We’ve all pondered the question “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. A similar question exists in the world of mental health: “is the body sick because the mind is distraught, or is the mind distraught due to sickness of the body?” Regardless the answer, there are two things we know to be true: first, an understanding that a body and mind connection exists. Second, it is this connection that helps explain why divorce can be making you sick – physically and mentally.
A Quick Education on Stress
Divorce can trigger a multitude of emotions. Anger, sadness, and loneliness, just to name a few. The emotional response differs depending on the individual, but one thing seems to remain consistent for all: the event is stressful. In fact, stress might be the word most commonly used to succinctly summarize how an individual going through a divorce is feeling.
While stress is most certainly a contributor to health issues, and we often think of “stress” as solely a negative, it’s important to understand that not all stress is created equal. Some stress is actually good for us. That’s right; there is a kind of stress that is short lived and serves to motivate and propel us through various situations. It even has a name: eustress. There are not lasting, detrimental physical or psychological effects of eustress.
Harmful stress, known simply as “stress” (hence the negative association with the term), is the kind of stress that wreaks havoc on our body and mind. Stress that leaves the body in a heightened state of arousal over a period of time eventually leads to issues of the body and mind.
Whether an event is triggering good or harmful stress is dependent upon the individual as the physiological reaction in the body is all the same. This physiological response is known as “fight or flight” and is the work of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It is responsible for elements of bodily functioning, which occur automatically and are essential for life (i.e., heart rate and respiratory rate, pupillary dilation, sexual arousal, etc.).
Before you totally check out with all this technical jargon, let’s talk in metaphoric terms.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response (adrenaline pumping, increased heart, and breathing, dilated pupils). It’s like pressing on the accelerator in a car. The parasympathetic nervous system works to return the body to a normal, resting state of functioning. In our car analogy, the parasympathetic nervous system is the breaks. When a car is moving through traffic with a steady flow of acceleration and braking, all is well. This would be eustress. But if that same car has an accelerator that’s stuck or breaks that don’t work, it speeds through traffic in a way that is dangerous and unlikely to end well. Just like stress. A body in a heightened state of arousal for a period of time will eventually crash.
Body and Mind Connection: Physical & Mental Illness Explained
There is a powerful connection between the body and mind that contributes to both illness and supports health and healing.
Prolonged stress and cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body literally weakens the immune system. A weakened immune system leaves an individual susceptible to illness. Individuals may find themselves sick more often, and for longer periods of time, with common illnesses such as colds, sinus infections, and the flu. They are also at higher risk of more serious and chronic problems like heart disease and stroke.
Conversely, illness which begins without stress as the main contributor can have a powerful impact on mental health as well. Prolonged struggles with common illnesses (i.e., the cold that’s been hanging on for over a month, leaving a person sick and tired of being sick and tired) or diagnoses of more serious conditions trigger a stress response. Depression, anxiety and maybe even panic can result from these scenarios.
Is an individual sick because they haven’t been caring for their mental health, or are they struggling with their mental health because of a physical condition? As you can see, it’s a double-edged sword!
Caring for The Body and Mind
Rather than wasting precious time and energy debating which came first (physical vs. mental), let’s simply accept that the two are connected and strive to care for both.
Did you know that a pessimistic or optimistic attitude can affect ability to cope? People who view events through a pessimistic lens tend to explain them as global and stable. For example, “I’m going through a difficult divorce. ALL women are horrible. My life is ruined FOREVER.”. Conversely, those who view events through an optimistic lens tend to explain the same event as temporary and specific. For example, “I’m going through a divorce. It’s a horrible situation, but not all women are horrible. My whole life is not ruined, rather now I get the opportunity to figure out my new normal.”
Pessimism and optimism are linked to perceived control. Perceiving a degree of control exists leads to taking action. Perceiving no control can result in sitting back and allowing things to happen without being an influencer in the situation.
Pessimism and optimism are traits of personality and personality are very difficult to change. Very difficult doesn’t equal impossible, though. If you identify as being more pessimistic generally, or even just about the divorce, take comfort in knowing that optimism can be learned. To understand more about learned optimism, and how to achieve that end, visit the article Learned Optimism: The Glass Half Full and other resources from Positive Psychology Program.
A healthy lifestyle is equally important in caring for the body and mind connection. What we eat and drink, how much sleep we get each night, and how much physical activity is clocked in a day all make a difference in how well the body and mind function. A diet low in nutritional value, getting very little sleep and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to a whole host of physical (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc.) and mental (depression, anxiety, etc.) issues. Equip your body and mind to handle even the most stressful of circumstances by paying attention to diet, exercise and rest.
Finding Social Support
Finally, social connections also support body and mind wellness. Companionship creates opportunity for honest feedback, emotional support, and in some cases material assistance. It also has potential to encourage health-enhancing behaviors, as discussed above. Social connection extends itself beyond friends and family as well. There is increasing evidence to support pets as a strong source of social support. If you’re curious about some details of this kind of research and wondering what sort of specific benefits pets may provide, this quick read by Rick Nauert, Ph.D. sheds additional light on the subject: Pets Provide Emotional, Social Support to Owners.
Can divorce be making you sick? Absolutely! Might it be the reason you just can’t seem to get over that nagging cold? Yep! Keep in mind this body and mind connection and strive to care for both. And if you just can’t seem to get back on track with wellness on your own, seek help from a professional. It might be just the ticket to clearing and hurdle and achieving health so that you can get back to living a fulfilling life.