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Your Brain During Divorce

Jim Robenalt Dec. 13, 2023

Daniel Shapiro, author of “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts”, poignantly described this fear sensation as “vertigo.” As he notes, vertigo is a warped state of consciousness, a condition in which “one feels trapped within a dizzying state of adversarial relations.” It is like an emotional tornado that blows through. In the middle of this storm, you experience heightened feelings of anger, sadness and rage, and you can see nothing beyond the frenzy of your emotional experience.

The experience of vertigo in response to a fear trigger is, in fact, biologically hardwired. Allison E. Bruce, MEd, LPCC-S, a professional clinical counselor, explained to me that much depends on how the brain responds when it becomes stressed in conflict. The amygdala, an almond shaped cluster nestled deeply within the middle part of our brain, is responsible for processing emotions and generating a “fight or flight” response. The amygdala sparks emotions as a first reaction to a stimulus, and it is also stores emotional memories. As Allison explained, much of our emotional experience, particularly as it concerns trauma, is stored deeply at a cellular level. The amygdala has been described as the brain’s “threat detector” which calculates—based on a stimulus and/or emotional memory—whether something is a reward that can be approached or a danger that must be avoided.How mediation can help calm your fear response so you are able to respond in a present, centered way.

Couples entering into a divorce often experience the debilitating emotions of pitched anxiety and fear. Divorce is no doubt a life changing event. As you transition into a more uncertain future, your mind can race with apprehension as your thoughts cascade in a volatile, chain reaction. How will the kids cope? What will happen to the family home? What about my financial future? How could this happen? Divorcing clients have described a sensation of feeling unmoored at sea, unable to plant themselves on solid ground.

Our emotional experience can go haywire when our brain perceives a threat and essentially short circuits rational thought. This has been described as the “amygdala hijack.” When a threat is perceived, the amygdala essentially sounds the warning bell and the brain releases stress hormones. As Allison explained, when this happens, the amygdala’s response essentially shuts down the frontal lobes where rational, executive function occurs. We are therefore overwhelmed by our emotional response and experience vertigo. Studies have shown that during the “amygdala hijack”, the frontal brain is actually deprived of oxygen and glucose and temporarily goes dark.

It is during this heightened emotional state that poor judgment can be exercised. In a divorce, which is an inherently triggering event, couples can reflexively armor up, surround themselves with lawyers, and go to battle. Yet this litigious impulse, while understandable, may only trigger further fear and anxiety. Couples who transform into combative litigants may quickly find themselves in an unsettling quicksand of mounting legal fees, deadlines, depositions and a process they do not control.

Mediation offers a more peaceful and constructive path to address the emotions triggered by a divorce. Rather than litigate on harsh, unfamiliar terrain, couples who sit down with a mediator enter into a calm, compassionate setting in which they control the decisions. With the mediator’s guidance, a couple can have a conversation on their terms about how best to transition their family. They can do so at their own pace without the threat of impending court deadlines and “scorched earth” litigation tactics. Put simply, mediation affords couples the opportunity to simply catch their breath and respond in a present, centered manner, which sets the precedent for their next chapter.