Back in the 1960s, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe wanted to find out if there was a connection between stress and illness.
As part of their research, they examined the records of 5,000 people and ultimately determined that there was some kind of life stressor in every case. They asked patients to rate those stressful events on a scale of 0 to 100. When the analyzed all the data, they were able to develop the Holmes-Rahe Scale, designed to measure how likely it is that you will become ill.
In broad strokes, anyone scoring 150 or less only has a slight risk of illness, 150 to 300 is at moderate risk of being ill and those with a score over 300 face a significant risk of becoming ill.
All animals experience stress and humans are no exception. But while all animals experience acute stress that comes from momentary dangers, such as if you were an antelope being attacked by a lion, humans also experience another kind of stress. That stress is known as chronic stress.
Chronic stress comes from stress that lingers or is ongoing, such as dealing with rush hour traffic, making sure the mortgage is paid every month, working in a stressful job or worrying about the ongoing safety of our children.
This chronic stress takes place in humans because of our higher cerebral functioning that gives us the ability to make up stories. When we don’t take a break from making up these “what if” scenarios, it can affect our short- and long-term health. We get sick and our bodies tend to break down.
It’s important to note that a classic reaction to stress is the fight or flight response. But this response is only supposed to be a temporary biological state. With chronic stress, you are in that response pattern more often than not.
And guess what?
That’s not healthy. You’ll have trouble sleeping or you’ll sleep too much. You’ll overeat or starve yourself. You’ll become irritable and nervous. Your ability to make quality decisions will be impaired.
But that’s only the half of it. Chronic stress can also lead to more serious health issues as well. Heart disease, headaches, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and several autoimmune disorders like thyroid diseases, lupus and multiple sclerosis are all stress-related.
Stress can also take your existing illnesses and make them worse.
Adding a Divorce Stress Scale to the Mix
It’s a given that divorce is a stressful event is a person’s life. And based on the Holmes-Rahe Scale, it stands to reason that the more stressful a divorce is, the more compromised a person’s health can be.
Chronic stress can be further broken down in a divorce to two individual elements.
The “known” stressors will include facing the fact that you have to start your life over, knowing that you will have to make a decision about where to live and what to do about the well-being of your children, and knowing that you will either be on the hook or will receive alimony and/or child support payments going forward, among others.
Then there are the “unknown” stressors that will include things such as how assets and debts will be divided, wondering if you’ll be able to make ends meet on less money, how you will be treated in your social circle, and more. Those unknowns produce fear and fear leads directly to stress.
Adding to all of this is you never quite know how your spouse is going to react to the many issues facing both of you along the way, how you will be treated by the courts and if you will receive the best possible legal representation for your situation.
Now consider the following, on the Holmes-Rahe scale, the death of a spouse shows up on the scale as 100, while divorce only rates as a 73. Needless to say, if you’ve ever gone through a divorce, or you’re going through a divorce, it would be more than easy to flip-flop these two ratings.
In a 2012 article for Psychology Today, San Francisco-based therapist Susan Pease Gadoua L.C.S.W. proposed the creation of a Divorce-Stress Scale based on many of the things she had seen in her practice. It’s subjective based on her personal point of view and it has remained a work in progress, but it does shed light on the degree of stress that various elements in a divorce can cause.
The scale looks like this:
The Divorce Stress Scale
Check all factors that apply to your situation for the past 24 months. Circle the score of that factor. If you have experienced one of these events two times, multiply that number by 2 (or three or however many times you’ve experienced it). Once you’ve circled all the numbers that apply, add them up and use the scale below to determine how likely you are to get sick.
Below 300 – moderate chance of sickness
Between 301 and 600 – high likelihood of illness
601 – 999 – extremely high risk of illness
1000 or more – get to your doctor now
- You begin to consider divorce as a real option to your marital troubles 70
- Your spouse announces s/he is unhappy in the marriage 80
- Your spouse asks to have an open marriage 100
- You decide today is the day to tell your spouse of your desire to get divorced 125
- You have a same-sex marriage in a state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage (or divorce) 150
- Your spouse is leaving you for someone of your opposite gender 170
- Your spouse announces s/he is ending the marriage with no notice 280
- You find out your spouse is having an affair 285
- You find out your spouse is having an affair with someone close to you 290
- You come home from a trip away and your spouse has moved out with no notice that anything was wrong 300
- You come home and find all your belongings in the driveway with no notice that anything was wrong 350
- You have no children (so divorce means you lose your nuclear family) 80
- You have three or less children 100
- You have between four and eight children 125
- You have over eight children 175
- Your kids are out of the house 60
- Some of your kids are teenagers 90
- You have one or more special needs children 100
- All are your kids are over 5 years old 100
- Your kids are teenagers 120
- Some are under 5 years old, some over 125
- Your kids are all under 5 years old 150
- You’re independently wealthy 0
- You are nesting (you each move in and out of the house) 75
- Your spouse doesn’t work (but needs to) 85
- You don’t work (but you need to) 85
- Your spouse owns his or her own business 95
- You own your own business 125
- You or your spouse just started a new job 125
- You or your spouse has been fired recently 150
- You know nothing about the finances 150
- You’re sharing a home but there is a great deal of tension 150
- You don’t trust that your spouse is or will be honest about the finances 180
- You are homeless 180
- You and your spouse work together 185
- Your house is in foreclosure or some type of distress 200
- You and your spouse own a company together 225
- Your attorney doesn’t return your calls 80
- You don’t feel like your attorney is really working on your behalf 80
- You don’t like your attorney 100
- Your spouse hired the meanest attorney in town 120
5 Tips for Dealing with Divorce Stress
Everybody processes stress differently, and when your stress is related to divorce, the processing is going to be as individual as you are.
And just like going through a divorce takes time, combatting stress takes time as well. You won’t solve all your stress-related problems in a day, a week or even a month. It’s going to take as long as it takes.
What follows are several general guidelines and ideas to help you begin to offload some of the complex emotions you’re going to feel along the path of your divorce. Pick and choose to use the ones that make the most sense to you and your personal situation.
1. Coping with a Loss of Control.
In a divorce you lose control of many things, some of which have become ingrained in your life for many, many years. You lose control over your spouse. You lose control over your finances to some degree, and even if you’re the initiator, you don’t really have full control over the divorce process itself.
When children are involved, you’re going to feel a big loss of control over them as well, especially as they try to emotionally make sense of what’s going on between mom and dad.
If you’re a bit of a control freak, then this one will be your Armageddon. You will be triggered in so many different ways.
How do you cope with a loss of control? It’s not easy, but you have to figure out what parts of the process you can control and what parts that you cannot. You can’t control the process or the court system. But depending on your attitude, you can control how long the process will take and how much it’s going to cost you.
You can control your attitude and either decide you’re going to put up a fight at every step of the way, or you’re going to pick and choose the battles that are important to you. You’re not going to win every battle and, in many cases, you’ll need to compromise. Start with small victories and learn to let go of what you can’t control so you can focus more on the things that will benefit you.
The best way to regain control is the get through each step of the divorce process as quickly as it makes sense to regain control of the things that you can in your new reality.
2. Handling the Grief of a Loss of a Relationship.
Even if you can’t wait to get away from your spouse, you will experience a certain degree of grief over a lost relationship. It’s normal.
You may feel that anger, betrayal and resentment are placing you in conflict with that loss, but the reality is that they are companion emotions to grief. You need to acknowledge that you’re going to feel that way. Again, those feelings are normal and common.
Your pain over being rejected from somebody you thought you would spend the rest of your life with can really affect your head, especially if you were blindsided by the news and thought you still had a decent marriage.
The worst thing you can do is bottle up your emotions. Feel whatever you’re going to feel. Everyone feels slightly different and how long you feel those emotions is going to vary as well. Some people process and flush them in short order. Others can take a long time to sort through how they feel before they can begin to fully heal.
Some people deny their feelings, tough it out and eventually only make things worse. If you want a good cry, have a good cry. And that goes whether you’re a guy or a girl.
You have to flush those emotions out of your system before you can move on. You will feel out of sorts more often than not early on, drifting between that dazed and confused feeling to that hit by a truck feeling and everything in between. Deep inside, you are working through those feelings.
You have to just give it time.
Many people are also tempted to turn to drugs and alcohol to dull their pain. Other people throw everything they have at their work. That’s to be expected, but at some point you’ll have to stop and face your reality. Until you allow yourself to grieve, you can’t fully begin to heal.
Instead of engaging in negative behaviors, balance your life and start doing the things you love, whether its long bike rides on a Sunday, taking dancing lessons, going to the gym, or reading those dusty books that have been accumulating on your shelves. Self-care isn’t just okay, it’s critical to your recovery. At a very minimum, eat right and get exercise, both of which have powerful healing qualities.
And if you get stuck in an endless grief cycle, get professional help. See a therapist. They will help you get unstuck from your emotional blockages so you can get on with living your best life.
3. Dealing with an Uncertain Future.
Just like curiosity killed the cat, if you focus too much about the “what if” scenarios that you may be facing in your future, you will drive yourself nuts, and maybe even into an early grave. This is just a productive as thinking and worried about what you can’t control, except it is worse because you may not be dealing with actual problems, only those you’ve made up in your head.
The problem with “what if” questions is that there is never any real answer. There are only “shoulda, coulda, woulda” answers and while you need to plan for some possible eventualities, doing too much of it is a big fat waste of time.
The reality is, you won’t really know what to do until something actually happens. Consider some options and then put them on a shelf until it’s time to address the situation.
If you’re still being eaten up by uncertainties, then talk to a friend. See a therapist. Unload all the junk that’s cluttering up your mind. Get an outside perspective on if you’re overthinking something. A dispassionate third party will be able to offer you insights that are practical that you can’t see because you have blinded yourself to your realities.
4. Freaking Out About your Children.
In many marriages, salvaging a relationship with your children is the best thing you can hope for when all the dust settles after a divorce. So, it’s natural to be concerned and stress over how your children will react to divorce and how your relationship with them will be affected going forward.
Here’s the thing to know about kids. Unless there is severe damage done in marriage, kids will bounce back. More often than not, it’s the parents who go splat.
This is not to say they won’t have issues, because they will. You need to make sure that you’re working to minimize those issues instead of fanning the flames of discontent.
How do you do that?
For starters, keep your kids out of the adult conversations. Don’t use them as sounding boards unless it directly involves them. Your kids may end up hating both you and your spouse by the time you’re done with them.
Maintain your children’s stability and routines. Try to keep your daily and weekly agendas as familiar and stable as possible.
Along those lines, maintain consistent discipline between you and your spouse. If kids are splitting time between two households, it’s much easier for them to try and play you. And kids by their very nature will attempt to do that. You may be tempted to cave in or ease up due to guilt, but don’t become an enabler of bad behavior. Instead, talk you your ex, make sure you are in sync for doing homework, bedtimes, curfews and other life issues.
Also, don’t badmouth your spouse to your kids. Remember, you are bashing their mom or their dad and that’s a surefire way to breed conflict and resentment in a child. You need to pick your words very carefully when talking about your spouse. Tone down any anger. Save it for your spouse or for a therapist or close friend where you can vent freely.
Instead, be a good listener when your kids talk to you. Read between the lines. More than ever, you’ll need to offer reassurance and sound advice on how to cope with the fact that their whole world is changing, no matter what age they are. They will always need you and your counsel, so don’t let them down.
If you see that they’re having trouble processing their emotions, seek outside help. Get them to a family therapist. Talk to your school and their teachers about what’s going on. Now it not a time to hide your issues. A little outside help can go a long way in the healing process.
5. Fight Financial Insecurity Fears.
When one household becomes two and two incomes become one, there is going to be an upheaval in financial security. Few things in life provoke more stress that feeling vulnerable when it comes to money.
How much do you have? How much will you have when the divorce is complete? What will your monthly expenses look like? What will your budget look like? The world revolves around money, so divorce can trigger your deepest and darkest fears about money going forward.
Unfortunately, some of those fears are going to come true. You’re going to get hit with unexpected bills, you may incur new expenses such as for healthcare, a car payment, rent or mortgage payment and dozens of other things.
You will need to watch your money closely until the surprises go away and you can regain a sense of normalcy.
You can fight the stress that money issues cause by making a budget. Start tracking expenses and income closely. Understand what your new outgoing amount each month is going to be and what your new incoming amount is going to be. If you need to, talk with a certified divorce financial planner, a tax pro or an accountant for clarity.