Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Five Essential Steps Women Should Take to Safeguard Health During Divorce

Those who have been through divorce often say it feels like their hearts were breaking. In truth, the emotional aspects of divorce can bring on physical manifestations that may lead to serious heart health issues. And although both men and women suffer when going through the process of divorce, research indicates that it may take a more serious physical toll on women. Understanding these risks –and what you can do to minimize them – are particularly important when going through the stress of divorce.

According to a report published by researchers at Duke University, divorced women have a 24% increased risk of heart attack. And for women facing the second (or third) divorce, that increase jumps to 77%.

Relationship status aside, heart disease is the leading cause of death for US women, accounting for one in four female deaths. Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of heart disease showed no previous symptoms. Stress is one of the leading causes – and few experiences are more stressful than divorce. That’s why it’s crucial for women going through divorce to redouble self-care efforts. Here are five preventive steps to safeguard your physical wellbeing when going through a divorce:

Get a physical and be honest with your doctor. If you haven’t seen your general practitioner (GP) or internist for a wellness visit in over a year, now is the time. For women over 40, an annual OB/GYN exam, PAP smear, and mammogram are all essential, but these tests do not provide a comprehensive medical work-up. Let your doctor know that you are going through a divorce and disclose any physical issues you may be experiencing, such as insomnia, lack of appetite or binging, increased alcohol or nicotine consumption, or feelings of depression, anxiety, or panic attacks. If appropriate, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to help relieve these conditions before they become chronic and/or lead to more serious health issues.

Quit smoking. If you smoke (or used to smoke), the stress of divorce may prompt you to continue the habit. Since smoking is one of the leading causes of heart and lung disease, continuing to smoke will only increase your chance of developing cardiovascular issues. The number one thing you can do to improve your health is to stop smoking. Don’t go it alone. Talk to your doctor about a cessation method that will help you through the process.

Stay active. It may be tempting to sit on the sofa binging on The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce on Netflix, but when physical exercise is part of your routine, you will feel better – sooner. Consider a variety of activities that engage your body and mind, such as Zumba or Spin classes, tap dance lessons, or yoga. Or join the local cycling or hiking club. Not only will these activities get you moving, they will also get you out of the house and socializing with others.

Splurge on healthy foods. You may not feel like cooking a five-course meal for yourself, but resist the urge to pick up fast-food every night or binge on junk – which are high in fat and sodium. Instead, indulge on your favorite, fresh healthful foods. Wholefoods, Trader Joes, Publix and other grocery stores feature delicious, ready-to-eat, nutritious meals. A little planning and you can even save money by eating in and carrying leftovers to work.

Don’t drown your sorrows. An occasional glass of wine or cocktail is fine, but if you’re habitually consuming alcohol to numb feelings about your divorce, it’s time to seek some professional help. Since alcohol is a depressant, you’ll only feel worse once the buzz wears off. According to the American Heart Association, drinking too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke. Be mindful of your habits. If you are drinking alone every night or prone to binge drinking, you may have a drinking problem. (For women, binge drinking is defined as four drinks or more within two hours, and for men, it’s five drinks or more.) A licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can help you determine the extent of your alcohol dependence and also get to the heart of your feelings about your divorce.