Body & Fitness

Divorce stress syndrome

The breakup of a marriage is always a trialing period in a woman's life - however new medical evidence shows just how detrimental divorce is for your health.

Opening a bottle of wine, Rachel Boyd settled down on the sofa beside her husband Paul, ready to spend a relaxing Sunday evening in front of the television.

When he turned to her and announced he had something to say, she wondered  what it could be. News about work? Plans for an evening out?

“We’d just come back from a romantic weekend away and we’d had a lovely time, so I had no reason to suspect anything was wrong,” says Rachel. “But then Paul said he’d met another woman in a nightclub on a trip away nine months earlier, and that he was leaving me.”

That night in September 2010, while her company director husband ‘slept like a baby’ beside her, Rachel, now 53, lay  wide-awake in a state of shock.

For 24 hours after that exchange on the sofa, she didn’t sleep at all. She survived the first day on autopilot, unable to comprehend that life as she knew it had been pulled from under her like a flimsy rug.

But by the time she had driven the  20-minute journey home from her job as a slimming consultant, her body was no longer able to support the extreme emotional stress she was suffering.

“I had to stop the car about five times. I was suffering constant flashbacks to the moment my husband told me he was leaving me. My chest felt tight as if I was going to suffocate — it was as if I was going through post-traumatic stress.”

For the next month, Rachel, who married Paul in 1979 and has four children with him, experienced terrifying panic attacks.

Her throat felt so constricted she was unable to eat solid foods, and she lost a stone-and-half in weight. Her lips were parched from continual hyperventilation and she had to sleep upright: if she lay down, she felt she could not breathe enough air into her lungs.

Rachel is just one of countless women to experience how debilitating the physical effects of a break up can be.

Actress Demi Moore (49), has suffered seriously deteriorating health since her marriage to Ashton Kutcher hit the rocks last November. Her weight apparently fell to worrying 41 kg, and she is now reported to be in rehab.

Researchers at Michigan State University, in the U.S. followed people over a 15-year period and this month revealed that those who divorced experienced a more rapid decline in their health than those who remained married.

Other studies have found that while men suffer more long-term health problems after divorce if they don’t remarry, women tend to suffer more seriously in the short-term because of the sudden loss of status, financial support and the emotional safety net provided by marriage.

Recognising that she needed help, Rachel Boyd went to see a counsellor. “She told me I was in such shock that she wouldn’t be able to get through to me unless I took medication first,” Rachel recalls. “So I saw my GP, who prescribed antidepressants, sleeping tablets and anti-anxiety drugs.”

Rachel now believes she was suffering from an overwhelming fear of being alone. “I’d thought my husband and I were the ideal couple,” she says. “Friends used to say that if they had half the marriage we had, they’d have been so happy.”

“For my husband to suddenly say he wanted someone new and sparkling was devastating.”

Looking back, Rachel believes she was suffering from divorce stress syndrome — a little-recognised but widespread condition which can follow traumatic marital breakdown.

In a recent book on the  syndrome, U.S. legal professor Dr David Pastrana argued that the newly-divorced go through the same stages of emotional readjustment as those coming to terms with bereavement — namely, denial, anger, depression and acceptance.

He believes it’s vital for women to accept they may go through a difficult transitional stage, and seek help and support.

“Divorce can affect us emotionally, mentally and physically, beyond our expectations,” he says. “As you mourn the death of a loved one, so you encounter divorce grief. Recognising these feelings and acknowledging that you must go through a transitional healing process is a good place to start. Once you’ve understood them, you’re on your way to overcoming them.”

Experts say that little professional attention has been paid to the health consequences of an emotional blow like divorce — and to helping people avoid them.

Psychologist Dr James Lynch, author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences Of Loneliness, believes the links between emotional stress and physical illness are only beginning to be recognised.

Studies show that psychological stress increases the damage caused by free radicals — unstable molecules which attack healthy cells and are believed to play a part in heart disease, cancer and other serious diseases.

Under duress, the body produces more of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, which destabilises the body’s immune system and makes it less able to fight off illness. Last year, researchers at the University of Illinois studied 989 women diagnosed with breast cancer over a three-month period, and found an association between stress and the disease.

In a study of more than 10,800 women published in the American Journal Of Epidemiology in 2002, researchers found that stressful life events like divorce were ‘associated with an increased risk of breast cancer’.

Jackie Smith (54), found out her husband Terry was having an affair when she picked up his mobile phone — and found a text from a woman joking about a sexual liaison they’d had the previous day. Initially Jackie managed to cope with the shock of separation in 2002, but she now believes the effects of stress were cumulative — and contributed to her deteriorating health.

In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy  four years ago. “I’d been with my husband for 39 years, so he was all I knew,” she says. “The stress of separating and selling our home was unreal, and I believe the divorce was a contributing factor to my illness.”

Therapist Charlotte Friedman  says the issues facing women post-divorce are different according to their life-stage.

“For women in their 30s, the worry is often about how they will manage if there are children,” she explains.

“For older women in their 50s and 60s, their anxiety is more likely to be about being on their own as they head into old age. They feel invisible in the outside world, and they can’t take it for granted that they will meet someone else with whom to share the rest of their life.”

Rosemary Pruvost was 36 when she and her husband divorced in 2000. At first, the split was amicable — but when Rosemary’s ex remarried, she found herself sinking into depression. She eventually took 12 months off from her job as a school administrator.

“My ex-husband and I had  four children, then aged between  six and 12.”

“My husband’s job as an engineer meant we were constantly on the move, and the pressure on our relationship became too much.”

Initially, Rosemary and her ex-husband got on well after their divorce, and both embarked on new relationships. “But then he remarried, and when he phoned my 13-year-old daughter one day to tell her she was going to be getting a new baby brother, I found the news extremely hurtful,” Romemary says.

“My own relationship broke up around the same time, and I couldn’t cope with the fact my ex had made a new life for himself while my life was a mess.”

It was 2005 and, before long, Rosemary, now 49, developed a fear of going outside. “For months I couldn’t leave the house or go shopping,” she says. “There were days when I’d see my daughter off to school on the bus, then crawl back under my duvet where no one could hurt me. I lost 12kgs that year, and I didn’t even bother to get dressed some days.

“It was only when I started having counselling that I realised I was always looking back at my divorce, but I needed to move forward.”

Rosemary, now works for The National Council for the Divorced, Separated and Widowed in the UK

She says: “Divorce doesn’t go away. If there’s a bereavement, it’s terrible, but it’s final. With divorce, there are custody arrangements or new partners on the scene. Nothing is final, and the after-effects can hit you when you least expect it.”

Indeed, in America high-conflict divorces are seen as so stressful that they have been reclassified as one of the causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition usually associated with accident victims or soldiers in war zones.

Women are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD, suffering symptoms which include flashbacks, unsocial behaviour, heightened anxiety, insomnia and psychosomatic illness.

Even if it’s the wife who has made the decision to leave her marriage, guilt and emptiness can still take their toll. Charlotte Friedman explains: “The marriage may have been unhappy, but it’s still a loss you have to deal with.”

Accountant Jacqui Westerman (63), met a man with whom she thought she would spend the rest of her life in 1999.

She was already a divorcee after discovering that her husband, David, had been having an affair with a colleague. Within weeks of leaving him in 1975, when she was 27, Jacqui suffered a severe outbreak of hives and started taking antidepressants.

When Jacqui divorced again in 2008 at the age of 59, her skin problems flared up again, this time in the form of eczema and psoriasis. She also suffered irritable bowel syndrome and stress incontinence.

“The physical side of my second marriage was not good, and I fell out of love with my husband. I knew that leaving him was the right thing to do, but still I felt I was letting him and everyone else down.”

“I felt a deep disappointment and sadness which didn’t surface until much later. Even if you’re the one who left, you still have to learn to forgive yourself.”

“When I divorced the first time, I knew I could make a new life for myself. Now, at my age, I feel the disappointment of a lost future.”

Eighteen months after Rachel Boyd’s husband told her their marriage was over, the support of friends and family means Rachel is finally enjoying life again.

She has started a new job as a retail administrator, travelled to Australia, won a place volunteering at the Olympics in London this summer — and has started dating again.

“There is life after divorce, but the shock remains,” she says. “I thought my life was set, and this was not the life I saw for myself.”

Rachel believes the corrosive impact of divorce often goes unrecognised.

“I have other friends going through post-divorce shock, including  one who is self-harming. Others,  like me, have had panic attacks  and lost dramatic amounts of weight,” she explains.

“I have never felt anything like the physical symptoms I experienced after divorce, and I hope I never experience them again. I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy.”

“But, if you give yourself time and support, the body and the mind can repair themselves.”

*Some names have been changed.

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