Be Well: Adoptees Coping with COVID 19

Wellness and being adopted

IAMAdoptee reached out to a group of mental health professionals to help us think about ways being adopted might particularly impact our well-being during this COVID19 pandemic.  Even as restrictions are starting to lift in various regions of the world, the emotional impact lingers in ways we have yet to anticipate. 

Be Well: Adoptees Coping with COVID 19

By Dr. Susan Branco

Clinical mental health counselors, clinical social workers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists are stepping forward to offer guidance to maintain emotional and psychological wellness as we experience the collective trauma of the pandemic. One psychiatrist, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an internationally renowned expert on trauma, presented his view on how our current reality mimics pre traumatic conditions. His conceptualization is a helpful lens by which we may find ways to stay well during these times. The following is an interpretation of how Dr. Van Der Kolk’s discussion can guide us as adopted people in this most unique circumstance of COVID-19.

  1. Lack of predictability – Certainly adopted persons share familiarity with this concept as the circumstances and conditions relative to our pre adoption and adoption stories were unpredictable. We were also denied autonomous choice in the matter. However, in the present time we do have autonomy to create a predictable schedule of waking, eating, moving, etc. What is your one thing no matter how big or small you look forward to each day? Is it a meal with your family, meditation, a good book, a chat with a friend on Zoom?
  2. Immobility – Trauma has neurobiological implications for our bodies. When we experience overwhelming fear our bodies can go in two directions: fight/flight or shut down/immobilization. The current stay-at-home orders create conditions conducive to immobilization. Therefore we need to move our bodies to avoid a shut down. The complexity however for some adoptees is that the immobilization response may have very well been one of our survival skills at one point that helped us stay alive. Therefore, it would be tempting and befitting, really, for our bodies to veer in this direction. However, staying shut down for extended periods ultimately will impact our overall wellness, so consider how you may incorporate movement or activation, if you will, into your daily schedule. This can be as small as walking up and down a staircase or doing a “lap” in your living room. If conditions permit, maybe a walk or run outside. 
  3. Loss of connection – One of the fundamental tenets of typical adoption related developmental tasks include coping with the innumerous losses generated from one’s adoption status. Hence, the current loss of connection can feel acutely painful for adoptees. Therefore, continue to reach out via all the ways we can do this now electronically or even via old school hand written letters. Take care of yourself to acknowledge that the sense of loss experienced now is most likely amplified by the adoption losses. We see and hear you- your responses to the loss are valid and typical.
  4. Numbing out and spacing out –Similar to immobilization, this particular pre traumatic condition may trigger a sense of helplessness or even hopelessness as was perhaps the case during adoption transitions from first parents to potential caretakers (ie. foster families, institutional staff), to adoptive parents. Therefore, numbing and spacing out could be a familiar comfort. However, doing so too long could potentially disrupt wellness. Consider grounding techniques such as using all of your senses to notice your present circumstances. What colors do you see? What smells circulate in your environment? What does the ground, earth, floor holding you up feel like? Are there any particular tastes you savor that come to mind?
  5. Loss of sense of time and sequences – We have heard over and over about feeling like we are in a perpetual “Groundhog Day” like fog. For adoptees, this particular loss may also trigger the other losses we may experience. When one is traumatized the experience feels endless. Which, of course, is why the pandemic situation, in all of its ambiguity, parallels this sensation. Being mindful of the present and looking to the future can remind us that no situation lasts indefinitely. Using your daily and predictable schedule as outlined earlier can also reinforce the notion of momentum and moving forward rather than stagnating.
  6. Loss of safety– Consider other times in your lives that felt unsafe. Although one may not carry explicit memories of their adoption transition, sensations related to fear during the transition remain stored. Therefore, it is important to tune into those aspects of your life that provide safety for you and act on them in the present. Is it music, art, a favored comfort food, petting you dog, cat, or house pet, prayer, hugging your loved ones? How can you remind yourself and your body that you are safe now?

All of the ways we can address and alter pre traumatic conditions are important to consider as we maintain our overall mental health. However, they do not dismiss the very real conditions many of us are also experiencing. These include unemployment, hunger, and even basic stable living conditions. Those circumstances obviously require more urgent interactions and aid. Take good care of yourselves as best as you can.

If you are interested in viewing Dr. van der Kolk’s full 30-minute webinar you may access it here. You will be asked to logon with your email address.

Dr. Susan Branco is a clinical assistant professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Her research examines experiences of transracially adopted persons and counselors of color. In addition, she is currently focusing her research on past corruption within the Colombian adoption system.  Dr. Branco maintained an independent practice where she specialized in working with members of the Adoption Kinship Network from 2004 to 2018. She is adopted from Colombia and is in reunion with her birth family. If you would like to connect with Dr. Branco, please email [email protected]