“Love is dead.” That was the collective sigh from the Internet when Brangelina announced their split on Tuesday.
We don’t know much about why the famous couple decided to end their 12-year relationship and 2-year marriage. (“This decision was made for the health of the family,” read a statement Jolie released through her attorney, as reported by People.) But what we do know is that divorce can be a brutal process, affecting your mental and physical well-being for years to come—even when the decision is the best one for all involved.
“Negative emotions that accompany divorce, like sadness, anxiety, worry, and feeling overwhelmed, are a type of stress for the body,” says Chicago-based psychologist and physical therapist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD. The events leading to the breakup and the divorce proceedings themselves can drag on, creating “chronic stress that adversely affects every single organ and system in your body,” she says.
For one, divorce can take a serious toll on your heart (no big surprise there). A 2015 study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, found that women who had been through a marital breakup were 24% more likely to have a heart attack. And women who had experienced more than one divorce had a 77% increased risk.
Other research, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that people who live through a divorce develop more chronic conditions—such as heart disease and diabetes—and mobility issues (like difficulty climbing stairs) down the road.
Then there’s the damage divorce can do your psychological well-being. Research from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that ongoing conflict with an ex-spouse (say, if you’re co-parenting) places a real burden on mental health. And another study found that people with a history of depression are more likely to relapse if they go through a divorce.
Stress wreaks such havoc for many reasons. It boosts blood pressure, and kicks the immune system’s normal inflammatory response into overdrive; that excess inflammation can lead to everything from a cold to autoimmune disorders. Feeling frazzled also makes it harder for you to stick with your healthy habits.
“When you’re stressed, you’re not reaching for a fresh garden salad. The wine bottle is calling for you in the kitchen. You’re skipping sleep, and you may gain or lose weight,” says Lombardo. You may also ignore any symptoms that pop up, and skip appointments with your doctors.
But there are things you can do to stay well through the painful experience that is divorce, says Lombardo. The key is to make time for self-care. When your stress level is at 7 (out of 10) or higher, you don’t think or act rationally, she says. So aim to keep your stress level at a 6 or lower, which will enable you to interact with your ex more productively, and make the best decisions for your life ahead.
“Get yourself out of the red zone in a healthy, helpful way,” she adds. “Walk with a friend, dance to your favorite songs, go to yoga,” she suggests. No matter how crazy things get, you need to allow your body this time to decompress and return to a normal(ish) state. When you periodically make an effort to relieve some of the stress, you’ll be on a more even keel. And that can help you make it through to the other side with your physical and mental health intact.