The Alchemy of Adversity

Adversity is an alchemy that permanently transforms the composition of the organisms it permeates. Clinical studies in humans and monkeys have clearly demonstrated that adversity experienced early in life can have profoundly negative consequences for later development and health, eventually resulting in pathology, illness or disease.

Humans who experience stressful events early in life, such as childhood maltreatment or abuse, suffer an increased risk of developing depression or suicidal tendencies in later life. Confrontation with caregiver emotional deprivation leads to persisting attachment disturbances in later life, often with co-occurring problems of inattention, difficulties letting go, emotional and cognitive problems.

Published by Newsweek in a 1997 special edition of the magazine, the brain scan images to the right demonstrate the difference in the development of the brain in children. To the left, the brain of a child growing up in a healthy and supportive environment. To the right, the brain of a child affected by environmental stress.

We typically go through 3 different phases when confronted by adversity: the impact phase, the post-disaster phase and the recovery phase. The impact phase is where most of the damage is inflicted.

Depending on the degree of severity of the adversity faced, we respond differently during the initial phase. In some cases, we might be able to respond in a logical, action-oriented manner. In others, we might become stunned or appear lost, a behavior that demonstrates a certain degree of dissociation. During the post-disaster phase, many report feeling numb, unable to connect with their emotions. The majority of people go through a phase of denial. Nightmares and feelings of hopelessness are commonly reported. During the recovery phase, we process both the impact phase and post-disaster phase in order to move forward and beyond the traumatic events. With any major trauma, expecting to return to a state of being similar to the one experienced before the trauma is unrealistic. Memories of the traumatic event have now become a part of our life experience.

The child, who at 2 years old is abandoned by her caretakers, whether physically or emotionally, sustains a permanent, traumatic rupture in her emotional makeup. The infant who experiences threats and harm by the figures supposed to love, protect and nurture her, carries within her core the weight of fear, danger and insecurity. The lasting effects of early trauma translate into profound transmutations of the adult behavioral, psychological and emotional fabric.

Without being properly addressed, these early experiences will leave someone feeling lost, out of place, unsafe and carrying deep underlying sadness through life. They can also lead to substance abuse problems or to an exhausting quest toward perfection and excellence in a desperate attempt to counterbalance lasting inner feelings of worthlessness left behind by acceptance deprivation.

The question we typically ask ourselves when faced with adversity is “Why?” “Why me?” “What is the sense, purpose or reasoning behind the adversity?” “What did I do to deserve this?” Though this is a classical reaction, the actual question which needs to be addressed is not why but how. In other words, rather than focusing our attention on reasons, our approach needs to be shifted toward actions. “How do I respond?” “What steps need to be taken to move forward and beyond this?”

With hypnotherapy, we have the possibility to bring the person back in time to the initial sensitizing event (ISE). Most often, the person is not consciously aware of what the initial sensitizing event is. In many cases, what can be viewed as an insignificant event from an adult perspective, was in fact an event of great emotional impact on a small child. While the event appears lost to the adult consciousness, it remains an active survival tool to the inner child we carry within, an engrained reaction that has become instinctive when dealing with similar triggers. When the sensitizing event is reinforced by other life events, a pattern of behavior, or survival techniques, are set in place that become extremely resistant to change in the conscious mode. Reframing the initial sensitizing event with hypnotherapy enables us to work at the subconscious level.

When we bypass the analytical part of the mind, we have the possibility to shift the foundation and perspective of the initial event and create a new, healthier and permanent perception. Once the perception is shifted, the symptoms of the problem change and often disappear.

Survivors of adversity and trauma often experience trauma-related guilt. The guilt stems from the belief they could or should have done something differently at the time of the trauma, or that they were in some ways responsible for the occurrence of the trauma. Trauma-related guilt is even more predominant in survivors of childhood trauma, due to the fact children have a natural tendency to feel responsible for what happens around them. A child who is rejected by her caregivers will grow up believing she is not worthy of being loved.  This misperception and lack of self love typically leads to repeated abuse in future relationships.  Survivors of childhood abuse are subconsciously drawn to abusive partners who resonate with a familiarity they mistake for love, as they were taught love implies violence.  Those neglected by their caregivers in childhood often find themselves subconsciously attracted to partners who will neglect them again.  The resonance of familiarity they feel when encountering a partner who replicates patterns experienced in childhood is mistaken for rapport.  The comfort level brought by recognition is mistaken for love. The inner-feeling of unworthiness left behind by acceptance deprivation in childhood is a marker for repeated abuse in adult life.

Combat exposure, physical abuse, sexual abuse and the loss of a loved one have all been found to be associated with the experience of trauma-related guilt. Clinical studies in cases of domestic abuse, rape and incest also demonstrate the presence of moderate to high levels of guilt. Experiencing feelings of guilt after a traumatic event leads to a number of negative consequences such as depression, shame, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Reframing the perception of the events with hypnotherapy allows us to address these feelings, re-examine the events and help the person achieve a more realistic interpretation of what took place. The inner-child is finally given the chance to understand she was in no way responsible for her caregivers’ incapacity to love and protect her.

Our mind is the control center of our nervous system, our body’s decision and communication center. It controls every part of our daily life, from vital functions such as breathing to our capacity to comprehend the world around us, process and memorize events, and react accordingly. When we learn to access more of the potential of our mind, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Surviving adversity can be compared to an elite Special Ops tactical training program.

When Special Forces are dropped in the middle of a desert, with nothing to survive on, they still have vital resources to draw from: themselves, their skills, their training. The goal is to not let the course overcome us, and instead, to overcome the course. We can choose to consider adversity our very own Special Ops training, and draw from the resources we hold within to keep and master the course. It is within our power to use the alchemy of adversity to become an indomitable warrior in the face of the challenges we are called to overcome. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes: “To be a skillful warrior, you must first make yourself invincible.”

We hold, within the depths of minds, the keys to the mastery of everything we are called to face. In the words of Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

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About Genvièv St. Clair

GENVIÈV ST. CLAIR, Fellow and Former President of the Oregon Hypnotherapy Association, is an award-winning Board Certified Instructor with the NGH.

A Valedictorian from the Ivy League University of the Sorbonne in Paris, she graduated summa cum laude from the department of doctorates of one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. With specialized training in forensic discovery, and years of expertise in the medical and legal fields, she acted as a communication liaison in complex and critical situations, including duties for the Department of Homeland Security, the US court system, and leading medical centers.

Featured on Discovery Channel, radio and television programs worldwide, Genvièv is the author of Zen in the Art of Survival, published in the best-selling series Chicken Soup for the Soul, as well as Diving into the Unsolved Mysteries of the Mind, Make a Friend of Fear, Meditation in Motion, Life Line, The Gift, Emotions, and countless magazine columns and articles on performance, achievement and success. Her story is featured in Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul – Motivation to get over the hump and on the road to a better life. She produces an educational health and wellness series on YouTube.

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