Baby crying in orphanage

A Polyvagal Perspective on Adoption

Adrian’s Story

A Polyvagal Perspective on adoption: Adrian was born into a world of uncertainty and swift change. From the very beginning, his life was marked by the act of relinquishment; a tiny, vulnerable being handed from the arms of a birth mother to those of caregivers in a bustling, sterile orphanage. This first act of separation engraved a deep, silent message into Adrian’s developing nervous system: that life was inherently unstable, and that connection – the human bond – was not something to be trusted or relied upon. 

Polyvagal theory suggests that our bodies come equipped with a complex neural network that governs our ability to connect, to feel safety, and to engage with the world. This network is called the Vagus Nerve. It is through this nerve that the body communicates safety, risk, or life-threatening danger, and adjusts accordingly. 

In those early weeks and months, Adrian’s infant body was primed for connection, for the gentle coos and soft, warm embrace of a caregiver. But instead, the constant changing of hands and the absence of a consistent, loving presence told Adrian’s nervous system to stay on alert, to prepare for the next disruption, the next abandonment. 

When Adrian was eventually adopted, it was into a family that was loving and well-meaning, but also fundamentally unaware of the deep undercurrents of fear and mistrust that had already been etched into their child’s physiology. As Adrian grew, these feelings didn’t fade but became the subconscious drivers of behavior and health. The family’s attempts at connection were often met with resistance or detachment, not because of a lack of love or desire for closeness, but because Adrian’s nervous system had learned, in those formative times, to default to a state of defense. 

Adrian entered adulthood with a resumé of achievements and a facade of normalcy, but beneath the surface bubbled a torrent of anxiety and depression. His body remembered what his mind could only faintly grasp,, manifesting in chronic fatigue that no amount of sleep could cure, and chronic pain that no physician could fully explain. The world felt overwhelming, expectations impossible to meet, and life a series of tasks to be endured rather than enjoyed. Each new responsibility, each demand of adult life, was filtered through Adrian’s vigilant nervous system as a potential threat. The flight, fight, and freeze responses were on a hair-trigger, leaving Adrian in a constant state of exhaustion, both mentally and physically. Relationships were challenging, as the primal brain sent out signals to protect and defend rather than to open up and trust. Commitments were a source of dread, and the pressure to perform and to please, deeply ingrained from a lifelong attempt to secure and maintain bonds, became paralyzing. 

Therapy, when Adrian finally sought it out, was a revelation. Through the gentle guidance of a counsellor versed in polyvagal theory, there came an understanding of how the body keeps the score, how the threads of early childhood experiences were woven into the fabric of present-day symptoms. Adrian learned about the concept of Neuroception (the body’s unconscious scanning of the environment for cues of safety or danger) and began to understand the source of the pervasive feeling of being overwhelmed. Through practices like deep breathing, mindfulness, and somatic experiencing, Adrian gradually learned to calm the overactive nervous system, signaling to the body that it was safe to relax, to let down the guard that had been up for so many years. 

Adrian also engaged in therapies that fostered secure attachment, retraining the brain and body to understand and accept genuine connection and safety in relationships. The journey was not quick, nor was it easy, but it was transformative. Adrian’s story became one of slowly unraveling the tightly wound spool of past trauma, of untangling the knots of fear and uncertainty, and of re-weaving a tapestry of life that included the colors of calm, trust, and joy. Adrian’s adult life, once burdened with the invisible weight of childhood relinquishment and adoption, began to lighten, revealing the possibility of a future defined not by anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, but by resilience, connection, and well-being.

At Adoptee Alliance we specialize in helping adults overcome the unique challenges of being adopted. Learn more at www.adopteealliance.com.

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