3 Ways To (Literally) Heal Your Heart After Divorce

Photo: WeHeartIt

Divorce can increase your risk of heart attack, but the right strategies can transform your health.

A recent article in the New York Times reported that researchers of 15,827 adults ages 45 to 80, all of whom were or had been married concluded that “compared with a woman who was continuously married, a woman who had been divorced once had a 24% increased risk of heart attack. Those who had been divorced twice had a 77% increased risk ...”

If you are recently divorced and struggling, your heart health may be at risk ... or not! The good news is that you actually have control over whether you become sicker ... or even healthier than you've been in a while.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon (or a heart surgeon) to know that there's nothing unhealthy about divorce, per se. Of course, it's all about the stress. In fact, if you are in a bad, stressful marriage, getting divorced might be the best thing you can do for your health.

Common wisdom is that stress is unhealthy. Not necessarily! In her TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal highlights research about how to make stress your friend.  She says that when we reach out to support someone, or reach out to be supported by someone, we secrete oxytocin, which actually helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. It actually strengthens your heart.

Many women (and men!) are terrified of being alone. But it's not the being alone that's an issue  it's the terror, and that's something over which you have some control.  So here are three things you can do to get yourself healthier after a divorce.

1. Take a Stand for Yourself

If the supposed "shame" of divorce, or the fear of being alone, is eating away at you … great! Let's use that! How? Because if you can't live alone, you'll likely never be successful living with someone else. Now is the time to take stock.

Like an addict who hits bottom, let's have this be the turning point to where you discover your true nature  maybe even where you find God. Get yourself some positive therapy. Learn more about yourself via transformational programs from organizations like Landmark Education and Pathwork. Find your connection to the Divine. You are amazing. Find that out about yourself.

2. Engage with Community

McGonigal’s research tells us that by reaching out for support, or reaching out to support someone else, you'll secrete more oxytocin, helping your heart cells to regenerate. In one of her talks, spiritual teacher, Tara Brach, talks about a man who went to a mystic as a last resort to try to find something that would help with his degenerative illness.

The successful prescription? Every day do something to take care of someone else. Engage with people in your community of family, friends and neighbors. 

3. Focus on Feelings – 90 Seconds to Change the Conversation

I don't want to soft-peddle the trauma that divorce can trigger. And it's just a trigger. You haven't transformed into something else (except perhaps in your mind). You're still all you. The problem is that when we're triggered, we recycle it, and the solution is to break the cycle.

Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor, a Ph.D. Neuro-Anatomist and author of Stroke of Insight, tells us that when we experience a negative emotion such as anger, sadness, fear, etc., the fight/flight/freeze part of our brain releases chemicals into our blood that circulate, informing our cells, tissues and organs to act. This survival-based, primitive solution worked great when we were being chased by saber-toothed tigers. But today, it mostly works against us.

However, these chemicals only last for 90 seconds unless we restart them. If we killed the tiger, 90 seconds later we were fine. Our problem is that we keep focusing on the emotion and the story ("How could that jerk leave me?! How will I survive alone? What will my friends think of me?"), and we keep it in place.

The prescription is to get out of your head and focus on your body. Focus on your breathing. Focus on what you are feeling. Feel your feelings. If it's sadness, go ahead and cry. If it's fear, try shaking. Anything to get you out of your head and into your body. If you can keep this going for 90 seconds, you'll have broken the cycle. Sure, it may pop up again and again, but with diligence, it will only stick around for 90 seconds each time.

Whether you know it or not, you are amazing. And you're connected. You are one of us. You have a right to be here, and a right to be happy. And your experience is 100% in your control. The next action you take may be the first step to living a happier, healthier life.

William Weil is the author of New Earth Relationships: A Guide for Couples in the 21st Century, and founder of LovePong - an interactive website and iPhone app for couples.