The ‘fight or flight’ response has been with us as a species from our earliest beginnings. It’s a survival mechanism that causes our bodies to respond to perceived threat. When you feel threatened, the brain starts preparing the body for action and it goes into a state of heightened alert. Those in the initial stages of divorce often experience the ‘fight or flight’ response. It may kick in when having a conversation with an ex, visiting the lawyer’s offices, going to court and is even triggered by painful memories.
What happens in the brain in ‘fight or flight’ mode?
- Releases cortisol
- Releases adrenaline
- Releases glucose
- Heart and lung action accelerates
- Digestion slows down
- Blood vessels to crucial muscles dilate
What do you experience when your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode?
Your heart rate goes up, your pupils dilate, you perspire and your mouth feels dry. Your neck and shoulders muscles tense up and your breathing becomes faster and shallower.
Deep in the center of the limbic brain is the amygdala, which acts like a guard dog. Its function for centuries has been to protect us when our lives are threatened. The trouble is that in these modern times the guard dog is not so good at discerning whether you are really in a life or death situation. It doesn’t know the difference between a fear that exists in your mind or a real event. The “fight or flight” response is triggered even when you are not under any real threat.
When you react in response to the guard dog’s alarm, you may find yourself acting in ways you are ashamed of afterwards, lashing out at those around you and using language you have never used in your life before.
The biggest part of your brain is the “thinking” brain or the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is located right behind the forehead and is often described as the ‘wise old owl’. Planning, reasoning, problem solving, decision making and impulse control all take place in this part of the brain.
How do we put the “wise old owl” back in control?
You are not meant to stay in a “fight or flight” state for long periods of time. When stressors are constantly present, you are overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones that can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes . Here are some well-known ways to help put the “wise old owl” part of your brain back in control.
- Take a beat and breathe slowly.
You need to slow down for your mind to realize that your situation may be stressful but you are not in mortal danger. Slow breathing sends this signal to your brain. As you take deep breaths, the “wise old owl” opens up her eyes and sees that the guard puppy is not barking at any real danger. She helps the guard puppy to calm down and stop barking.
- Wait for the ‘wise owl’ to respond.
The amygdala triggers a response very speedily (30 milliseconds). The “thinking” response takes longer (250 milliseconds). If you delay your response, you give the ‘wise owl’ an opportunity to take control and you will avoid irrational decisions and actions.
- Avoid the drama.
Don’t get caught up in gossip about your ex and to avoid playing “what if …” scenarios in your own head. Drama fires up the guard dog and you start to react without thinking.
- Change how you think about stress.
How you think about stress and react to it makes a difference. If the amygdala reads incoming information as safe, it relaxes and puts the prefrontal cortex back in control. Optimism causes the “barking dog” to relax and dopamine levels to rise. Walking in nature, exercising, painting, and listening to music are all activities that cause relaxation and allow this to happen.
Meditating and prayer are two age-old practices that can help to keep you grounded, peaceful and able to think more clearly. Find out what works best for you and incorporate these activities into your daily routine.
- Compassion and gratitude
Compassion is a function of your pre-frontal cortex. If you are exercising compassion towards yourself and others, your thinking brain is in control. As a result you have more control over your emotions and your relationship with yourself and with others improves. Gratitude also increases positive emotions, allowing the pre-frontal cortex to function properly.
- Find the right support
When the body releases adrenaline, it also releases oxytocin. This is the hormone that drives you to seek out physical contact and support from others. When you have support, you are able to calm down and start thinking more rationally. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to surround yourself with supportive people. Giving and receiving hugs literally helps to soothe your brain as the calming peptides flow.
- Welcome the challenge of new experiences
New experiences, even if you don’t want them, help your brain to grow. Learning new information and engaging in challenging new activities fires off neurons in a good way. Your divorce forces you out of your old comfort zones and habits. It presents you with a situation in which you are forced to overcome obstacles. As you overcome them and take on new challenges, you will find that instead of constantly feeling overwhelmed, you become much better at coping and making decisions.
Your divorce can have a negative impact on your mind and body, especially if you remain stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode and your body is constantly flooded with stress hormones. However, it can also be a catalyst for changing your old ways of reacting to stressful situations and offer you the opportunity to develop a stronger mental attitude.