It’s ironic but true that knowing something intellectually—in my case, what research has discovered about managing negativity and fording a crisis—is very different from applying that knowledge in one’s life and translating it into action. So, despite writing about strategies to cope, my own mettle and facility were put to the test during a very protracted and stressful divorce. So, seen from a personal point of view and as a layperson, I thought I’d share what worked and what didn’t, and why. While inspired by divorce, broadly speaking these are difficulties common to most stressful situations.
Chief among the difficulties I had were 1) rumination: I found it nearly impossible to stop the loop in my head, even in the middle of the night; 2) managing negative emotion: While I was able not to sink in the main, I still had trouble with emotional flooding and feeling overwhelmed at moments; 3) staying balanced: The hardest part was being open to feelings of happiness; 4) looking to the future: setting interim goals as well as future ones was surprisingly difficult since I was devoting so much energy to keeping myself together; 5) making sense of the experience: I found this hard to do given the tenor of the divorce, the involvement and parrying of attorneys for both sides, and the length of time it all took (18 months or so!).
What follows are the problems and the strategies that I found worked for me, with some important caveats, and offered up as information, not advice.
1. Rumination: Inviting the “White Bears” in
The term “White Bears” was coined by Daniel Wegner for those repetitive and intrusive thoughts, the unfinished business of life, that the brain unconsciously searches for and that result in that endless loop of rumination that preoccupies us during times of stress, sapping our emotional and cognitive energy. In my case, the White Bears were emblematic of my inability to control the outcome or even speed it along since the other side was disinclined to negotiate. I worried about everything, especially money. I tried all the techniques usually suggested such as assigning myself a worry time (an utter failure for me, given my personality) and discussing my worries with trusted friends. The latter approach defanged the White Bears for a limited time and then, within hours, they’d be back, growling in my head. Visualizing a happier time in my life and mentally recounting it, as suggested by other research, didn’t help me either; my inner Pollyanna had gone missing.
But what did help me was Wegner’s suggestion to invite the White Bears in. In my case, since my stress was a function of the divorce, imagining the worst possible outcome and all that it implied actually helped me stop ruminating. Once out in the open—and I actually wrote it out and charted all the implications of the worst scenario—it became something I could tackle and deal with, instead of just ruminating about it. I became less fearful once I saw what the worst resolution looked like on paper. (It’s worth saying that this divorce involved no children, and no long history together, so the worst case was largely about money. This strategy might be overwhelming to do without a therapist with a more complicated or emotionally fraught situation.) Even so, sitting down with the White Bears was more of a process than a magic bullet. Forcing myself to face my fears before bed helped to keep me asleep longer but it never shut down my brain completely.
2. Managing emotion: Reflective processing
I knew from the research that reliving a bad experience or a series of them—which I was doing on the daily—was absolutely the worst thing I could do, but at the same time, since a contentious divorce with a boatload of filings forced me to be actively engaged with past and present behaviors, I had trouble turning down the emotional volume. But what did work was consciously distancing myself from an incident and seeing it as though it had happened to someone else and focusing on why I felt and reacted as I did, as suggested by the work of Ethan Kross and his colleagues. This helped me get out of the fray emotionally by focusing on why I was feeling the way I was, instead of honing in on what I was feeling, which makes you relive the moment. Asking why permits “cool” processing while focusing on what yields to “hot” processing and can open the door to even more rumination. Unlike distraction—yes, going to the flicks will help put your turmoil on hold for a bit but it’ll start up again the minute the lights come back on—this kind of reflection yields both more self-knowledge and allows you to better manage your feelings.
3. Staying balanced: Savoring
Generally speaking, things that make us happy, alas, stop making us happy after a while (it’s called “hedonic adaptation” or “the hedonic treadmill”) and I found it especially true when I was feeling so under fire. But the research on savoring—making the morning last, as Simon and Garfunkel put it—suggests that we are made happier by things that aren’t commonplace. So, yes, eating chocolate now and again as a treat will make you happier than it will when it’s an everyday thing. So I concentrated on being more apt to “savor” things that would make me happy—anticipating a visit with a friend or going to an art gallery, or buying something online and then waiting a while to open it. I got into the habit of parceling out my pleasures—spending real time anticipating them—which, counterintuitively, makes you happier. Did it help me? Yes.
4. Looking to the future: Abstract thinking
In a crisis, you’re much more focused on simply getting through than thinking about where you’re going next but, at the same time, looking forward does help to tamp down feelings of bitterness or hopelessness about where you find yourself. In a divorce or during a breakup, you’re much more likely to enumerate your former partner’s flaws than you are to make a list of what you want for your future. One observation I encountered in the research by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier struck a chord: that thinking about what you want in abstract terms opens up more possibilities for action than thinking concretely. So, if you miss companionship and sharing, instead of thinking concretely about an individual who might give you that (and how you might meet him or her), you think about companionship and sharing in the abstract. That makes you realize that a sense of companionship can come from many situations: having lunch with a friend or striking up a conversation with a neighbor; calling someone you haven’t seen in a while and making plans to do something together; getting involved in a charity or doing volunteer work, or any other activity that includes a shared goal. I did find that this helped during the crisis, and is still helping as I emerge into a new phase of my life.
5. Making sense of the experience: Writing (or maybe not)
The work of James Pennebaker has shown that writing about experience as a coherent narrative can be a very effective therapeutic process, and it was in that spirit that I embarked on writing a memoir to help myself make sense of my marriage and divorce, And, of course, since I write for a living, I also thought I might be able to make some money too, amending the saying to “When life hands you lemons, sell lemonade.” Interestingly, many of my friends, including one who is a therapist, worried that writing about the marriage and its failure would only intensify my rumination and negative emotions and make me feel worse.
What I didn’t know is that there’s research that shows my friends were right, and that while generally writing is an effective tool for reducing negative emotion after a stressful situation, it may not be when you’ve experienced divorce. That’s what a study by David A. Sbarra found. Recently separated or divorced participants wrote about their experiences either in a stream-of-consciousness style which focused on their deepest emotions or as a first or third-person narrator, exploring the breakdown of the marriage as a turning point in their lives and what they learned from it. The control group wrote about how they spent their time without recalling any emotion. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, given the body of research that shows the benefits of writing, they found that in follow-ups, the participants who wrote in either style were emotionally worse off. Only the control group appeared to benefit from the act of writing (keep in mind that they were not writing about divorce); in fact, even those in the control group who reported themselves as high in rumination fared better. It may well be, as the researchers opine, that further studies may show that writing about something totally unrelated to divorce might work best if you are going through it or have recently.
So, if it’s a divorce you’re dealing with, writing may be a bad idea. I can’t quite tell whether it hurt or helped me emotionally but it was intellectually useful to me and gave me the sense that there was something in my life I had control over. But that may be just particular to me and how writing makes me feel.
Good luck to everyone! Managing negative emotion is admittedly tough stuff.
Copyright © 2015 Peg Streep
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Wegner, Daniel, “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression.” American Psychologist (November 2011), 671-679.
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.
Kross, Ethan and Ozlem Ayduk,” Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing,” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2011), vol. 27, no.3, 187-191.
Carver, Charles and Michael Scheier. On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Quoibach, Jordi and Elizabeth W. Dunne, “Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation, “ Social Psychological and Personality Science (2013), 4, 563-568.
Sbarra, David Al, Adriel Boas, Ashley E. Mason, Grace M. Larson, and Matthias R. Mehl, “Expressive Writing Can Impede Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation,” Clinical Psychological Science (2013), xx(x), 1-15.