I think it’s fair to say that divorce is a stressful event in one’s life. For some, it is the most stressful event they will ever experience.
Dozens of studies show that stress compromises the immune system. Therefore, it stands to reason that divorce puts anyone dissolving a marriage at some risk of disease. The more stressful the divorce, the more likely it is that illness will follow.
Stress was first studied formally in 1935. While introducing certain stimuli to lab mice, endocrinologist Hans Selye saw that there was a whole set of physiological responses the mice had in response to these stimuli: Breathing gets shallow, digestion stops, blood flow is diverted from skin and organs to the adrenal glands, for example. It turns out that all mammals have a very similar reaction when stress is brought into their environment.
While humans are no exception, our response differs in important ways. Perhaps the greatest factor distinguishing the human stress response is that we experience chronic stress — stress that lingers for much longer periods of time — rather than the acute stress that happens when one is in momentary danger. Many people are subjected to stressors every day — ranging from being in rush-hour traffic, working a high-stress job, or living in a dangerous neighborhood. When we don’t get a break from stress, our bodies begin to break down.
The second way the stress systems of the human body are different from animals is our higher cerebral functioning: We have the ability to make up stories.
Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky writes in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, that the stress response in us was actually designed to be triggered in the face of real danger — like when we were being chased by a leopard out in the wild. This kind of event is usually intense (since it’s life threatening) but short-lived.
Mammals are wired for acute stress in response to real danger — not the chronic stress we endure based on deadlines, the stock market or the amount of money in the bank.
With all the pressures and worries we have in our lives today, living with chronic stress is the norm, not the exception. Now, add divorce to that mix.
There are two types of chronic stressors with marital dissolution. There are the “known” stressors: having to start over; making the decision to keep the house or move; the loss of the familiar life and lifestyle; paying high attorney bills; having less money to live on; holding your kid’s reaction to the divorce and not being able to tuck them in on a nightly basis.
Then there are the stressors caused by the “unknowns:” wondering if the settlement will be fair; who will get what assets (and debts); wondering if you’ll be able to find a job after being a stay-at-home-parent for the past ten years; not knowing how to make ends meet on less money; wondering how the kids will fare; fearing the familial, social and emotional ramifications, and so on.
In divorce, what people don’t know can cause much greater fear and stress than what they do know. It’s a scary time indeed and the outcome is in the hands of the professionals you hire, how cooperative your some-day-ex will be as well as how the laws are interpreted and how well the courts view your position.
One of the skills that has helped our species survive is being prepared for the worst-case scenarios. We try to map out how to deal with the challenges so we are prepared for whatever may come our way. But since our brains don’t know the difference between a story we’ve invented or a real event, we can actually trigger the adrenal glands just by imagining being a bag lady on the street, or by fearing we’ll be alone forever, or by thinking about all the ways to get revenge and all the reasons he or she deserves to be punished.
In fact, pretty much everything about divorce is stressful — even if it’s your choice or mutually agreed upon.
How to Measure Stress
In 1967, two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe wanted to find out if there was a connection between stress and illness. They examined the records of 5,000 people and saw that indeed, a life stressor of some kind was present in all cases. They then asked patients to rate, on a scale of 0 to 100, how stressful the event was that they were experiencing.
The end product was a scale, known as the Holmes-Rahe Scale, and it is designed to measure how likely it is that you will become ill. Anyone scoring 150 or less only has a slight risk of illness, 150 to 300 is at moderate risk of being ill and those with a score over 300 face a significant risk of becoming ill.
I think this scale is useful as a guide, however, there are many life stressors that are not on the scale that I believe should be. Living with pain is one example. Pain is a stressor and it makes everything else we do harder. I also think that it’s interesting to see that there are some positive life events on the scale that show up as stressful such as having an outstanding personal achievement (score of 28) or vacation (13).
While the death of a spouse shows up on the scale as 100, divorce only presents as 73.
With all due respect to Drs. Holmes and Rahe, I believe there are many people who would say that the death of a spouse might be closer to a score of 73 and a divorce more like 100 – in particular, those didn’t want to get divorced, didn’t see it coming and were financially dependent on their spouse.
I thought it might be useful to create a Divorce-Stress Scale with some of the circumstances I have seen over the years. Like the Holmes-Rahe Scale, this Divorce-Stress Scale will be somewhat subjective and, no doubt, incomplete. I’ve divided it up into segments to make it easier to identify your issues.
The Divorce-Stress Scale
Check all factors that apply to your situation for the past 24 months. Circle the score of that factor. If you have experienced one of these events two times, multiply that number by 2 (or three or however many times you’ve experienced it). Once you’ve circled all the numbers that apply, add them up and use the scale below to determine how likely you are to get sick.
Below 300 – moderate chance of sickness
Between 301 and 600 – high likelihood of illness
601 – 999 – extremely high risk of illness
1000 or more – get to your doctor now
You begin to consider divorce as a real option to your marital troubles 70
Your spouse announces s/he is unhappy in the marriage 80
Your spouse asks to have an open marriage 100
You decide today is the day to tell your spouse of your desire
to get divorced 125
You have a same-sex marriage in a state that doesn’t recognize gay
marriage (or divorce) 150
Your spouse is leaving you for someone of your opposite gender 170
Your spouse announces s/he is ending the marriage with no notice 280
You find out your spouse is having an affair 285
You find out your spouse is having an affair with someone close to you 290
You come home from a trip away and your spouse has moved out
with no notice that anything was wrong 300
You come home and find all your belongings in the driveway
with no notice that anything was wrong 350
You have no children (so divorce means you lose your nuclear family) 80
You have three or less children 100
You have between four and eight children 125
You have over eight children 175
Your kids are out of the house 60
Some of your kids are teenagers 90
You have one or more special needs children 100
All are over 5 years old 100
Your kids are teenagers 120
Some are under 5 years old, some over 125
Your kids are all under 5 years old 150
You’re independently wealthy 0
You are nesting (you each move in and out of the house) 75
Your spouse doesn’t work (but needs to) 85
You don’t work (but you need to) 85
Your spouse owns his or her own business 95
You own your own business 125
You or your spouse just started a new job 125
You or your spouse has been fired recently 150
You know nothing about the finances 150
You’re sharing a home but there is a great deal of tension 150
You don’t trust that your spouse is or will be honest
about the finances 180
You are homeless 180
You and your spouse work together 185
Your house is in foreclosure or some type of distress 200
You and your spouse own a company together 225
Your attorney doesn’t return your calls 80
You don’t feel like your attorney is really working on your behalf 80
You don’t like your attorney 100
Your spouse hired the meanest attorney in town 120
If I have missed the mark on the scores or if I have missed a major divorce stressor, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I will consider this a work in progress.
How to Cope With Stress
Here are some tips that I recommend as a way to minimize the stress you feel:
1. Ask for help and let help in. You don’t have to do everything alone.
2. Get as much information as you can about the divorce process. Information makes people feel more empowered.
3. Face each obstacle as it arises. Letting things build up may allow you avoid stress in the moment, but you will eventually have to deal with it. If you put too much off, you may be completely overwhelmed and become immobilized.
4. Talk about your grief with others and allow yourself to feel whatever you feel. People often add a layer of shame and stress by telling themselves they “shouldn’t feel this way,” or “should be over it by now.”
5. Integrate regular exercise into your day — especially cardio-vascular workouts. There is a great deal of evidence proving that exercise can help you feel better physically, emotionally and mentally.
6. Find a creative outlet. Singing, drawing, writing, dancing, photography, etc. can be tremendous stress relievers.
7. Be willing to make mistakes (mistakes are going to happen no matter how well prepared you are - it's just part of the process).
8. Accept your new reality and move on when it's appropriate to move on (this doesn't mean you have to like it!).
9. Have trust/faith that things will work out. Trusting that there is a benevolent force working on your behalf will likely make you feel better than if you believe the world is out to get you.
10. Vision. Picture your ideal outcome and keep that idea in your head. You are far more likely to improve your outcome by preparing your mind for positive events than by thinking you are doomed to live out the rest of your life depressed and unhappy.