So the divorce is over. The signed decree is in hand. Where’s the life-altering sigh of relief? The urge to go dancing? Why is the much-awaited elation not forthcoming? After all, many people pursue divorce to escape the oppressive judgment, constant discord, hurtful infidelity or boundless negativity of a failed marriage. So now that they’re finally free of a sour relationship, why do they feel so…rundown, lethargic and melancholy? Friends want them to “get back out there” but all they want to do is curl up with a book. They’re not alone experiencing sleep problems, craving junk food, or always feeling achy and unendingly overwhelmed and unfocused.
Divorce Fatigue is the body’s very real psychological and biological reaction to the upheaval of a marriage ending.
There are two things going on. First, receiving the divorce decree is rather emotionally anti-climatic. For many, that landmark is not the end of life adjustments. It’s just one more phase of the divorce process. There may still be worries about moving, post-judgment court dates and single parenting. Although the main legal trauma is concluded, life is not back to pre-divorce “normal.” It may take as much as a year or two to get used to the new post-divorce “normal.” For those averse to change, the post-divorce adjustment can be stressful too, just in a less visible, lower-key way.
The other cause of Divorce Fatigue is adrenal stress. For months during divorce, the body was in a perpetually heightened state of alert. Worry about the kids or finances ruined appetites. Stressing about either getting caught, or catching their partner, cheating increased the alertness level. There were clenched fists and gnashed teeth when arguing with spouses. Divorce meant lost sleep and less time to exercise. The perpetual fight-or-flight sensation increased their blood pressure and had some literally, and figuratively, holding their breath. Those butterflies in their stomachs every time they opened an email from the attorney were the result of an adrenaline-producing response to divorce stressors.
“The adrenals have many functions such as making the only anti-inflammatory hormone for pain – (cortisol), immunity support, balancing fluid and salt levels, controlling minerals, heart rate, and sleep and wake cycles. – Dr. Pamela
During divorce, the adrenal glands were in over-drive for an extended period. They’re not designed for long-term, uninterrupted stress. Typically, the adrenals react to short-term dangers like a car swerving into your lane. After an event like that, people may feel jittery for a few minutes. Their palms might sweat and their legs get rubbery. But then, with a few deep breaths, the body recovers. With continued rest, the adrenals replenish the stress hormones and prepare for the next threat. With long-term stressors, such as divorce or the prolonged illness of a loved one, the body reacts to more frequent perceived threats. With the combination of constant hormone production and limited recovery opportunities, the glands can become fatigued. After divorce, the adrenals are worn out and the body is unbalanced because the accustomed level of stress is no longer present. The body still craves that high-level of stimulation. Without it, they feel like a fat cat on a sunny windowseat.
“It wasn’t until after my divorce that I realized how much stress I had been under for a very long time. One day I realized that I felt odd and I couldn’t figure out why. I was unable to get anything done, I was confused and I was exhausted. When I started thinking about it to try to figure out what was going on I realized that I didn’t have anything pushing me, no monkey on my back, nothing. My lack of energy was due to the unfamiliar experience of relaxing,” according to the First Wives World article, “My Narcissistic Ex-Husband.”
Physical symptoms of adrenal fatigue are interrupted sleep-cycles, weight gain, baggy eyes, and compromised immunity. Psychologically, people describe feel rundown, tired, unfocused, distracted, or purposeless.
Some people, in an effort to feel more energetic, turn to caffeine or sugar. Others seek adrenaline from extreme sports or gambling. Some replace divorce-stress with other life turmoil like overwhelming work projects. Still others, missing the divorce “rush”, may turn to the familiar source of adrenaline – litigation. Some people have a hard time letting go of the legal battle as their energy source. They return to court repeatedly filing appeals and post-judgment motions in search of an adrenaline-fueled zest as well as a psychological sense of justice.
What can be done about adrenal fatigue?
A workout may be the antithesis of the Divorce Fatigue urge to nap. But exercise, and especially outdoor activities, can restore normal sleep patterns. With better sleep, the adrenal glands have a chance to recover. Working out also stimulates the body to release hormones that reduce pain and combat depression and anxiety.
Especially in Michigan and other Northern locations, long, cold, dark winters leave many people Vitamin D deficient. This deficiency, coupled with adrenal fatigue, increases the feelings of lethargy and depression. Try sun lamps, supplements and outdoor activities.
A psychologist, counselor, therapist or social worker can be helpful. Even the most well-meaning friend is not familiar with Divorce Fatigue. Speaking with a professional validates your experience and reactions. A therapist can acknowledge that continued adaptation is normal and that not all change is negative.
Re-evaluate the bucket list
With upheaval comes the possibility for pursuing dreams that may have been blocked previously by the constant effort of maintaining a poisonous relationship. By renewing a commitment to looking forward, opportunities open up. Replace the former negative stressors with positive, affirming successes like running a marathon, traveling to a new location, starting a blog or adopting a cat.
By giving time to others, the focus shifts from inward to outward. “Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others and helps you develop a solid support system, which in turn protects you against stress and depression when you’re going through challenging times” according to HelpGuide.org.
The right volunteer job checks many divorce recovery boxes.
Focusing on others? Check.
Physical activity? Check.
Pursuing Goals? Check.
Habitat for Humanity and The Humane Society are waiting!