I’ve only had one panic attack (lucky me!) and it was during my divorce. As a therapist, I knew exactly what was happening to me as I have seen anxiety and panic attacks after a breakup or a divorce with many clients over the years. Still, it scared the crap out of me. I couldn’t catch my breath; my heart was pounding, and I felt a sense of doom. My anxiety was never more pronounced than during that time period, as well. Divorce is no joke when it comes to anxiety and panic attacks.
Divorce is one of the top five life stressors, and according to the US Surgeon General 30-40 percent of adults in the divorce process have a significant increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression. This article will address the symptoms, the causes and possible solutions for anxiety and panic attacks after a breakup or a divorce.
What are the symptoms of divorce anxiety?
1. Feeling restless or on edge
2. Being easily fatigued
3. Issues with concentration
4. Being irritable
5. Having physical body pain
6. Sleeping too little or too much
7. Difficulty controlling thoughts of worry
8. Increased heart rate and sweating
9. Having a feeling of impending doom
10.And the list goes on…
Panic attacks can occur without warning. One minute you are walking the dog or doing a chore, the next you feel your heart racing and you can’t catch your breath. You may think you are having a heart attack. These can also wake you from a dead sleep.
Why does divorce cause anxiety and panic attacks?
For some, it is a worry about the financial impact, especially if a stay-at-home mom has given up their career path over the life of the marriage. Not to mention that the divorce process itself can be very stressful because of the expense. Money is a common worry for people during divorce.
Others sources of anxiety and panic attacks include: logistics like moving to a new home, finding new service providers, making new friends and uprooting their lives. For many people, the process of renting or buying a new home is daunting without a partner’s help. It may have been decades since any of this was done alone, and for some, they have never rented or owned a home without a spouse.
The prospect of losing friends over a divorce is very upsetting for people. Not only do you lose the person you were building your whole life around, but you can lose extended family and friends. Our culture takes sides, and remaining friends with both partners after a divorce is not a common occurrence. This can result in a small social support system just at the time you most need people. You may get dumped by your friends just because they don’t know what to say to you or don’t want to hang out with unmarried people. These aren’t your true friends. Your true friends will be there. You will see. You might feel incredibly hurt by one friend and such gratitude for a friend who is truly sticking by your side.
If the couple has children, they may worry about the impact of the divorce on the children, the feelings that the children have about whose “fault” it is and the amount of time that they will get to have with their children. Some exes do not play fair and will poison their children about the other. Kids need to be protected from hearing too many details about how horrible the other parent is. They will figure it all out soon enough if it is true. Telling them too many details is emotional abuse. And, sharing custody is one of the hardest things about a divorce. The good news is, with time, people find a new reality and ways around missing out on Christmas morning with kids.
Lastly, a lot of people worry that they will forever be alone. They are convinced that they are damaged goods. If they couldn’t make this relationship work, how can they trust themselves in another? Their self-esteem might have them believe they are not capable of being a better partner or choosing someone who is well suited to them. They might fear that they won’t recognize red flags or that they will fall back into the patterns of dating unhealthy people. They might also fear that their window of finding someone has passed and they are “too old”. Online dating is rumored to be a nightmare and and that it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Even though none of this is true, it causes people to feel hopeless and stressed.
The isolation from a social support system, the very real impact of living on half of the income to which you have become accustomed and the myriad of decisions to make and hurdles to cross are all anxiety producing. If you feel anxiety about any of these things, know that you are completely normal and that it will get better.
What are some coping strategies for anxiety and panic attacks after a breakup or divorce?
1. Work on managing stress with exercise, meditation, journaling, healthy eating habits and by limiting caffeine intake.
Also, as tempting as it may be to want to numb your pain with a glass of wine, alcohol contributes to sleep disturbances and leads to other issues, including addiction, that can cause bigger problems. These may sound very basic, but these skills are the building block for the rest of your health. I talk a lot about getting through this rough period in a healthy way in my e-course, “Stumble, Stagger and Stand.”
Have consultations with a divorce attorney, a divorce mediator, mortgage banker, and financial planner. Having confidence that other people are advising you on the best course of action takes a load of worry off your mind, which is already struggling due to the stress. Additionally, seeing a good therapist and/or divorce coach will help you unravel your emotional reactions. They will listen and allow you to vent and release your stress, fear, anger and other emotions.
Identify a few trusted friends who you can reach out to for companionship and distraction, or to help with daily challenges like getting the kids from sports while you are at work. Lean on others when you feel exhausted and weak. You will be surprised at how willing people will be to help you. They want to help you. It’s not easy to ask for help, but it will take a lot of anxiety off your plate.
3. Allow yourself the time needed to mourn the loss of your marriage.
As John Gray says, “What you feel, you can heal.” The part of your brain that resolves trauma requires compassion in order to heal. Compassion for yourself may sound like “Of course you hurt. You invested a lot in this person and your life together and now everything is in upheaval. This isn’t what you signed up for or thought you would get.” Even if you wanted the divorce, you still have pain and you have the right to feel it. If you are struggling with this, work with a therapist or coach, or check out my online e-course that can teach you skills to move through this time.
4. Try new things and expand your social network.
New activities not only introduce you to people, they also help you break out of patterns that remind you of the past. As an added bonus, they give your brain a boost of endorphins that is likely much needed right now. Maybe knitting sweaters for elephants sounds fun? How about taking up paddle boarding or hiking with a Meetup group? Join a big foot hunting expedition? Take a cooking class or learn to sculpt? The world is your oyster.
When I got divorced, I made several new friends who were also divorced and available to do things socially when I didn’t have my son. Not only did I have someone to hang out with whenever I wanted, but I also had people who understood what I was going through. It was life saving.
5. Lastly, give it time.
It takes months or even years to get through the divorce process, to establish new routines and a new life. The journey isn’t depressing and sad and stressful the whole time. There are actually so many moments of empowerment and self-awareness and even joy. But it does take time to mourn and to get past the anger, sadness or self-pity. Be patient with yourself. Remember, compassion is the key to healing.
With a divorce rate around 50% in the US and a significant increase in the number of adults over the age of 50 who are divorcing (aka gray divorce,) mental health issues are common. With those numbers, know that you are not alone even if it feels like it when you look around. Anxiety, panic attacks, and depression left untreated can ruin your quality of life and your physical health. Get yourself the support you need, be kind to yourself, and most importantly, know that life is only going to get better and better. The key is being emotionally and physically healthy to enjoy the good times that are ahead.
Holly Herzog is a therapist, coach and writer who has been a practicing licensed professional in the US for over 30 years. She specializes in all issues that are relationship oriented, especially the relationship with yourself. After the ending of a decades long relationship, she found herself in need of the tools and a community that she now provides for other women with her newest venture, Grace Untethered. She offers support to women in midlife going through a divorce with encouragement to grow with integrity, grace and compassion.