Can divorce damage your health?

Almost half of all US marriages end in divorce, according to the National Institutes of Health, and recent research indicates that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions than married people, even after remarriage. What about divorce causes disease and what can divorcees do to protect their health? To learn more, we asked well-known medical expert Dr Erika Schwartz to give us the scoop.

Sad woman looking at photo

Divorce takes its toll

According to a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, divorcees and widows are at a higher risk for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer compared to married folk. The study, which examined the marital history and health indicators for over 8600 middle-aged people, shows that those who are divorced and widowed also have 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble climbing stairs or walking a block.

If you are young and going through a divorce, don't panic; the study looked at middle-aged people. However, you still need to be aware of the potential detrimental impact divorce can have on your health.

stress is the leading cause of illness

No doubt being in an unhappy marriage creates stress, and ending a marriage can compound it. But it isn't the divorce itself that is causing the health problems. "stress is a leading cause of illness," says Dr Erika Schwartz, medical director of Cinergy Health and expert in preventative care. "stress is often difficult to diagnose since it may not be visible or easily explained. However, if you or your family is going through a divorce, it is safe to assume your mind and body are undergoing major stress."

Women and men equally at risk for health problems

Are you wondering if women are more prone for disease than men? Dr Schwartz says, "While women are usually more at risk due to natural and cultural sensitivity, neither gender is immune from health problems related to divorce. The individual at the most risk is whoever is not dealing with the divorce in a safe and healthy manner."

What does that mean for you? If you are ignoring your feelings, trying to forge ahead without a support system, or using alcohol and/or drugs to cope, you are far more likely to suffer physical and psychological illnesses.

When divorce is the right decision

In a divorce, both parties are at risk for ailing health -- even the party that feels relief in ending the marriage. "While there are individuals who are making the right decision of splitting from their spouse, it is still a significant and very powerful loss and needs to be dealt with," Dr Schwartz explains. "If a woman is finally divorcing a cheating husband, she may be relieved to be out of the relationship but [still needs] to deal with what went on throughout the marriage to ensure she does not repeat the same mistakes ever again."

How long does the health risk of divorce last?

Do the latest research findings mean you are guaranteed long-term stress and failing health if you are going through a divorce? Not at all. Though divorce can be traumatic and its resulting stress can negatively impact your health, it doesn't mean it is going to ruin your life. Dr Schwartz explains, "Everyone is different with their own personal healing time...if after a year you are still not interested in leaving your home and want to hide under your covers, it is time to make a serious effort to move on. Life moves quickly and you certainly don't want to miss out on it!"

You may feel emotionally and physically exhausted while enduring the rigors of a divorce, but you don't have to let it destroy your health or potential for happiness. You truly are in control of how long the negative effects of divorce last -- start taking proactive steps today to take care of yourself.

The best ways to handle heartbreak and protect your health

Dr Schwartz highly recommends relying on good friends and family to help you through the stress and hardships caused by divorce. "Talking to those closest to you who many have gone through a divorce is often helpful," says the medical expert. "[However], while identifying with others' experience is helpful in recovery, realize you have to do the work necessary to help you move on."

Dr Schwartz recommends the following ways to take care of your emotional and physical health during divorce:

  • Work on ways to manage your stress.
  • Find an outlet to channel your emotions.
  • Get involved -- take a cooking class, join a book club, volunteer, join a gym or sports league. Get out of the home and take your mind off the divorce.
  • Spend time with family and friends away from situations and places that may stress-inducing -- go on mini-vacations, nice dinners, fun brunches, concerts or plays.
  • Take up a hobby you've always wanted to do.
  • Keep a journal to express your feelings.
  • Talk to a professional to help you deal with the stress.
  • Stay in touch with your moods and what is causing them.
  • Be honest about how you are feeling.
  • Do not focus on blame or guilt.
  • Know that there is no right or wrong when it comes to feelings.
  • Keep an eye out for symptoms of health problems and address them immediately.
  • Exercise daily -- anger, sadness, and depression are all helped through physical activity.
  • Maintain a healthy weight -- if you've lost your appetite, force yourself to eat something, and eat only healthy foods.

Any number of these steps can help you in handling heartbreak and protecting your health. If you feel overwhelmed by reading the list, step back, breathe, and start with one or two things at a time.

"Those men and women who deal with their pain, continue going to work, exercise and eat well will come out stronger than they were before," concludes Dr Schwartz. "You can cope with divorce and stay healthy if you choose to."


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