Your Brain and VA Divorce

Posted on Oct 20, 2021 by Katie Carter

Divorce is stressful. Physiologically, there’s not much you can do about that, but I do think that having an awareness of the level of stress you’re under is helpful.

Your brain doesn’t function at its best when its stressed. Even in situations where it’s not logical – where it’d be better to have full use of your brain in all its cleverness – our fight or flight response is triggered when our brain perceives a threat. That means our brain is positively flooded with hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, that create a lot of physical reactions.

Fight or flight means that our brains are designed to recognize a threat and to respond to it. It’s the thing that makes us feel fearful when we hear a weird noise or a dark shadow. It’s the part of our body that, from an evolutionary perspective, has helped us to recognize, avoid, and escape from things that might harm us.

Our brains are super smart, but sometimes not all that discerning. The brain sometimes sees a threat where there isn’t one – the dark, shadowy place under the bed – and gives us a similar reaction. I often hear a pop or crackle in the middle of the night when I’m home alone and start to think wildly about what might happen if there was actually an intruder.

Fight or flight works pretty well when there’s a physical threat. It alerts us, forces us to react, and keeps us safe. When the threat we perceive is not physical – as in, there’s no herd of stampeding elephants – it can be less helpful.

In a divorce context, we’re definitely threatened. And our fight or flight response is certainly triggered. But I often find that these physiological reactions are less than helpful for my clients. Ultimately, it probably all comes down to the fact that this isn’t a physical threat to your safety. You will not be required to actually run for your life. But your brain will trick you.

The problem is that fight or flight means that our brain is firing, it’s creating physical symptoms, and its expecting us to act. It’s telling you, “You’ll feel better once you DO SOMETHING.” It’s not pleasant or comfortable, either, so most of us are keen to make the experience stop. We believe, on an unconscious level, that we’ll feel better if we react.

Meanwhile, are pulses are racing, our faces are flushing, our stomachs are clenching, we’re sweating, our words are coming out in a confusing jumble, and we’re having trouble regulating our emotions.

As you can probably imagine, in a divorce context, none of this is helpful.

I find that women (and men – but I don’t represent them, so don’t really care what happens to men when they’re stressed) often make bad decisions in times of extreme stress for this specific reason. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s not that they WANT to behave irrationally, or hurt their cases – but that’s often what happens.

These reactions often end up in knock-down, drag-out fights that sometimes become physical – with potentially terrible consequences. These reactions encourage women (again, and men – but who cares?) to drink too much, to sleep with the wrong person, to spend too much money. These reactions cause otherwise rational, careful thinkers to do absolutely crazy things, like yank their kids from school, move across the country, or threaten to do things.
These reactions cloud their judgment and spur them to action that may not be wise, especially when you consider the wider context of an ongoing divorce or custody case.

But, again, it’s not their fault. Or your fault, if you’re finding yourself in this position. If you’re feeling alternately prone to extreme physical violence or hysterical sobbing, you are not alone. You are dealing with your body’s response to these perceived threats.

We’ve all been there, for one reason or another. Maybe not necessarily a divorce, but any time there’s a perceived threat. You open an electric bill that is sky high, and then you snap at your kid for leaving crumbs on the table, for example. It’s a smaller example, but you’ve still felt a threat, been triggered, and reacted aggressively. More aggressively than the situation warranted.

Now, it’s not that a divorce doesn’t warrant an explosive reaction. In many cases, it does! And, besides that, you can’t help feeling the way you feel.

But, if you want to move productively through your divorce, you’re going to probably need to take steps to control your reactions. It’s not easy. It’s DEFINITELY not easy; I mean, consider that this is our evolutionary response! Our bodies are literally designed to not ignore this reaction in order to keep ourselves safe. It’s really, really, really hard.

So, what do you do?

1. Recognize the feeling when it happens.

Name your feeling. Try to pinpoint the EXACT concern that’s making you feel this way. Feel it. Think about it. Roll it around in your mind a little bit. Really give yourself the space to recognize, acknowledge, and feel it, like a scientist examining an interesting specimen in his microscope.

I am feeling very, very angry because I am afraid. What am I afraid of? Why am I afraid? How does this feel?

2. Breathe.

Stupid, right? You’re breathing anyway. It’s kind of a perquisite to life. But I mean more of a mindful breathing. Breathe in your feelings, and feel them. Get comfortable with them. Keep breathing.

You might accompany this with a meditation or yoga practice, if that’s meaningful or helpful to you. Or maybe just even a walk around the block. Feel your feelings, think your thoughts, and name them. And keep breathing. Deep, slow, calming breaths.

3. Don’t react.

Is it weird to have an item on a list be that you shouldn’t DO anything? Well, it’s really not that you shouldn’t do anything – you should. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Watch a cathartic movie. Take some quiet time to think. Talk to your girlfriends.

Before you do ANYTHING, give yourself some time and space to process what you’re feeling. If your ex is triggering for you, don’t talk to him – or only communicate via text or email, so that you know that there’s a written record of the exchange.

Even if he’s pushing you on some point, and that’s the thing that’s doing the triggering, take this as permission to ignore him. You can say, “I am not in a position to speak to that right now,” or “I would prefer if we limited our communications to what has to do with the children,” or even “Let’s let the attorneys handle that, okay?”

Don’t react. But do set boundaries. And, meanwhile, keep feeling (and exploring those feelings) and breathing.

4. Talk to an attorney.

Talk to an attorney. Talk to your attorney A LOT. Talk to your attorney about your rights and entitlements under the law. Talk to your attorney about next steps. Talk to your attorney about your goals and your specific concerns. Talk to your attorney about problems and how to solve them. Talk to your attorney before you make any big, sweeping decisions – make sure to get the run down of the advantages and disadvantages of any course of action BEFORE it’s too late.

5. Talk to a therapist.

You’re not crazy. But you ARE under a lot of stress. Your attorney can help you make sure that you get your marital share of the assets, and help you craft a solution to your case that will allow you to see a way forward.

But a therapist is also another really helpful person in this scenario. Again, NOT because you’re crazy – but because this is a crazy amount of stress. Most of us can’t deal with it alone – or, at least, we can’t deal with it alone and still be mentally healthy.

Also, therapists often take insurance.

Ultimately, it’s up to you how you choose to act and react during your divorce and custody case – but I do think that it’s important to recognize, from a physiological perspective, what you’re up against. You can’t help this fight and flight response. It’s just how we’re hard wired.

All you can do is work to recognize it, to acknowledge it, and to relegate it to its own appropriate sphere. Recognize your mind trying to keep your body safe. Acknowledge your feelings and your fears. Talk to both your attorney and your therapist about it, and figure out a way to move forward.

Don’t react. It may cause you to make decisions that ultimately aren’t the best for you, and actually move you further away from your goals. That’s not what you want at all!

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s really hard. This is probably some of the hardest work you’ll do through your divorce, but it’ll also be some of the most important. It’ll help you come out better, stronger, and healthier on the other side.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.