How to Identify Acute Stress Disorder Following Separation and Divorce
(some PTSD symptoms)
By Mark Sichel, LCSW
Going through a divorce often evokes an initial burst of energy and sometimes elation. You have a great deal to do when you break up your home and the rhythm of your daily life. Whatever the precipitant to the divorce, you’ve got housing arrangements to make. You need to change your bank accounts, the beneficiary of your retirement accounts, change or get new medical insurance. Like any trauma or emergency, you need all the adrenaline and competence you can muster to get through this challenging time.
You may feel jubilant that you’re out of an awful situation, or you may feel devastated that your former love is now no longer in your life. Sometimes these changes cause immediate symptoms and experience what’s called acute stress disorder. You may feel like what you’re going through will kill you and it may take some work to know you’ll survive and be fine.
You are not having a life-threatening emergency, as you might feel. You are more than likely suffering from acute stress disorder and going through some PTSD symptoms. The stakes often feel like life or death, but they aren’t. If you know you’re doing everything in your power to mend the situation, it can’t kill you. In fact, grappling with the trauma can breathe new hope and strength into your life in many unsuspected ways.
In the words of one client who I’ll call Lorraine who came to see me during her divorce from her husband of seven years, “The buzz just wouldn’t let up. I tried to make how my husband had treated me square with who I thought–I guess hoped–he really was. That disjunction permeates everything in my life now–it’s like I can never again trust in anyone who says they love me. It’s like there’s suddenly a whole new awful negative identity that has blocked everything in me I used to be so proud and happy about. When I tried to concentrate on work, it was all a blur. It’s as if I had been hacked to pieces, which had been scattered all around me, and I couldn’t imagine how to bring them all back, how to be whole again.”
The clinical term for the symptoms reported by Lorraine is acute distress disorder. As with other people I have either treated or interviewed who’ve gone through separation and divorce, these PTSD symptoms are unfortunately very common. It’s always accompanied by at least several of the following:
- Compulsive rumination
- Repeatedly experiencing the “final conversation”
- Dreams of the shattering event
- Sleep or eating difficulties
- Avoidance of people, places, or things that bring back the memory of your former spouse.
- Impairment of social and occupational functioning
- Inability to concentrate, lack of focus
- Restlessness, irritability
- Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure)
Lorraine had experienced every one of these symptoms, and, seeing the list of them, said she felt strangely reassured: “So how I’m feeling is normal?” She let out the first almost peaceful sigh I’d heard from her: “At least I’m not going crazy.” I could reassure her further: based on my experience and that of all the people I’d worked with who similarly suffered from the disorder, the worst of these symptoms would very likely disappear in fairly short order. They were protective defenses: tactics her psyche had resorted to reflexively to buffer her against the fresh trauma. This suggested that she might not only want to accept that she was feeling “numb” now, when she was–but be grateful for it. And she should understand that herm general reactions at this moment by no means comprised the last “act” in the divorce drama into which she’d suddenly been plunged.
Acknowledging trauma takes care and an abundance of self-compassion and it really helps to know the PTSD symptoms. But healing is possible almost immediately–if you stay honest, find appropriate ears to share what you’re feeling, and keep it very simple. Being in shock is no fun. You can’t be too gentle with yourself. Honesty and gentleness pay off. They will help you to begin the ascent to healing that our next step will make even more accessible. And remember: time is the great healer. With time, this all will pass and you’ll be on to your new and better life.
Mark Sichel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing individual, couples and family therapy in New York City since 1980. Mark is also on the faculty of the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the Doctor of Ministry program at Hebrew Union College. Mark is the author of Healing From Family Rifts published by McGraw-Hill, 2004.
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