It had gotten to a point that the mere sight of his name in my email inbox triggered an instant panic attack. Would it be another rant about how he either still loves me/can’t stand me, or would it be an innocent note about one of the kids? Would it be a demand to change plans that would require a debate? A critique of my parenting? To what extent would this communication disrupt my day?
Every time I saw any kind of notification from him, whether it was a call or an email or a text, my body would instantly react before my brain could begin to step in and offer a logical solution. For the first time, I fully understand why the word “trigger” is used when discussing events that cause immediate violent physiological reactions. My heart rate would shoot up, my sweat glands would go into overdrive, and even my digestive system would go haywire. Many times a panic attack from having to deal with my ex would result in diarrhea for the next 24 hours.
There isn’t any real physical or material threat coming from my ex-husband. He can whine and complain and fail to keep his word, but he can’t take my children away or drain the bank accounts the way he used to threaten. Truly there is no immediate threat to my physical person. As to the psychological piece, I tell myself I should be able to set my emotions aside. I have fantasies of being able to roll my eyes and brush off his petty bullshit.
But I can’t seem to manage that yet. The confrontation, the needless disruption in my day, his hatefulness, his ego, his greed — all of this gets to me. It’s no longer even that I am afraid of the confrontation itself — now I also fear the ensuing panic attack and how it will disrupt my day and prevent me from doing my job as a teacher or being present with my kids.
At a recent therapy appointment, my therapist must have noticed I was especially uncomfortable because she asked if I was experiencing tightness in my chest. I told her it just felt really hard to get a full breath. This is one of the symptoms that has come up again and again — it feels like the lower half of my lungs are closed for business. My therapist walked me through a grounding meditation right then and there and also gave me a few techniques to take with me to help me manage this panic surrounding communication with my ex-husband. The techniques she gave me have been a huge help.
I’m not a doctor or therapist — just a patient who has found relief in the techniques my therapist gave me. If you are experiencing similar reactions, maybe some of these techniques can help you too. Still, consult with your doctor or therapist if you are experiencing disruptive panic attacks for any reason:
This is the exercise my therapist walked me through during the session. Using the elements — earth, water, air, and fire — my therapist walked me through the exercise linked above. For earth (grounding), I connected to the ground under my feet and observed the room and its contents. For water (relaxation response), I did an exercise to increase saliva production in my mouth. For air (breathing), I focused on pulling air deep into my lungs. And for fire (imagination), I pictured a place where I felt safe and relaxed and whole and imagined I was there. I was measurably calmer after this exercise.
As much as divorce has stressed me out, there are some huge positives to not having to deal with my ex every day. Listing two or three of these daily, even if there are sometimes repeats, can help shift perspective from anxious to grateful. Maybe divorce means you no longer have to argue with your ex daily, no longer have to put up with his passive-aggressive insults. Maybe you’re grateful you don’t have to sleep next to his loud snoring or smell his farts or consider his opinion on home decor. The things that go on this list can be big or small.
My therapist said that especially on days when I know I will have to interact with my ex, I can “remember” the future. In this technique, you picture a future interaction as if it has already happened. You assume your ex behaves poorly, and you “remember” your calm, confident reaction. You remember taking a deep breath, controlling your heart rate, and setting appropriate boundaries. You remember being unbothered by his frustrated reaction to your calm. This helps when the moment of interaction actually arrives. You’ve already been through this, so you know how to act.
Increased Window of Tolerance
At first I thought it was strange that my therapist would ask me to simply tolerate my ex-husband’s shitty behavior. But she pointed out that my panic attacks are fear-based, and fear stems from a feeling of powerlessness. I cannot realistically control my ex’s bad behavior, but I can expect it. Expecting it allows me to prepare for it without trying to alter it. I have to accept that the only way I can “control” my ex’s behavior is by controlling my own. So I “tolerate” his shitty behavior — which really just means I refuse to try to control it and instead focus on my own reactions.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
That last bit of advice is impossible to implement without boundaries. My ex sometimes wants to have long, drawn-out conversations about why he feels I am in the wrong about everything. Sometimes he’ll say something passive-aggressive in front of the kids, banking that because I don’t want to argue in front of them, I will simply let it slide. I am learning that I must have very firm boundaries with my ex. Every time I have allowed my boundaries to be moved, I have ended up disappointed and hurt. My therapist reminded me that I can still be civil and kind, but that I need to make it clear to my ex that a relationship beyond co-parenting, at this time, isn’t possible. She even gave me a script I can say to him when he presses and wants to know why I refuse to engage with him.
Remind Yourself That Your Ex Is a Flawed Individual
My therapist asked me to picture my ex as an animal and to name the first animal that popped into my head. I immediately said “snake.” My therapist asked what kind, and I said “Venomous. Deadly.” She then walked me through a visualization of my ex’s experience — from early childhood and onward, to try to understand his behavior. Recognizing that he is a person who is also hurting, who grew up with his own set of traumas that influence his current behavior, makes it much harder to see him as a snake. This is not to excuse his behavior. It’s to modify my reaction to help me to stop acting like a deadly predator is lurking around every corner. If I see my ex as a snake always coiled and ready to strike, I can never get out of fight/flight mode. We agreed that from now on I will picture my ex as an inchworm. He’s too small to hurt me. He’s fighting his own battles and struggling with his own weaknesses. I will not live my life fearing confrontation with him.
I’ve had a few appointments since this revelatory meeting with my therapist, and I’m making progress. If you’re in a situation where your ex continues to cause you stress and panic, know that it is possible to alter your own behavior in a way that helps reduce that panic. Get help if you can, but at the very least, know that you are not alone.