Beating Stress – before it beats you

Divorce is one of the most stressful life events you can experience, but there are some valuable remedies — both physical and mental — you can use to reduce your anxiety levels.

Living in the modern world is tough enough without the heartbreak, insecurity, and trauma of splitting from your spouse. Divorce adds a multitude of worries to your already-hectic life: waiting for the outcome of the process; not being sure where you will go or what will happen afterwards; legal bills and other possible financial woes; dealing with the children’s reaction to the situation; the annoyance of having to relocate; and the awkwardness or embarrassment of having to explain to everybody you know that your marriage is no more

“The loss of a loved one — whether through geographic relocation, divorce, end of a friendship, or death — often triggers feelings of bereavement, abandonment, depression, insecurity, fearfulness, and sometimes anger,” says national stress-relief expert Susie Mantell, whose award-winning relaxation audio, Your Present: A Half-Hour of Peace, is physician-recommended for stress, sleeplessness, pain, depression, and PTSD. “All of those emotions cause stress on the body-mind-spirit that can be harmful, so we must, at those times, summon support from others (friends/family/health-care professionals we can trust), muster all our inner resilience and resources, and put ourselves in emotional ‘intensive care’.”

The stress generated by divorce may seem unbearable at times. But what really matters is not how much stress you have, but how you deal with it. You must take care of your physical self, since how you feel physically affects how you feel emotionally (and vice-versa); you must also learn how to adjust your mental attitude to overcome stressful periods, either through outside stimulation and activities or through your thoughts.

Before you deal with stress, obviously, you have to understand what stress really is — knowing your enemy is the best way to defeat it. “Stress is pressure, tension, or demand on physical or mental energy,” writes Ellen Karpay in The Everything Total Fitness Book. “When your body is stressed, it reacts by prioritizing and shutting down less important bodily functions (reproduction is one) to focus on quickly remedying the situation. This response is known as the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. Survival responses to stress include increased heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, body temperature, blood sugar levels, blood flow to muscles, sweating, muscular tension, and decreased rate of digestion… These life-saving responses were designed for short-term survival, not for long-term living.”

In stressful situations, your body produces hormones — including adrenaline — to fill you with energy. After a few days, your body releases other hormones — such as cortisol — that slow you down in order to protect you from burning yourself out. As you continue to worry, your stress will escalate as your body produces an increasing amount of “upper” and “downer” hormones to affect your energy level. Symptoms of high stress that you may experience include headaches, irritability, excessive eating or appetite loss, hyperactivity or feeling drained, and shallow breathing — depending on which hormones your body is receiving at the moment.

The following basic remedies are useful places to start to help ease yourself through any tense times.

Caring for your Body

One of the most basic ways to keep your energy and spirits up is to take proper care of your physical health. This may seem like simple common sense, but for many people, it takes a lot of willpower to sidestep old habits or persevere with new routines. You’ve probably heard the cliche, “you are what you eat.” The quality and variety of food you take in directly affects your body and your emotions, so improving your diet is a vital step. Ask your doctor to recommend a nutritional specialist who can work out a plan based on your needs and goals. If finances permit, book a week or two at a health spa like Canyon Ranch rather than going on a booze-cruise for your vacation: you’ll learn what your body needs to help improve your spirits — and your quality of life.

Some people’s bodies handle certain foods differently from others’; you may choose to become vegetarian if your body doesn’t react well to meat, for example. But don’t jump into any radically different diet or plan without first asking your doctor whether it’s safe for you.

For now, try adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet, and drink six to ten glasses of pure water a day. Also decrease or eliminate fried or salty dishes, and any foods high in saturated fat or cholesterol. Unless you have a health condition that prevents it, now’s the time to start taking good-quality vitamins — especially B, B6, and C, which can boost your energy and help against depression.

“Make conscious food choices. And then, savor them!” says Mantell. “There is a special joy in eating food we know is healthy — and delicious. Consider the roles of caffeine, sugar and alcohol in your life. All can exacerbate stress. ‘Sugar Blues’ can be confused with a common ailment known as ‘crabbiness’,” she notes.

Unfortunately, many people attempt to fight stress or depression exactly the wrong way : by eating lots of “treat” foods such as chocolate, ice cream, donuts, and chips. These may deceive you into satisfaction at first, but they’ll let you down later — both mentally and physically. The more extreme form of this is turning to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs for comfort. An occasional drink (or less-than-healthy snack) won’t kill you, but alcohol and cigarettes combined with junk food can only heighten stress and depression — and they can cause much worse maladies.

As important as a good diet to your well being is exercise. Not only does regular exercise make you look and feel better, but it also helps combat stress and depression by releasing “feel-good” hormones.

“Make sure to get professional advice, such as recommendations and approval from a doctor,” advises fitness expert Teresa Taylor-Dusharm, the operational director of Advocate Health Care’s prevention-focused product lines. “Work with fitness professionals who can advise you on what levels to work at.” If done safely, exercise can be a tremendous benefit to your mind, body, and soul. “Some relaxation exercises are good for your mental and emotional state, whereas other exercise has physiological effects that return your body to a healthy state.”

You don’t have to get a gym membership or join a strenuous fitness class right away; in fact, that’s not recommended if you haven’t exercised in years. “The initial form to start on would definitely be walking,” says Taylor-Dusharm. “It’s relatively safe (depending on where you do it, of course).” It also gives you some needed fresh air — and allows you private time to reflect and clear your mind. “As for the amount of exercise, you will know that after you get approval from your doctor. I usually suggest what I call F.I.T.: Frequency (the majority of the days of the week), Intensity (you can carry on a conversation but can’t sing a song), and Time spent (this varies with different individuals’ levels of fitness).”

When your fitness level permits, consider jogging, cycling, racket sports, aerobics, or aquafit (aerobics performed in the water to reduce the stress on your joints) — anything that will get you moving and sweating for at least 30 minutes a day. Even going out dancing can more than fill your daily quota of exercise — and it can also take your mind off the issues that are stressing you out.

“The primary thing we need to learn is how to find that ‘resting in a waking state’ of relaxation,” says Marcia Bernstein, M.S.W., a Behavioral Health psychotherapist with Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires Health Resort in Lenox, MA. “In tense situations, we tend to hold our breath or take quick, shallow breaths. When you’re feeling stressed, take a few moments to inhale and exhale deeply until you’re calmer. “Research has shown that there’s a connection between the way we breathe and our level of tension,” adds Bernstein.

And don’t underestimate the benefits of a good night’s sleep. “During stressful, overly busy times, we often sacrifice our sleep, yet those are the times that we need it the most,” notes Karpay. “If that is the case for you, wake up and start making sleep a priority in your day. Sleep is not a luxury; it is an important component of your health.” Most people need about six or seven hours of sleep per night, although the amount can vary from person to person.

If you’ve got a bit of extra cash and time, you might get a massage or other forms of body therapy at your local spa. “People today tend to spend a lot of time sitting in front of computers at work, where they only use particular muscles,” says Marie Picton, the executive manager of Toronto’s Spa at the Elmwood. “So their stress accumulates in certain areas of their bodies. A massage helps to alleviate that stress by concentrating on certain muscles that need work. Some workplaces have health benefit packages that may allow time for spa services as a preventative measure. Regular spa services can help prevent future problems.”

Another option is using certain types of sensual stimulation to calm or heighten your anxious mood — such as relaxing music, a hot bath, or aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the use of pure essential oils for beauty, treating illness, or to affect your moods.

“There are a number of ways that aromatherapy works,” explains Paula Dzikowski, the owner and founder of Precious Aromatherapy, “but the most familiar way is through the sense of smell. It’s a very subjective experience; people have different responses to it. There are different oils that produce certain emotions, usually uplifting or refreshing or calming.” Dzikowski suggests several different uses for oils to relieve stress: for example, taking a bath with lavender, which has a sedating effect, or diffusing the fragrance of lavender, sandalwood, or chamomile into a room. “Some people scent a tissue with bergamot and put it under their pillow, and find it makes all the difference in the world. Certain oils are thought to be good for heartbreak, such as neroli, which is recommended as an anti-depressant, or rosewood.” For more information on aromatherapy as a stress reliever, check out your local health-product store, or visit Precious Aromatherapy’s website at

Beneficial Mind Games

Now that you’re meeting your body’s needs for proper nutrition, exercise, relaxation, and sleep, it’s time to start working on your mental and emotional fitness. “Your attitude creates stress, so you need to revise your attitude to decrease the stress in your life,” says L.A.-based psychologist Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., who runs an intensive weekend retreat workshop on anger four times a year. In order to start taking action to reduce stress, you need a positive attitude to move forward. “Energy follows thought. If your thoughts are positive and upbeat, you’ll have more energy. But if you see through the lens of the glass being half-empty rather than half-full, your energy will be low.”

“Actions all come from your thoughts,” says motivational writer and lecturer Dr. Wayne Dyer, best-selling author of 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace. “As the Bible says, ‘As a man thinketh, so is he.’ You have to monitor the thinking you have at the moment. When you have fear, worry, or anguish, shift your thoughts to whatever God means to you. Then you can monitor stress, which is really nothing more than your blood pressure going up.

“I tend to use the metaphor of an orange,” Dr. Dyer continues. “When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice, because that’s what’s inside. When somebody ‘squeezes’ you — through actions that affect you — what comes out is what’s inside you, whether that’s tension, fear, and anguish, or love, joy, and peace. It’s not because of whoever did the squeezing; the source is not on the outside but on the inside. Wisdom is avoiding all thoughts that weaken you. Then you can lose the illusion of stress.”

When you’re overwhelmed by a lot of work and obligations and worries, you may tend to see the whole all at once rather than as separate things — and this might paralyze you into inaction. But as you can only live one moment at a time, you can only focus on one thing in each moment. “Live in the present moment,” advises Bernstein. “People are busy and think they can’t find the extra time, but you can take the little moments to focus on your breathing or stretching or using your senses.”

“Much of the stress we experience revolves around either past or future concerns,” says Mantell. “Bringing our awareness and focus into the present moment instantly replaces yesterday’s regrets and wipes away worries for tomorrow. It allows us to release every other thought and be fully present to experience this conversation, this breath, this pleasure, or to solve this problem.”

In order to keep your issues from driving you crazy or affecting your health, you should list your priorities. Take care of what needs to be done or dealt with right away — and save less urgent tasks and problems for later. Get organized. Clear your desk of all non-priorities so that only immediate concerns are showing. This way, you will make steady, forward progress instead of getting stuck in a worrying tailspin; focusing your mind on the problem or task at hand will block out thoughts of the others further down on your priority list.

Of course you can’t spend all your time working and dealing with issues. Pacing yourself reasonably and taking time off are just as important. That’s why you have to rest and empty your mind once in a while. A relaxing vacation, even a weekend getaway, will take you physically away from the environment that’s providing your sources of tension. When you return, you’re refreshed and ready to start dealing with your issues constructively again.

If you can’t afford to take a vacation, you should at least get out of the house once in a while and have fun. Temporary escape from your stressful issues will make you feel better and recharge you, so don’t feel guilty about taking an evening off. “It’s important to balance out what you’re going through with playing,” says Bernstein, “whether that’s sports or a movie or just a brisk walk. Playing is important both as a distraction and as a way of relaxing.”

“Today, when many of us have such busy work schedules, it can be hard to make time for yourself,” says Picton. “But spa services can provide a relaxing escape from everyday situations. Someone focuses in on you, and you can focus in on yourself. Aside from the health benefits, spa services also allow you time to reflect.”

A good way to quiet your mind is to meditate. There are many different styles of meditation — sitting, lying, dancing, and guided visualization to name just a few — so experiment by attending different classes until you find one that suits you. Meditation and mindfulness will turn your mind away from those things that are upsetting you and relax you completely.

“Mindfulness is the fundamental principle of meditation, releasing all else and being here, now,” explains Mantell. “Within each of us there is a quiet place where peace lives. In day-to-day life, no matter what challenges we face, presence of mind allows utter calm and complete release of worry, anger or grief. Mindfulness allows the body-mind to pause, and rebalance in the open space of the quiet place inside. In addition to traditional Zen practice, or TM (Transcendental Meditation), many also find great comfort in guided imagery meditation. Writing meditation, walking meditation, the rhythm of the ocean, washing dishes, or rocking a baby can all be mindful, meditative experiences in everyday life.”

Some problems, however, are hard to release, even temporarily — especially if you have no tools to help you let go of them. Many of us were trained by our parents and teachers not to burden others with our problems, but it can be dangerous to hold everything inside. So find a safe, appropriate time, place, and method to let them out. If your friends and family members are tired of hearing about your divorce and/or other issues, join a support group. “Surround yourself with people who don’t raise your anxiety level,” Dr. Brandt suggests.

Professional Help

If your anxiety has gone beyond the point where you’re able to help yourself, you should seek professional assistance — from a medical doctor if stress is pushing you toward ulcers and heart problems, or from a mental-health professional to help you work through your issues.

Dr. Brandt suggests seeking help “when the things you’ve been doing don’t work and you need an outsider’s viewpoint: somebody with a fresh perspective who can help you see your issues in a different light.” If you had a broken leg, you would seek professional help to fix it. The same is true for a broken heart or spirit. A professional can help you get on the right track to inner peace or health.

“You want to have a balance between articulating or expressing your feelings and living your life normally,” adds Bernstein. “If that balance is missing, it may be time to be evaluated by a social worker or therapist.” She recommends seeking help “if you start to become a victim of your emotions and are not voluntarily in charge of expressing them. If you have sleep disturbance and feel fatigued every day, if you’re crying at a lot at inopportune times, or if you’re very easily angered. Workshops are another way to do some healing work. There are many personal-growth workshops in every area that offer help with stress management.”

Facing the World Again

Ultimately, your ability to withstand stress depends not so much on how much of it you have in your life or what’s causing it, but on how you cope with it. “Remind yourself that there’s really no such thing as stress,” says Dr. Dyer. “Stress is an illusion — it’s a matter of how you choose to process every event. Every situation is an opportunity for you to make something positive out of it. You have the choice to avoid dwelling on thoughts that weaken you: such as how much you dislike a person, or thinking about bad things that are happening to you. If you fill yourself with shame, anger, hate, or anguish, you’ll have low energy. But high energy — or energy of light — defeats stressful actions.”

“Peace of mind, a positive outlook, a sense of adventure, exercise, meditation, conscious food choices, and honest, supportive relationships all increase the ‘feel-good’ factor,” summarizes Mantell. “In many cases, they enhance immunity, facilitate healing, and promote physical and emotional health.”

“When people are divorcing, they’re not feeling like their normal selves,” says Bernstein. “They need ways to glimpse back into the essence of who they are.” Find your essence — beneath the clutter that life keeps handing you — and you will relax again.

Above all, don’t abandon hope. Keep a positive attitude about yourself and where you’re heading. “Where there is life, there is always hope,” says Mantell. “Hope has great power. You do need to make realistic plans, but sometimes you have no idea what is truly possible. So it’s a good idea not to put too many limitations on what you hope for. Hope makes all things bearable, and somehow gets us through the most stressful moments of our lives. And if we are very lucky and hope very hard, we just might see ourselves make some remarkable changes over time.”

Stress studies

Some recent academic studies have revealed some fascinating facts about stress and marriage/divorce. For instance:

  • Divorce and work-related stress can be a deadly combination for men. Men who get divorced and report a lot of career stress may be at a greater risk for heart problems. (State University of New York-Oswego / University of Pittsburgh)
  • Males are geared to react differently from females to stress even before they’re born. Male fetuses release twice as much cortisol — the stress hormone, produced by the cortex of the adrenal glands — than female fetuses do. This may account for men overreacting to stress as well as being more at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. (University of Cambridge, UK)
  • A large amount of work-related stress can affect a marriage relationship significantly. Job stress — regardless of marital satisfaction or couples’ parenthood status — can create the same marital unhappiness that often leads to divorce. (University of California in Berkeley)
  • The levels of stress hormones in married people can foretell whether or not their marriages will last for the next 10 years — regardless of how happy or satisfied a couple claims to be at the beginning of a marriage. (Ohio State University’s College of Medicine).

Stress-Busting Tips

  • Count to Ten. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit — perhaps a park bench during your lunch break, or a favorite chair at home. Don’t lie down unless you’re certain you won’t fall asleep. Start to take slow, deep breaths. Think “one inhale” as you breathe in, and “one exhale” as you breathe out; you’ll count the next breath as “two inhale, two exhale,” up to “ten inhale, ten exhale.” Then start again from “one inhale.” If you lose your place, start again from “one inhale.” The counting helps to focus and quiet your mind, shutting out intrusive, stressful thoughts. Continue counting your deep breaths for 10 minutes once or twice a day.
  • Laugh it off. From a tiny giggle to a side-splitting guffaw, laughter can help to reduce stress. Research has found that laughter initiates the release of beta-endorphins — the same “feel-good” natural relaxants that are released during exercise. Endorphins also block cortisol, a hormone that can affect your blood pressure, immune system, and weight. Rent a comedy video or go see a funny movie; read a book that has you in stitches; subscribe to your local Comedy TV station; and hang out with people who make you laugh. Or pick up a copy of Health, Healing, and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training by humor-research pioneer Dr. Paul McGhee at
  • Just walk away. Any exercise, even a leisurely 20-minute stroll, has the ability to reduce stress. Make your walk extra-relaxing by listening to a soothing audiotape and/or by taking your walk in pleasant surroundings. Keep your eyes open, though: you don’t want to walk into traffic or other pedestrians!
  • Write it out. You’ve probably heard about the power of journaling: writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences on a daily basis can help to unburden both your mind and body. So for the next couple of weeks, try to spend at least 20 minutes a day writing in a journal. Jot down the details of a stressful day or an encounter with your ex. You’re not looking for prizes for style or grammar here: the point is to get as much into your journal and off your chest as quickly as possible. You can keep your journal(s) for future reference — so you can see how far you’ve come — or you can burn them as part of a “letting go” ritual.
  • Tune it out. Slow music has been shown to ease anxiety as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate. Try something from the Solitudes collection; some of their titles feature only nature sounds (waterfalls, babbling brooks, gentle surf breaking on the seashore), and others combine nature sounds with music. Check out the “Relaxation” section under “Discography” at
  • Practice Yoga. Hatha Yoga can help you release built-up tension and stress, strengthening the body while calming the mind. Once you’ve learned the poses (preferably from a qualified instructor), all you need is a quiet, comfortable place and about 20-40 minutes each day to breathe and stretch your stress away. “People who practice yoga and meditation report they have more self-confidence, sleep better, eat better, and that their stress and anxiety levels are greatly reduced,” says Helen Goldstein, director of The Yoga Studio in Toronto. “And 20 minutes of meditation has the positive effects of two-to-three hours of sleep.”

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