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As Debbie Reynolds Tragically Reminded Us, Stress Kills

Never underestimate the impact of stress on our health and decision-making.

As soon as I heard the news that Debbie Reynolds had passed away from a stroke a day following her daughter, Carrie Fisher’s death, so many things went through my mind.

I can only imagine the level of grief and loss their family must be enduring at this time. I'd like to take this opportunity to extend my most sincere and deepest condolences to their family and friends.

Surprisingly, however, that wasn’t the first thought that crossed my mind.

My thoughts went immediately to the role Carrie’s death most certainly played in her mother’s fatal stroke.

In the late 1960’s, Thomas Holmes & Richard Rahe, University of Washington School of Medicine, created a Social Readjustment Rating Scale “to provide a standardized measure of the impact of a wide range of common stressors…. The Scale Each life event is assigned a value in arbitrary ‘life changing units’ chosen to reflect the relative amount of stress the event causes in the population studied.”

This “Stress Assessment” continues to be validated by most mental health experts to this day.

The top stressors and their corresponding “life changing units” are as follows:

For Adults

Death of a spouse (who was non-abusive): 100

Divorce: 73

Marital separation: 65

Imprisonment: 63

Death of a close family member: 63

For Non-Adults

Death of parent: 100

Unplanned pregnancy/abortion: 100

Getting married: 95

Divorce of parents: 90

Acquiring a visible deformity: 80

Researchers have confirmed that the death of a marital partner is one of the most stressful Holmes-Rahe type life events any individual can experience, regardless of their cultural background. However, the death of a child can be equally stressful and impose the same level of adjustment demands. Research studies of people who lost a spouse or child in a car accident have found that a significant number of the bereaved individuals are distressed for as long as seven years after a sudden loss. Many experience depression, anxiety disorders, fatigue and loneliness (Burton, Westen & Kowalski, 2012). One Finnish study tracked more than 158 000 adults aged 35 to 84 years for a five year period after the death of a spouse. The researchers found that a high proportion were at a substantially increased risk for death from accidental, violent, and alcohol-related causes, heart disease and lung cancer. The risk was greater at short (< 6 months) rather than long durations of bereavement and among younger rather than older bereaved persons for most causes of death (Martikainen & Valkonen,1996).”

In other words, since Debbie Reynolds divorced all three of her husbands, Carrie’s death may have been the event with the greatest number of “life changing units” she had ever experienced.

A very similar thing occurred earlier this month to a couple I knew. As a result of complications following a surgical procedure, the wife had to make the very difficult decision to remove her husband from life support and he died. The following day, while alone in her home, she suffered a fatal heart attack.

Scenarios such as these don’t just occur in the movies, as in The Notebook. That film ends with Noah (played by James Garner) and his wife, Allie (played by Gena Rowlands), dying together in her bed at a nursing home, after expressing their love for each other.

It would be a mistake to believe that the stress of divorce doesn't also impact one's health.

"Divorce and the death of a [non-abusive] spouse frequently have long-term negative consequences for health, even in people who remarry, new research shows.

It is clear that a recent divorce or widowhood is associated with an increase in poor health and depression in the near term, but the new study is one of the first to examine its effects on health years and even decades later.

Compared to married people who had never been divorced or widowed, those who had were more likely to experience long-term health problems."

As difficult as it may be for many to accept, “people are emotional beings, which is why businesses and politicians make a concerted effort appealing to people’s emotions.”

As can plainly be seen, for adults, the stress of a divorce comes second only to the death of a non-abusive spouse or the death of a child. For people who are divorcing and who have never lost a child or non-abusive spouse to death, divorce is the single most stressful event they’ve experienced to date.

This is a major difficulty for most people. And they are NOT at their best. Too often, lawyers assume their clients are rational and considered in providing instructions and receiving advice. This is a mistake. Assuming that your client will remember or understand advice during a relationship breakdown is a dangerous assumption for both the lawyer and the client. During high stress events, the human mind is prone to engaging its ‘fight or flight’ reflex – and this engagement of the amygdala portion of the brain actually interferes with the functioning of the cerebral cortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. The net result is that clients will make decisions out of anger or fear, which may be irrational and contrary to their own self-interests – and as such, lawyers encountering clients need to understand this possibility and tailor their advice and their instructions accordingly.”

Although I’ve published many articles on this subject and I agree with the above-referenced information, I quoted from "The 'Complete Lawyer' – Family Law" for a particular reason. I take serious issue with his use of the term “empathy” in the following advice the presenter, Robert G. Harvie, gives:

As such, when encountering a client with a family law difficulty, I would provide the following advice:

Do not allow ‘empathy’ to make your client's problem YOUR problem:

A client will be upset, angry, and distraught – and human nature is to want to make them feel better. This may lead to promises of outcomes or entitlements that cannot be delivered. Next thing you know, you're being reported to the law society or sued because you ‘promised’ them an outcome.

Family law is incredibly ‘equity’ driven. The discretion of the court in most areas, from parenting, to support issues, to division of assets generally results in very broad and largely unpredictable outcomes. When you provide an opinion to a client, be wary of ‘making them feel better’, and do your best to either advise them quite generally – making it clear there are no guarantees, or better yet, advice generally regarding the considerations that are taken into account, without providing even a range of outcomes. You can be quite certain a client given a range during a meeting, will leave with a perception of a ‘guarantee’ of the most positive possible outcome you discuss (see ‘getting sued’ above).

Worse yet, do not get emotionally embroiled in the client's problem. The amygdala exists in lawyers as well as clients, and too often I have seen good lawyers, lose perspective and their ability to provide prudent advice because their own anger and empathy kick in and they charge off on their white horse to do battle. Do not do this. You will negatively impact the quality of your advice, and, potentially your own emotional and physical health.”

According to social science researcher Brené Brown, empathy is a skill set and the core of empathy is perspective taking. With regard to perspective-taking and empathy, Dr. Brown says the following:

Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth. What you see is as true, real and honest as what I see, so let me be quiet for a minute, listen and learn about what you see. Let me get curious about what you see. Let me ask questions about what you see.

Empathy reduces shame, whereas sympathy exacerbates it. There is a huge difference between feeling with someone and feeling for someone. Shame causes a person to believe they’re alone. Through empathy, we cause them to realize that they are not alone, which is why it is the antidote to shame. As Dr. Brown said in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me, 'In most cases, when we provide sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it. We look at others from our world and feel sorry or sad for them. Inherent in sympathy is ‘I don’t understand your world, but from this view, things look pretty bad.'

In other words, curiosity is central to perspective taking.

That being said, since perspective-taking is the core of empathy, those who perspective-take as Dr. Brown recommends, would understand the people with whom they are empathizing.

I’m at a complete loss as to how gaining an understanding of their client through empathy would have the possible consequence that clearly concerns Harvie.

It’s true that "’Compassionate empathy’ or ‘empathic concern’ enables us to ‘not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but become spontaneously moved to help, if needed."

However, helping a client and wanting “to make them feel better” are two completely different things.

Talk about lawyers losing perspective, have you heard the saying “Everything’s a matter of perspective?” If so, if a lawyer understands their client, is that enough perspective? How about if the lawyer also understands the opposing counsel? Is that enough perspective? What if the lawyer understands the opposing party, as well? Is that enough perspective?

I ask these questions because on December 16, 2016, I led a discussion at a monthly professional networking meeting. The topic was as follows: “When working on a project, have you found that understanding perspectives other than your own is valuable? If so, why and what do you do to gain such understanding?”

What I found interesting and not at all surprising was that the only perspectives people mentioned were those of their clients, and, if lawyers were involved, possibly those of their opposing counsel and the opposing party.

Nobody considered other perspectives. I then mentioned a program I had given to lawyers earlier this year.

I asked the lawyers whether those present believe that laws are fundamentally fair. Quite a few attorneys answered, ‘Yes,’ while other asserted that all ‘American laws are fundamentally fair.’ Yet, I reminded them that laws vary greatly from state to state, and country to country, and change over time. I asked them, ‘What the hell are ‘American laws,’ and how can they be fundamentally fair if they vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction?’ Everything is a matter of perception, I suggested. We tend to get accustomed to the laws and culture of the jurisdiction in which we live, and to confuse comfort with those laws, with our innate sense of fundamental fairness.”

How about the fact that legally competent people making informed decisions can agree on anything they want that’s not illegal or otherwise in violation of public policy?

With that perspective, please take a fresh look at Harvie’s advice.

It’s all about the “family law” in any given jurisdiction and the manner in which that law is interpreted and applied by courts or attorneys negotiating agreements within the context of what may or may not happen in court based upon the “family laws” in existence in any given place and time.

If attorneys took the time to truly understand their clients, would they be advising their clients to resolve their situation in accordance with the “family law”, if their clients’ interests, needs, values and goals were better satisfied by doing things differently, yet in a manner which is not illegal or in violation of public policy?

Not doing things in accordance with the “family law” does not necessarily make it illegal or in violation of public policy.

From my vantage point, “too often I have seen good lawyers, lose perspective and their ability to provide prudent advice” and it’s hardly just “because of their own anger and empathy.” It is, however, the result of a lack of perspective.

As additional perspective, how about the fact that "divorce of parents" is 90 ‘life changing units’ for non-adults? Remember, as stressful as divorce is for adults, it is only 73 'life changing units.'

"Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are a significant risk factor for substance use disorders and can impact prevention efforts.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including those associated with substance misuse."

Parental separation or divorce has been found to be an "adverse childhood experience."

How does essentially forcing a divorcing couple into a box with the dimensions of the "family law code", when it doesn't adequately satisfy their needs, interests, values and goals, impact their satisfaction? How does handling their situation in an adversarial process designed on a win/lose paradigm impact the level of conflict between them? How's that play out with regard to their ability to co-parent, if they have children together?

As I have written elsewhere:

"Like it or not, if there are children of the relationship (regardless of their age), the family still exists after the relationship ends. The manner in which you end a relationship determines whether your family will be functional or dysfunctional from that day forward."

The research clearly shows that "it is parental conflict and not divorce itself that harms children."

So, where's the compassion, the empathy, or even just the perspective?

Always remember, "Everything's a matter of perspective."

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
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