Stay cool, calm, and rational

In divorce or any other breakup, you will need clarity. The good news is that we have thrived in the world as naked, clawless, and fangless animals simply because we are natural problem-solvers. Our minds are happiest when they’re working toward solutions. And at the end of the day, uncoupling really is about solving problems and forging ahead.

To that end, controlling your breath will become your superpower. In humans, sensing (real and perceived) threats can trigger an automatic physiological response. When this happens, the breath quickens and gets shallower. Short, rapid breathing fires up the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response; adrenaline floods in. Panic sets all of your perception systems on stun, bypassing higher-level brain function.

This science is well established: Again and again, researchers have shown that excessive anxiety inhibits cognition, which includes memory, speech and language, complex perception, orientation, attention, judgment, planning, and decision-making. When we’re frightened, provoked, or threatened, our amygdala—the most primitive part of the brain—takes over, triggering a system-wide physiological response primed to detect and react to physical threats and propel the body into action. This panic reaction overrides executive functioning because, frankly, if the cave bear is about to attack, who has time to reason with it or question its motives?

Called the fight, flight, or freeze response (FFF), this reaction has its uses. It’s the reason we jump away from a swerving car without even thinking. But in the modern world, most high-anxiety situations—a test, a deadline, a public-speaking engagement, a divorce—are best handled by cooler heads. Your lawyer may want you to calculate your monthly expenses, a perfectly reasonable request, but inside, your anxious, hyperstimulated brain may be screaming, “Screw it! The end is nigh!”

Non-physical threats such as vicious emails, texts, or phone calls can trigger the FFF response just as physical threats do. Calming the amygdala through breathing and mindfulness techniques and regular meditation allows us to quell the panic response to access higher cognitive functioning once again. When the panic reaction subsides, then the rational, thoughtful part of our brain has the space to lead the way.

So when the phone rings, pause. Is now a good time? Do you have the emotional bandwidth to manage your reaction? Are you grounded enough to stay focused? If not, let it go to voicemail. It’s most likely that nothing needs to be decided this very minute.

Same with email. I suggest creating a separate divorce-related email account. You can share this address with your lawyer. You can also set your other email accounts to auto-forward messages to this address from your ex and anyone else who might send highly charged missives your way. (Your mother? Your soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law?) Now you control when and where you deal with this stuff.

Through trial and error, you will figure out the right time of day to tackle divorce stuff. Maybe post workout when your feel-good neurochemical levels are high, or after a glass of wine or your yoga practice.

Regardless, there will be times when you feel a compulsion to fire right back or freak out or collapse in a raging heap, but hang on. Remember that a panicked reaction isn’t coming from the best you.

Instead, try giving yourself the space to let those panicky feelings subside. Breathe deeply, take a bath or a walk, or do some stretching on your mat, all in the service of quieting the amygdala to access your clear-headed self—the person who makes careful decisions, plans for the future, and anticipates the consequences of actions. The panicked brain can only think about this very moment. But there will be a tomorrow, and a next week, and a next year. Now that you’re in a divorce, you need to be strategic. You need to begin writing your next chapter. So wait. A few hours or days can make all the difference in how you manage the challenges ahead.

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