It is rare that we meet a client who is totally calm, cool, and collected during their divorce. Most of the time, our clients are angry, exhausted, overwhelmed, and heartbroken. Divorce challenges our very sense of self, whether we're choosing it or it is forced on us. It is easy to lose ourselves in the overpowering flood of emotions that accompanies the ending of an important relationship. Some people even become like animals, acting out with destruction or violence. But it doesn't have to be that way - we can use insights from modern brain science to help us weather emotional challenges with grace and dignity.
According to the theory of the triune brain, the brain is composed of three main structural components, stacked according to how recently they developed: 1) The limbic system, or the lizard brain, is the oldest part of the brain and is responsible for motor control as well as flight/fight/freeze responses to danger and is located at the center of the brain; 2) thepaleomammalian brain is shared with other mammals (including our pets) and is responsible for emotional connection; and 3) theneomammalian brain, the newest part of the brain, is found in humans and other higher mammals and is responsible for rational thought and language.
When the limbic system or lizard brain is activated by a threat that makes us believe - consciously or unconsciously - that we are in danger, the higher levels of the brain shut down and the lizard brain takes over so that we can protect ourselves. This is why when we are feeling really angry or frightened, it might seem like we have suddenly lost the ability to speak.
The loss of an important relationship (called "attachment relationships" by psychologists) is often perceived as an existential threat - it makes us feel as though our lives are in danger because we have lost the security and comfort of a stable home. When this happens, the limbic system (particularly the amygdala, which is responsible for anger and aggression) kicks into high gear.
The good news is that research shows that by activating the prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind your forehead and is an important component of the neomammalian brain, is activated, we can shut down the amygdala and soothe the limbic system, restoring our balance and rational thought.
So, what should you do when you're feeling the rising tide of anger and fear?
First, start by recognizing that it's your lizard brain talking. Simply recognizing this is the first step to reengaging the parts of your brain that are responsible for rational decision making.
Next, take a deep breath, focusing your attention on the sensations of the air entering and leaving your body. Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath. This will reengage the parts of your brain that exercise conscious will and will help calm the body.
Finally, become aware of your surroundings. Recognize that you are safe and that despite any negative circumstances you are dealing with, you still have the power to change how you react to any given moment. (If you find yourself in a situation where you are physically unsafe, remove yourself and/or call 911).
If you find yourself struggling emotionally during your divorce, seek help. Spend some time with people who are calm and happy, whether friends, family, or others - their mood will help you find calm for yourself. Most importantly, find a therapist who will help you explore your feelings and learn how to cope with your changing circumstances. Take care of yourself, and let others help take care of you.