Emotional mood swings are a difficult but natural part of the divorce process. Contrary to how you may feel, you are not losing your mind.  Your psyche is trying to find a new equilibrium while swaying in response to the inner questions and feelings that swoop in and out throughout your day. You are looking for answers. Answers quell anxiety. Answers will chase away the uncertainty.

  • Why is she so irrational?
  • When is this ever going to end?
  • Should I tell the kids my version of the story?
  • I’m so angry. I’m afraid I’ll be poor and living in a hole in the wall.

The stable ground of certainty isn’t immediately available during times of transition and with high level of uncertainty, our mood can suffer.  Add to that triggering events which generate more uncertainty:

  • new requests for more documents
  • unwelcome news from your lawyer
  • a tanking credit rating
  • a court date being pushed back again
  • the disruptions to your routines
  • commuting from a new location
  • not eating on a regular schedule
  • a curtailed social life.

The sum total is of all this uncertainty far exceeds the normal quota of day-to-day uncertainty. Our biological systems are effected as is our mood regulation.  Depression and anxiety are the most common results.

Social Rhythm Therapy

Garnering control over what you can control goes a long way toward improving mood.  One method of doing this can be found in ‘social rhythm therapy’, developed by Ellen Frank, PhD Professor at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center. Social rhythm therapy offers pointers on how to stabilize one’s daily routines to enhance mood stability and interpersonal functioning. This is achieved by understanding and working with one’s biological and social rhythms. (See diagram.)

Chris Aiken, MD notes that, “Every day we come in contact with important signals or events the timing and regularity of which help set our body’s clock and regulate our mood and hormone levels. Examples include the timing of sunlight, sleep, exercise, meals and stress, and surprisingly, the timing of your first social contact.  Regulating these daily rhythms can cut your rate of depression…” and anxiety.

Environmental factors help us set and keep our circadian clock — such as the rising and setting of the sun. But there are also social rhythms and cues in our daily lives that also help set and keep our circadian clock humming along smoothly. The major social rhythms and cues include (1) getting out of bed; (2) first contact (in person or by phone) with another person; (3) starting work, school, housework, volunteer activities, and child or family care; (4) having dinner; and (5) going to bed.  Stressful life events such as divorce and relocation disrupt one’s daily routine and social rhythms and cues. When one or more of these social rhythms or cues gets disrupted, it disrupts our core biological (circadian) rhythms—down to the cellular level- and throws us out of whack physiologically and psychologically and that effects our mood, and functional abilities such as judgement and decision making capacity.

How to Use Routine to Steady Your Mood, Katherine Morris, Uncertainty, Social Rhythm Therapy, tools to use

Tools to Use

The Social Rhythm Metric (SRM), a simple daily journal worksheet that notes the target time, actual time, and number of people involved in five core daily activities: getting out of bed; first contact with another person; starting work, school, housework, volunteer, child or family care; dinner; and going to bed. It also tracks one’s daily mood.    (You don’t need a therapist to use these tools, however there are therapists who specialize in this modality if you think you’d like help applying this to your life.)

1) Keep a regular schedule.   Sleep, meals sunlight and exercise are important: do these at the same time each day (within ½ an hour).

2) Identify mood-restorers.  List activities that tend to restore your sense of daily rhythms. For many people the most important ones are getting out of bed, starting a major daily activity like work/school/ chores, being with someone who is important to you, eating dinner and going to sleep.  Other examples might include exercise, bathing, going outside, taking medication, reading and watching a favorite TV show. Try to do these activities at the same time each day (within ½ an hour).

3) Identify mood-deregulators.  What things make you feel off-balance, over-stimulated, or disrupt your sleep?  Make a list; examples could be arguments or intense discussion, travel, late-night projects, bright lights, caffeine, noise, or crowds.  Try to avoid mood-deregulators at night to protect your sleep.  When possible, plan ahead for how to manage mood-deregulators.

4) Preserve Sleep.  Try to sleep at least 6 hours a night.  It’s more important to wake up at the same time each day than to go to bed at the same time. Consult with your doctor about sleep medications if needed. At night, turn down the lights (especially “ blue lights” like TV and computers) and use bedtime rituals.

5) Manage conflict. The 3-volley rule:  When an argument escalates to “3 volleys”, stop the talk and walk away.  A “volley” is an angry or argumentative statement. For example, if you say 1. “I hate it when people interrupt me!” and your relative counters with, 2. “Don’t get angry, I thought you were finished talking!!” and you counter with 3. “That’s because you weren’t listening!!! — that’s 3 volley’s, and a sign that you both need to disengage.

6) Manage impulses. The rule of 2’s:  If you have an idea that might be impulsive, try waiting two days before acting on it, or asking two people if they think it would be wise.  If it really feels uncontrollable, set a timer for one hour.  If the craving is still uncontrollable after one hour, distract yourself or talk with a friend.

Wood, W.,  Tam L., & Guerrero Witt, M. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.,

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (6), 918–933.

Haynes, P.L.,  Gengler, D., &  Kelly, M. (2016) Social rhythm therapies for mood disorders: an update.  Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2016; 18: 75 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4919368. PMCID: PMC4919368

Swartz, H. A. Getting in the rhythm: a key to practical treatment of mood disorders [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.dbsalliance.org/Conference2013/Handouts/Sunday/Getting%20in%20the%20Rhythm/Rhythms%20of%20Life.pdf