Divorce is the second most stressful life event according to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. As a result, it is important to have a regular practice or coping mechanism to reground yourself with positive intention and soothe yourself amidst alarming thoughts and emotions. This is where mindfulness comes in.
What is mindfulness? This word brings up different ideas for everyone, and that reality lends to the diversity of ways it can be approached and practiced. The Oxford Dictionary gives us a general definition: “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Divorce naturally brings up a whole host of natural thoughts and emotions. While they can be telling and insightful if we accept and listen to them, they can wreck havoc if we let them spiral out of control, assuming a chaotic life beyond the reality from which they stem. Mindfulness can be a practice of becoming conscious of these thoughts and emotions, understanding them as valid, hearing their important messages, and dealing with them in a compassionate yet responsible manner.
Consider the following: Your spouse calls you to tell you that she has decided to pursue full legal and physical custody of your two young children with her aggressive lawyer, despite the fact you have been equally involved in their loving and attentive care throughout your eight year marriage.
Reaction 1: “How dare you! There is no way you’re going to get away with this nonsense! You just wait until I talk to my lawyer, and we’ll see what he has to say about this. You always have been selfish and disrespectful. I’m going to ask them to see what they really want!”
Response 2: Inhale… Exhale… “I’m really sorry to hear that. I know you love the children and want time with them. I feel the same way. I wonder if there is a better way we can work this out. I want them to have positive relationships with both of us, and I trust you feel that same way. Can we talk about this again at a convenient time?”
What a difference, huh? The first reply is likely to further infuriate your spouse and provoke additional adversarial behavior on both sides. The second reply, however, may engage her cooperation and lend to a more mutually beneficial interaction. The difference is that the first reply is merely a reaction to emotions within yourself that you haven’t even had a chance to identify and process, while the second is an intentional response that validates both your and her feelings and seeks to invite a less divisive solution.
Notice that reactive replies lend to judgment, escalation, impulsivity, and negative attribution. Responsive replies, or mindful ones, make way for open mindedness, attenuation, patience, curiosity and creativity.
Try the following techniques to make mindfulness part of your daily routine for coping with a stressful divorce:
- Find an activity that helps you stop thinking. Often, embodied practices help do this, from running, to walking, to dancing, to yoga, to kick-boxing. Do something you enjoy so you are more likely to stick with it. Make it a regular practice.
- Discover meditative techniques to tame your mind and manage your emotions. For example, when enduring a restless night in bed, envision tossing each worry that comes to your mind over the side of your bed onto a leaf floating down a river. This way, your worry is still “held,” but no longer consuming you.
- Focus on your breath. Breathing is the most natural, life-sustaining, rhythmic thing we do. Targeting the simplicity of breathing brings you into your grounding body and out of your worrying mind.
- Journal or find a trusted friend, coach or therapist to talk to. This is a way to release your thoughts and concerns in a healthy manner, rather than dumping them on our spouse or reacting to them.
- Greet each day with a simple, positive intention. For example, “Today I will breathe deeply every time I get anxious or upset.” Or, “Today I will identify my feelings, accept them, and shelve them temporarily before engaging with my spouse.”
- Seek courses, books and other resources in mindfulness based on stress reduction.
Mindfulness is an effective discipline to manage the stress of your divorce. Give it a try, and remember – each moment presents you with a new opportunity.