Contentious divorces can do a number on your health and well-being. You might find that you’re struggling with symptoms of anxiety and depression or a worsening of these symptoms (if you had anxiety or depression before). You might find that you have very little energy and you’re constantly on edge. Maybe you can’t concentrate either. Maybe everything feels more challenging. Grueling. It’s hard to breathe when you feel like you’re suffocating.
But even during such a chaotic time as a contentious divorce, there are things you can do to improve the situation and to feel better. You can be an advocate for yourself and your family.
In a previous piece, we shared five suggestions—everything from getting clear on your divorce goals to setting strong boundaries to treating your ex like a difficult colleague. As marriage and family therapist Krysta Dancy said, a helpful mantra for contentious divorces is: “You don’t have to attend every fight you are invited to.” You can decline. You can opt out.
Below are five more suggestions to help you stay well during a difficult divorce.
Keep up healthy habits.
Amy Broz, a marriage and family therapist intern who works with high-conflict couples, stressed the importance of engaging in healthy practices. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to get enough sleep, she said. Of course, this isn’t exactly effortless when you’re stressed out.
The key is to prioritize your sleep and implement good sleep hygiene. This can include: going to bed and waking up at the same time every day; avoiding stimulating activities an hour before bed (like watching TV and scrolling Facebook); keeping your bedroom cool and dark; and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
Also, engage in physical activities that you genuinely enjoy. This might include going to the gym. It might not. Maybe you realize that you really enjoy practicing yoga, playing tennis, golfing or riding your bike. Make sure you’re eating nutrient-rich foods, too, providing your “brain and body with the energy they need to function properly,” Broz said.
These are not easy things to do when you feel like you’re drowning. Do what you can. Small steps can go a long way.
Take your time.
If you’re not sure what to do about a divorce-related issue, ask for more time, Dancy said. It doesn’t matter whether the communication is over email, on the phone or in person. She shared this example (if it’s an email): “I wanted to confirm I got this from you. I need to think about my answer. I will get back to you after X time.” This is another way that you can set solid boundaries and advocate for yourself.
Don’t put your kids in the middle.
It’s tempting to ask your kids to relay a message to your ex, but it’s not healthy. This puts your kids in an anxiety-provoking and unfair position, Dancy said. It also sets a harmful precedent for your communication with your ex, she said.
Be gentle with yourself.
“It is normal to be confused, sad, scared and angry while going through a contentious divorce,” Broz said. It’s also normal to go through a grieving process, instead of feeling instant relief, Dancy said. That is, you might experience everything from denial to depression, even if you wanted the divorce.
Whatever feelings arise, give yourself the space to actually feel them, without judgment. Also, try not to judge yourself for past decisions—such as staying too long or not long enough in your marriage. You did the best you could with the knowledge and skills you had at the time.
“A natural tendency for people when they feel uncertain or afraid is to isolate themselves from others,” Broz said. However, this can make you even more anxious and depressed, she said. Instead, surround yourself with compassionate people. This might include family; close friends; a support group; your church or synagogue, she said.
Consider seeking professional support, as well. Dancy mentioned co-parenting and divorce counseling. “Having a third party can help keep things on track, and buffer a lot of the negativity.” Individual therapy can be transformative, helping you effectively cope during this tumultuous time.
Ultimately, be patient and understanding with yourself. According to Broz, people often expect to get over their anxiety and negative feelings within a month or two. However, it typically takes time. “I typically see clients take upwards of a year—sometimes longer—to get through the challenging transitional period.” Because divorce is a big change, triggering both internal and external changes. It’s important to take good care of yourself during and after the process.