “Stress has a terrible effect on the body.”

The sessions use information from physicians and psychiatrists, Grissom said, and deal in part with taking care of your body, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising. Grissom said the support group looks at four aspects of a person’s life: emotional, spiritual, mental and physical. If all four cylinders are in balance, a person’s life like a car“ runs smoothly. When one is out of sync, it starts to drain energy.

Hecker also stressed focusing energy on one’s self and building a new identity not tied to a former spouse. “It’s a time of personal transformation,” she said. “Self care is really important. They really need to focus on their own health care and realize that they are worthwhile.”
Stephanie Obley has worked at newspapers in Florida, South Carolina andUtahcovering issues from education to crime.