Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes may be the most exciting people going through a divorce right now, but they certainly aren't the only ones. With a whopping 50 percent of American marriages ending in divorce, there are a lot of women suffering through this immense change. And while divorce can be devastating both physically and emotionally, a revolutionary 2009 study says the physical consequences generally last longer. While no couple plans on splitting up, knowing what to expect if it does happen can help you avoid these all-too-common issues.
For Christine McCarthy, of Oatmeal in My Bowl, the biggest surprise in her on-going divorce has been her sudden sleeplessness.
"Usually I sleep a lot when I am going through a tough situation like this. I am not sure why I have insomnia this time. But the fact I cannot sleep is starting to [wreak] havoc in my life," she says. Some of the sleepless nights are from the stress of "trying to get a 'new' daily routine going within my family" and staying strong for her kids, McCarthy adds.
Experts describe this as "secondary insomnia" because it revolves around a specific life event. But, they caution, it can turn into a long-term problem if not properly addressed. If you experience insomnia (for any reason), talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
Weakened Immune System
"I became susceptible to any illness that was going around," says Rebecca Borucki, of BexLife, of the time after her split.
Alexandra Williams, owner of Fun and Fit and a trainer with a degree in marriage and family counseling, agrees. "Stress is one of the main issues in a divorce, and it has a big impact on your health. The immune system is compromised, so [you are at a higher risk to get] either sick or injured."
The deadly combination of increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, and intra-abdominal fat around the waist, known as metabolic syndrome, can be brought on by a divorce. "We can clearly say that people with depression are more likely to have a metabolic syndrome, and vice versa," Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, director of the cardiovascular outcomes program at Emory University in Atlanta, tells WebMD. She adds that divorce is a known risk factor for depression, especially in women.
Divorce can be heart breaking in more ways than one. Research shows that divorce ups your risk of heart disease by 20 percent. What's more, while the risk escalates for both parties, researchers at the University of Utah say that "in our data, it's clear that the association of stress and heart health is stronger in women."
"Grief is a powerful emotion," says Susan Heitler in an interview with ABC. "In people who are newly divorced, depression can cause substantial weight gain."
Mindy Artze, of Mindy’s Fitness Journey agrees. "[After my divorce], I got very sad and felt little self worth. I turned to food to get me through the tough time. I used it to comfort me," she says, adding that her new status as a single mom also made it harder to take care of herself. "I had a little boy and made my life all about him."
Loss of Fitness Gains
Williams says she sees a lot of her clients either stop exercising or backslide in their fitness goals because they're so consumed with the divorce. "I see students looking exhausted and listless during a class. When I ask what's going on, they'll tell me they are so tired and stressed from the divorce that they just can't get their bodies to cooperate, and what would normally be an easy workout turns into a challenge."
Researchers at the University of Chicago found that divorcees are "23 percent more likely to have mobility problems, such as difficulty climbing stairs or walking short distances."
One possible explanation: "The anxiety coupled with too many sleepless nights left me [too] tired and unmotivated" to keep fitness levels up. Borucki says.
The National Institute of Mental Health explains that a major life event, like divorce, can lead to increased stress and risk for depression. Plus, women are more susceptible to mood disorders "due to hormonal factors that can influence the brain chemicals that regulate mood."
The Silver Lining
As difficult and painful as divorce can be, it doesn't have to damage your health. Williams suggests yoga and meditation. Another tip: "As much as you can, dump any friends or relatives who aren't 100 percent supportive or they will suck your energy from you," she says.
Some women have used exercise as a way to relieve stress and channel emotions. "Those pent up feelings have definitely put fuel in my workouts!" McCarthy says. "I signed up for Spartan Race daily emails. Plus, I joined a local running group from Meetup.com. It was just what I needed to build new friendships and increase my endurance."
Focusing on a more holistic lifestyle helped Borucki cope. "I joined a gym, hired a trainer, started eating a mostly raw diet, and in only a couple years, I was not only cured of my anxiety and 20 pounds lighter, but I was making a living in health and fitness. Exercise truly changed my life and the lives of my children."