Resilience is a hallmark of good mental health. It is particularly important for recovering addicts who have learned how to survive but in negative ways – for example, by dissociating from childhood trauma or using drugs and alcohol to escape emotional pain.
An essential part of recovery is learning new tools that build resilience, which guards against the return of old, automatic behaviors that so often leads to relapse.
Resilience is our ability to adapt to or bounce back from stress and adversity. Can you describe what you’re feeling, and can you respond to emotions in ways that alleviate your suffering without adding to it? People who score low on resilience typically do things that keep them stuck like dwelling on negative thoughts, avoiding other people, or using drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling or other substances or behaviors to escape.
People who are resilient, by contrast, have the coping skills to manage life’s ups and downs with flexibility and a positive outlook.
Research suggests that the brain has an inherent capacity for resilience. Like empathy and other fundamental human capacities, our ability to adapt and thrive in the face of hardship may have biological roots to help us survive in an ever-changing world.
Although environmental factors can strengthen or weaken an individual’s natural capacity to withstand hardship, a tough childhood does not mean someone is destined to struggle with addiction or mental illness. Resilience comes naturally to some, but can be learned by all. In developmental studies, more than half of children born into high-risk families where parents struggled with addiction, mental illness, poverty, crime and related problems still managed to lead successful lives.
Resilience, like recovery itself, is a process of reconnection – with self, others and life. Perhaps you didn’t have the upbringing you would’ve liked, or your family history has left you with problems you’d hoped to avoid. If you’re not as resilient as you’d like to be, it’s never too late to learn the skills that promote strength and flexibility. The following are a few strategies that can boost resilience, and thereby help guard against relapse:
Stress is more difficult to manage when you haven’t taken care of your basic human needs. Like your recovery, resilience depends in part on your commitment to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep and make time for the things you most enjoy.
People accomplish more and feel more confident when they set high expectations for themselves. In recovery, a common goal is abstinence from mood-altering substances. Although it is a lofty goal, it is certainly attainable, as evidenced by the millions of people who have managed to stay clean and sober.
Success often hinges on breaking the goal into digestible parts – for example, taking recovery one day at a time. The key is taking some action, no matter how small, to improve the situation and then celebrating your progress.
Resilient people are not necessarily hardened or wholly autonomous. Rather, they utilize their resources, often by asking for help or leaning on a close friend or family member, a self-help support group, a spiritual advisor or other supporters for feedback and ideas. Through these relationships, recovering addicts develop important social skills, including empathy, respect, trust and the ability to have fun without drugs or alcohol, which in turn foster resilience.
Someone with a strong sense of purpose will not be easily shaken by stress or excessively focused on self. Meaning comes, in part, from knowing your strengths, sharing them with others and continually working toward a larger goal. For some, it may be developing a strong connection with their higher power. For others, it might involve giving back to the community, pursuing educational or career goals, or helping other addicts find their way into recovery.
You didn’t choose addiction, but you can choose recovery by taking responsibility for your choices, recognizing the need for change and taking steps to address your addictive behaviors. Skilled problem-solving requires, at a minimum, sitting with a problem without taking action that will make it worse, such as abusing drugs or alcohol.
As you experiment with different approaches, you can learn to be more fully present, avoid the pull of instant gratification and begin thinking through the consequences of your decisions. When you feel confident in your ability to find solutions to your own problems, you can make needed changes, which in turn creates a sense of self-efficacy and optimism about the future.
Change is inevitable, as are occasional disappointments. Particularly for those who struggle with addiction, it may come naturally to exaggerate a problem or feel that one setback ruins everything. Instead of making the problem more overwhelming than it needs to be, remember that most challenges are surmountable. Relapse, for example, can be viewed as a normal part of the recovery process and a valuable learning experience rather than a failure. Going through tough times, by itself, does not necessarily make people stronger. It’s vowing to find the lesson in these experiences and then persevering that builds resilience.
Having a problem-free life is not necessarily the best indicator of resilience. In fact, research shows that resilient people experience negative emotions, often intensely, but they also have more positive feelings. It is focusing on positive feelings like joy, generosity and gratitude, not avoiding or ignoring the negative ones, that leads to greater happiness and well-being.
Resilience is not a superhuman concept. It is not something that is available only to those with privileged childhoods or ideal family lives. The capacity is within each of us and can be nurtured, at any age or stage of life, to enhance your life and your recovery.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that include Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch near Nashville, The Recovery Place in Florida, and The Sexual Recovery Institute.
Woman with exercise ball photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 19 Jun 2012