brain health

What a late-life divorce can do to your brain

For most individuals, divorce is a very stressful process – even for a partner who wants the divorce.  Going through a divorce can easily make you feel as though you are losing your mind.  When you are over 50, familiar routines you have built up over years no longer exist and you may feel all at sea, faced with a multitude of uncertainties as you are forced out of your comfort zones.   Just a few of these uncertainties may be:

  • Where you will live
  • Whether you will cope alone
  • How you’re going to make ends meet
  • How  your adult children will respond

“Fight or Flight” Mode

There’s a part of your brain that’s responsible for keeping you alive and it kicks into gear when you feel as though you’re under threat. It  prepares you to run for your life by generating more cortisol and adrenaline. It shuts down access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps with making decisions, understanding the consequences of your actions and planning.

In the period after your divorce, you may find yourself using language you wouldn’t normally use, acting in ways you are ashamed of afterwards and lashing out at those around you. I did all three when I felt compelled to hang a gallery wall of pictures without the right supplies one day soon after my divorce. As pictures rained down around me, pulling plaster off the walls, I swore, shouted and cried hysterically. It’s also why you are often advised to hold off on making major decisions during this period as far as possible. The more primitive part of your brain is ‘running wild’. A whole torrent of emotions can be triggered by anything and everything from sitting next to your divorced spouse at your daughter’s graduation to driving past the hotel where you had your honeymoon.  You have years and years of memories that may also resurface through flashbacks and dreams. It’s only when your ‘sensible’ pre-frontal cortex controls that the ‘wild’ more primitive part of your brain that you think and act more rationally.

Some people become stuck in ‘fight-or-flight’ state. They continue to experience intense emotions and try to avoid them rather than processing them. They may bury themselves in work, go out every night or take drugs or alcohol to help numb these overwhelming emotions.

Brain fog

When you’re going through a divorce, stress impairs your mental performance — don’t be surprised if you experience confusion and forgetfulness. Nobody knows much about what causes ‘brain fog’ but many people seem to experience it in the months following a divorce. It’s probably due to all the emotional energy you expend. I think ‘brain fog’ is also a defense mechanism that deadens the extreme pain.  It’s like a soft, pillow of cloud surrounding your brain, causing you to function largely on autopilot.

I was constantly locking myself out of the house, leaving keys lying on counters in shops and finding I had driven to the wrong destination.   A friend of mine said she had to leave notes to herself all over the house. Another friend said she used to stare at her daughter blankly, trying to remember her name. As I was faced with gathering financial information, attending divorce court and making decisions that would impact the remaining years of my life, I  feared for my sanity at times. I couldn’t seem to make the simplest of decisions such as what to eat or what to wear, let alone decisions that would affect my future.

My ex made me file for divorce, even though he was the one who wanted it. I had no money to spare to consult an attorney and I managed to do it very cheaply by filing at the local divorce court. In retrospect, I think this was a bad decision – it may have been inexpensive but I was thrust  into a demeaning and distressful process without any help  – sitting in dank, dirty corridors for many hours on different days and eventually standing up in front of the court, explaining how I had been betrayed in front of a crowd of strangers. An attorney would also have helped me to make decisions at this time when my brain was enveloped in its foggy cloud.

Brain ageing and dementia

Some studies have suggested that there is a link between chronic stress in middle aged women and late-life dementia. Recent studies reveal that a major stressful life event, such as a divorce, can age the human brain by as much as four years.

Experiencing anxiety, fear and stress is normal when it’s occasional and temporary. But researchers report that mental health problems occur when those emotions become more frequent and start interfering with daily life. They can then lead to a gradual decline of the brain’s hippocampus which is responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation.

How do you shift from ‘Fight or Flight’ mode?

If you want to cope effectively, making a shift from ‘Fight or Flight’ mode is essential. When you experience fear, stress and anxiety on a temporary basis, this is completely normal. However, when those emotions start becoming a constant part of your daily life and interfere with how you function, it needs to be addressed.  Here are some well-known ways to put your pre-frontal cortex back in control:

  • Take a beat and breathe slowly. The emotional mid-brain responds as quick as a flash. You need to slow down for your mind and body to realize that your situation may be stressful but you are not in mortal danger. Slow breathing helps to send this signal to your brain. I learned this tip when I used to experience panic attacks – slow breathing plus medication helped me to conquer them.
  • Become aware. When you observe yourself and your situation, you engage your pre-frontal cortex. This helps to prevent you from acting irrationally before you’ve had a chance to think properly about a situation.
  • You need to change how you think about stress. We all have stress in our lives. It’s how we manage it that matters. Instead of seeing it as harmful, try to see it as a challenge. There are ways to manage it effectively.
  • Find the right support. When the body releases adrenaline,  it is interesting that it also releases oxytocin. This hormone drives us to seek out physical contact and support from others. Receiving support from others helps you to calm down, and allows you to access the part of your brain that thinks rationally again.
  • Be compassionate towards yourself. Empathy and compassion are functions of the pre-frontal cortex. When you exercise this part of your brain, you will not only feel better about yourself but it will help you to exercise more self-control and improve your relationships.
  • Welcome the challenge of new experiences. New experiences, even if you don’t want them, help your brain to grow. Your divorce forces you out of  your comfort zones and your old patterns. Why not take the opportunity, even if it has been thrust upon you, to learn new skills and take on new challenges? They help to develop your pre-frontal cortex and instead of feeling overwhelmed, you will find you are able to make better decisions and become more motivated.
  • Meditation and prayer. Both of these spiritual practices have been around for centuries but we’re only beginning to understand more about the effect they have on the mind.  Neuroscientists are studying their effect through using brain scans. Results of studies have showed changes to the brain, but many of them are inconclusive because there are so many variables at play. At the very least, these practices may help to keep you more grounded,  relaxed, and able to think more clearly.

Last word

It helps to understand why your brain reacts in certain ways.  You know what you can do to become more resilient and how to stimulate essential brain functions. Going through a late-life divorce has the potential to break you and permanently affect your mental health. On the other hand, you can play the cards you have been dealt, rise to the challenge and come out of it wiser, stronger, more compassionate and more motivated.

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