I have always been anxious. I didn’t recognize it until my mid 30s, when I went through full-blown, severe anxiety and depression. After months of hell, I saw the pain as the message it was: “you need to change.”

During a lengthy process of growth and learning, I looked back and saw the patterns of mild anxiety and depression throughout my life. I assumed it was because I was a perfectionist, a people pleaser and a sensitive, emotional, creative type. The fact that I had been adopted as an infant didn’t even register as a partial cause until I explored the issue further.

Anxiety is more common than you might think. Anxiety impacted 1,180,000 people (4.7% of the  population) in Canada in 2002, according to Statistics Canada’s Community Health Survey on Mental Health and Well Being.

What is anxiety?

The definitions vary, but generally, anxiety is a sensation of unease or uncertainty, accompanied by fear and discomfort.

Anxiety disorders are more severe than the feeling that occurs before giving a speech or starting a new job, and can be debilitating. Anxiety disorders include panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. An individual can have one or more types at once or throughout their life. Other mental health concerns, such as depression, commonly present themselves in tandem with anxiety.

“Depressed people tend to score higher than average on standard measures of anxiety, and anxious people tend to score higher on standard measures of depression than the general public,” noted an article in the Summer 2007 Strides newsletter put out by AnxietyBC.

Adoptees are more likely to develop anxiety than non-adoptees

ScienceDaily, CNN, and other resources point to an increase in anxiety and mental disorders in  adoptees. Greatschools.org noted, “Adopted children made up about 5 to 7% of the children studied with neurological, perceptual, or emotional problems. Yet, they represented only 1 to 2% of the general population of children.”

But adoptees often try to hide their anxiety. I did. I focused on coping mechanisms to deal with and hide my inner feelings and dialogue when I was at school, work or with family and friends. I had no clue that the way I thought was different, but I did know the way I felt was different and that certain behaviours garnered looks of disapproval or uncertainty.

“Unlike nearly all other events that lead to the experience of trauma, the existential suffering that  adoptees experience is often invisible because it precedes their own memory of it,” noted Dr. Jeannine Davies, Ph.D, an adoptee, author and Vancouver-based psychotherapist. Davies specializes in anxiety, and works closely with adolescent and adult adoptees to unravel the unique meaning in their anxiety.

Birth parents and adoptive parents are susceptible, too

“Even when there is virtual certainty that adoption was the right thing to do, it remains a difficult and emotional process for many birth mothers; one that may affect them for many, many years down the road,” notes Kathryn Patricelli in a 2007 article entited “Long-Term Issues for Birthmothers After Adoption.”

“Birth mothers also experience this trauma [separation trauma] at the time of giving their babies up for adoption, and may experiencean emotional paralysis that parallels the age they were when they gave birth,” Davies said.

Research into what Merry Bloch Jones called “Birthmother syndrome” in 1993 and Heather Carlini’s “core issues of relinquishment” in 1992 found that 87% of birth mothers who participated in the research felt traumatic stress in the form of intrusive thoughts; 84% felt traumatic stress in the form of avoidance. Other possible signs of anxiety included 71% experiencing self-punishment, 62% with low self-esteem and 61% with traumatic stress in the form of hypervigilance.

While these statistics are somewhat dated, they show the mental health roller coaster with which some birth mothers struggle.

On the other side of the coin, adoptive parents may be embarrassed to admit their own anxiety. After all, they will be new parents. Shouldn’t they be happy? Yes, but even the joy of adding a child can generate a sense of extreme unease.

Unresolved fertility issues, the wait to adopt a child, separation anxiety (for parent or child), fears of not being a good parent, fears of not bonding with the child – all these things and more, if left  unaddressed, can lead to longer term and expanded anxiety issues.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Don’t be frightened by the statistics. They show that those who suffer from anxiety don’t need to feel alone. While the causes are uncertain (except in post-traumatic stress disorder and certain phobias where the trigger is known) there are precursors that may indicate someone is more susceptible to anxiety.

One is genetics. Numerous studies over the years show genetic links (primarily from birth mother to daughter) may lead to anxiety. Another potential source is environment. Growing up in a family experiencing mental disorders and constant discord, along with a sense of “having to prove oneself,” can lead to higher chances of anxiety.

Stressful jobs, relationships or other situations also take their toll, and biochemical activity in the brain and neurotransmitter complications can have an impact. Any one, or all, of these issues can indicate potential for the development of an anxiety disorder.

“For adoptive parents, a key factor in offsetting the potential for anxiety to emerge in their children is to acknowledge and talk about their experience with them, of what being adopted means to them. In helping them construct an identity that includes a positive and meaningful way of holding their experience, a grounded self-concept emerges that integrates their experience and re-enforces the natural strengths that adoptees have, such as resilience and a heightened sensitivity of the  experience of others,” Davies recommends.

The best thing you can do is to not downplay the condition. Be understanding of yourself and others, take it in stride and know that anxiety doesn’t mean there is something “wrong.” It only means that help is needed.

Know the symptoms

Anxiety symptoms can be physical, cognitive, and behavioural. They can present with a wide range of symptoms, including trouble concentrating, irritability and restlessness, negative or frightening thoughts, insomnia, tenseness, feeling detached, numbness, sweating or flushing, nausea or upset stomach, muscle aches, heart palpitations, chest pain, personality chances, and social avoidance.  Kids and teens may exhibit additional symptoms, such as severe blushing, excessive worry, clinging to parents, tantrums, refusing to go to school, withdrawing from friends and family, perfectionism, and excessive slowness. www.anxietybc.com provides more detailed symptom lists and information about the various types of anxiety.

Seek out help

The great thing about anxiety is that it is common – there are a wide range of sources of help. You may want to start here.

  • Visit your doctor. Make sure there isn’t another condition causing the symptoms, or making them worse, and discuss medication if that’s right for you.
  • Educate yourself. There are many resources available online, in books and on DVDs. Find something
    that feels comfortable and commit to trying it. Spend time understanding the condition.
  • Seek out a therapist or counselor who is experienced in dealing with anxiety and those in the  adoption circle. There are many listed at websites like the B.C. Association of Clinical Counselors at bc-counsellors. org and www.counsellingbc.com.

Six steps to combat anxiety

  1. Recognize you are feeling anxious and accept it. Fighting the sensations makes them stronger because you’re saying “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  2. Give yourself permission to feel anxious. It’s okay. If you know why you are (your child was hurt, conflict with your boss), let yourself feel anxious about it.
  3. Breathe. Inhale for a count of two, exhale for a count of four. Continue for a minute or more.
  4. Talk positively to yourself. Be comforting. Anxiety can’t hurt you.
  5. Get busy. Distract yourself from how you are feeling by doing something physically and mentally.
  6. Let time pass and try to see a little humour in how you are feeling.

Proudly adopted, Ronda Payne joyfully lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., in yet another renovation-project home with her husband and their pets. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publicatoins, and also has three (or more!) books on the go.