For Mental Health Awareness Week, Caroline Watson, head of Shoosmiths Family Law team, offers practical advice on looking after your emotional wellbeing if you’re going through a divorce or a separation.
When someone close to you dies, it’s generally accepted that there are five stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some psychiatrists say that the emotional stages of a relationship breakdown are the same.
Separation and the five stages of grief
Stage 1: Shock and Denial
You may refuse to acknowledge that something has occurred or is happening:
“Your dad didn’t mean what he said about us separating and I’m sure we will be back together as a family in no time.”
Stage 2: Anger
Anger can manifest itself in different ways. You may feel anger towards yourself, your partner, someone else or the world in general:
“I wish I wasn’t causing so much pain.”
Stage 3: Bargaining
You may try and negotiate with each other in the hope of reconciling or improving your relationship with one another:
“I’ll do anything to make our relationship work, I can change I promise”
Stage 4: Depression or sadness
You may start to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty. Feeling these emotions shows that you have started to accept the situation. During this stage you may find that you are quieter, more withdrawn or you may cry a lot and not want to mix socially with friends or family. You may also have trouble sleeping, have a lack of appetite or other physical symptoms:
“I can’t face seeing the family. I just want to be on my own.”
Stage 5: Acceptance
In this final stage you are likely to have come to terms with your situation and will be making plans to move on:
“I am looking to the future now and I’m looking forward to the new chapter in my life.”
It can be reassuring to know that what you are feeling is very normal. The five stages are not a complete list of all possible emotions and they can occur in any order. Also be alive to your ex, or indeed your children, experiencing these stages at a different time to you.
Reflect on how you are feeling
Taking time out to reflect on how you are feeling and making your wellbeing a priority can help you cope with the pressures a separation can bring and enable you to move on with your life more easily. Understanding how you are feeling will also enable you to consider how you might be behaving towards your ex or children and the emotion behind some of your decision making.
Being under pressure is a normal part of life, but during a separation that pressure may escalate to become stress because your normal life has changed. If your stress becomes overwhelming you may start to feel irritable, impatient, anxious, afraid, lonely or depressed. You may find your mind racing and that you’re unable to switch off, you may be tired, uninterested in life, worried about your health, and in the worst case you may have suicidal feelings.
How you might behave
Stress can manifest itself in behaviour which you might recognise in yourself or others, such as difficulty making decisions, constant worrying, snapping at people, an inability to concentrate, eating too much or too little, smoking or drinking more than usual, restlessness or being tearful / crying.
Physical symptoms of stress
If you recognise any of these physical symptoms, you may be suffering from stress: shallow breathing or hyperventilation; panic attacks; muscle tension; blurred vision or sore eyes; problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or having nightmares; constant tiredness; grinding your teeth or biting your nails; chest pains; high blood pressure; indigestion or heartburn; feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
How do you reduce stress?
- Identify your triggers. Working out what triggers your feelings will help you anticipate when you are likely to feel most stressed and will help you look at ways of reducing the pressure on you. This might involve practical solutions as well as mindfulness. For example, you may find preparing lists or setting achievable tasks to complete each day will help you feel in control or you may find changing your routine helps.
- Build your support network. Talk to friends and family and make an effort to go out socially. Don’t be afraid to cut loose people who have a negative impact on you. Talk to your line manager or HR manager at work and let them know what is going on in your personal life.
- Look after your physical and mental health. Consider making some lifestyle changes and develop your interests and hobbies. Eat healthily, be physically active and prioritise sleep. Give yourself time to relax and take a break.
- Your GP will be able to help you access support and treatments.
- Relationship counselling: Attending counselling as a couple to help you find the way forward.
- Family counselling: Attending as a couple and with the children to help you all find a way forward.
- Children and young people’s counselling: Counselling for any child or young person having problems finding a way forward.
- Life coaching: Providing support and guidance to help you achieve your goals.
My best advice for anyone going through a separation is don’t suffer on your own – don’t be afraid to lean on your friends and family or seek help from an organisation that can offer counselling or mental health support. Getting advice from a family lawyer will also help you understand your options and help you prepare for the next chapter in your life.