The National Institute of Mental Health defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”
The definition has been re-defined to include exposure to prolonged exposure to stressful events that cause extreme emotional distress. It only makes sense then that those involved in a high conflict divorce are also in danger of developing the symptoms of PTSD.
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
- Reliving the Traumatic Experience: Survivors of trauma may experience nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event. This might be triggered by something that reminds the survivor of the event like the anniversary of the event or a similar location or even a language.
- Avoidance: People may remove them from people or situations that are similar in some way to the traumatic event. Survivors may become detached from their loved ones and lose interest in their previous passions.
- Increased Arousal: Those with PTSD may become more sensitive to their emotions or bodily sensations. They may have high anxiety levels, insomnia, trouble focusing and be hyper-vigilant.
- Somatoform Illness: A somatoform illness is one in which there in no medical indication for what appears to be a medical problem. For example, those exposed to prolonged stress may suffer from tension headaches caused by the stress. There can be chronic pain that interferes with a person’s ability to function that has no specific medical cause.
I recently interviewed Janice, a victim of a high conflict divorce on the subject of post traumatic stress disorder. Due to a long, drawn out battle during the divorce process and her ex-husband’s emotional abuse before and since the divorce Janice was recently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is being treated as an inpatient and discussed what life has been like for her over the last few years.
“I feel as if I’ve been in the middle of a war zone for an extended period of time. I’ve lived with daily fear for years; there has been no relief because some sort of conflict with my ex was always lurking around the corner.” Janice says. I didn’t have time to process one negative event before I was dealing with another one.”
After speaking with Janice I thought of the many people I hear from who are entangled in a legal battle over child custody or marital asset distribution. There seems to be a common attribute in people who engage in long-term legal battles, they are intent on “winning.”
Not that the desire to win is a bad thing, we all wish to be protected and have our legal divorce rights met. It is understandable if you are a father fighting for extra time with his children or a mother doing battle and in need of financial support to help raise your children. You have no other option but to remain engaged in the legal battle BUT how does one continue to fight for their legal rights without also damaging their mental health?
How to Deal With Extreme Stress:
According to the American Psychological Association “there are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well being and a sense of control following a disaster or other traumatic experience.” If you have endured prolonged stress during and after the divorce process below are steps you can take to help you cope:
- Give yourself time to heal. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
- Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. But keep in mind that your typical support system may be weakened if those who are close to you also have experienced or witnessed the trauma.
- Communicate your experience in whatever way feels comfortable to you, such as talking with family or close friends, or keeping a journal.
- Find out about local support groups that often are available such as for those who have suffered from natural disasters, or for those who are victims of domestic abuse. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
- Try to find groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Group discussion can help people realize that other individuals in the same circumstances often have similar reactions and emotions.
- Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and follow an exercise program. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
- Avoid major life decisions such as switching careers or jobs if possible because these activities tend to be highly stressful.