Caring for a child who has experienced early life adversity can be stressful in many ways.
Adoptive parents who I interviewed experienced high levels of stress through being unprepared to parent their children; experiencing physical and emotional abuse from children; isolation; fighting for support and understanding; and feeling worried for the future. My personal experiences strongly aligned with these findings.
As National Adoption Week 2021 comes to an end, this post focusses on adoptive parents; in particular, to strengthening the mental health outcomes of this unique group.
The impact of continued stress
Stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure (NHS England).
When stress is experienced, the body automatically responds via the threat response system. The sympathetic nervous system pumps resources to the heart, lungs and major muscle groups, allowing us to ‘fight or flee’ as needed. Stress hormones increase functions that promote survival; and decrease functions that are non-essential to the fight-flight response (for example by altering immune, digestive and reproductive systems and growth processes).
Interestingly, the body does not distinguish between what is ‘actual’ (eg. being attacked) and what is ‘perceived’ (eg. a worry or rumination); in both situations, the threat response is the same.
When the threat (stressor) has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system releases calming hormones which help to regulate the body back to a balanced state.
The issue for many adoptive parents is that stressors – both actual and perceived – are ever present. The body and the mind can feel constantly under attack, meaning that the threat response (fight / flight) system is always activated. Long-term activation of the threat response system – and over-exposure to stress hormones – can disrupt many of your body’s processes, putting you at increased risk of many health problems including heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems, depression, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, weight gain and memory loss.
Balancing the impact of stress
It can be very challenging to change the volume of stressors that we experience; because for most adoptive parents, these stressors come from external parties (schools, authorities, social care, our children, family members and friends who may not understand the impacts of trauma). Most parents have no choice but to engage with these external parties.
As external stressors start to accumulate, our ability to manage our internal dialogue can be compromised – often leading to an increase in internal stressors (worry and rumination). This combination of internal and external stressors keeps our threat systems activated.
While there is little we can do to remove the stressors, we can take steps to mitigate the impact of these stressors. And we should do this for our own physical and mental health. In my personal and professional experience, the best way to do so is through mindfulness / breathing practices.
I understand that many people are dubious about mindfulness. Some don’t like the stillness; others find it hard to manage their thoughts. There is so much information out there, that sometimes it’s hard to really understand just how simple the practice can be.
Mindfulness is described as “paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness” (Mindful Nation UK, A Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (2015)).
There is much written about how to practice mindfulness. There can be an assumption that you need to sit in one place, at the same time, for a set duration each day. Some people may like to practice in this focussed way; but it is not the only way.
My own mindfulness practice is much more fluid, and I use it frequently during the day. I practice primarily when I feel my nervous system firing (for me, this means I may feel more anxious, shaky, that life is ‘speeding up’ or I am feeling increasingly restless). These are signs that I am moving out of my ‘green zone’ of contentment and into my ‘amber zone’ of fight / flight. Refer Regulation article.
When I feel this change in my body, I take active steps to regulate back to my green zone. I do this by being present, engaging my senses and breath to take control of my bodily state. For example – in nice weather I stand in the garden and bring my attention to the sounds that I hear and to the sensations of sunshine or breeze on my skin. At the same time, I calm my breath, breathing into my belly with slow and steady inhalations and exhalations. I remain in this state for a minute or two, being aware just of the sounds, bodily sensations and my breath.
I also have many times where I just focus on my breath, imagining a balloon slowly and steadily expanding and contracting in time with my inhalation and exhalation. The beauty of breath practice is that you can do it anywhere anytime.
I practice for short periods of time – often just 1 or 2 minutes. I set the timer on my phone, turn it to silent and allow myself this time just to be. If thoughts arise or my mind wanders I gently notice – then I actively move away from the distraction and return to noticing just my breath and my senses.
With this practice comes a feeling of inner calm and a slowing down of my central nervous system.
Some days I have no activation of my nervous system, so the aim is not to calm or quieten my internal state; rather, on these days the aim is to strengthen this way of being and embed my mindfulness practice into my life.
How can it help?
Practicing mindfulness regularly – preferably daily – can bring many positives, including:
- increasing our mental strength;
- allowing us to become more engaged and present, and less stuck in worry / rumination mode;
- becoming less reactive and more able to manage challenging experiences;
- improving symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout;
- becoming more emotionally resilient.
For me, it means moving away from the stressors for short periods. This doesn’t mean that the stressors are resolved or removed, rather, that I make an active choice to change my focus. When I do this, it alters my internal state, allowing me to be regulated, connected and more internally robust.
I have had a corresponding change in my mental health – less anxiety, less ‘stuck in my head’, much more emotionally resilient and more able to respond rationally to challenges. Mindfulness has given me space. I really encourage you to give it a try.
There are so many wonderful mindfulness resources including podcasts, blogs, apps, books, magazines and training programs. My starting point was a book called ‘Mindfulness – A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. Written for the end user, it gave me enough information, without overwhelming. I also recommend a free on-line training program – “Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance” by Monash University through Future Learn.