The Role of Resiliency in Wellness and Recovery
This column was inspired by an article by Dr. Stephen Sideroff titled “Self-Regulation and Stress Coping at the Foundation of Resilience Recovery” appearing in the October 2016 issue of Counselor, and a talk on “Resiliency and Health” by Dr. Michael Hewitt (2016) I recently attended. In his informative treatise, Sideroff details the impact of early childhood trauma in impairing our neural mechanisms for self-regulation and functioning, which significantly increases our chances of succumbing to alcoholism and/or drug addiction. He then presents a nine-step therapeutic model for restoring clients’ capability for self-regulation, which he contends is the core component in mastering the foundations that underlie a resilient recovery.
This column will elaborate on the importance of resiliency in recovery, citing practical applications in relapse prevention, as well as in strengthening our recovery through embracing a wellness lifestyle.
Resiliency Defined and Applications in Recovery
An online post by Psychology Today defines resiliency as “that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes” (“Resilience,” n.d.). Furthermore, the post states, “. . . factors that make someone resilient (include) a positive attitude, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback” (“Resilience,” n.d.).
Coming from a wellness perspective I believe that application of resiliency in recovery entails the dimensions of physical, mental-emotional, and spiritual resiliency. Physical resiliency entails taking care of our bodies through adhering to a sound regimen of exercise, nutrition, and restorative sleep, among other things. Mental-emotional resiliency involves mastering the art of stress management, while cultivating the qualities of open-mindedness, mental flexibility, and the cognitive ability to effectively respond to challenging situations. For most of us, I believe that spiritual resiliency entails cultivating a strong sense of faith in a beneficent higher power that can guide us through life’s challenges, combined with the ability to put that faith into practice in discerning when to roll up our sleeves and directly tackle a troublesome situation, as distinct from letting go and turning it over.
A number of core precepts pertaining to resiliency in recovery can be found in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1953). Through effectively integrating these steps into their lives, recovering alcoholics and addicts learn that while they are powerless concerning the root causes of their addiction, to reap the benefits of a truly sustainable recovery they must assume personal responsibility for holding their addiction at bay and living a responsible fulfilling life, one day at a time.
Through mastering Steps One, Two, and Three, recovering people accept their powerlessness over their addiction while consciously choosing to allow a power greater than themselves to guide both their will and their actions. In Steps Four, Eight, and Nine they courageously undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory, identify the people they have harmed, and makes direct amends for their wrongdoings. These steps are extremely empowering in cultivating the resiliency needed to lead a life of honor and integrity.
Guiding people in early recovery to learn to cope with life’s ups and downs without relying on drugs is of paramount importance to addiction professionals. Mentoring clients in cultivating the quality of resiliency in their recovery plays an integral role in enabling them to both identify and manifest a strong sense of purpose. I personally believe that manifesting our central purpose is the most important step in laying the foundation for a lifelong experience of quality recovery.
Preventing Relapse and Supporting Sustained Sobriety
As everyone working in the addiction field is aware, more often than not relapse is part and parcel of the (at times precarious) journey through recovery. Relapse strikes when we are most vulnerable to resuccumbing to the temptation of drugs and alcohol. In recognition of this reality, many treatment centers incorporate a structured relapse prevention curriculum into their primary treatment and continuing care components.
An integral component in guiding clients to plan and implement a personalized relapse prevention (RP) program is teaching them to identify and “red flag” their relapse triggers. Once a trigger has been activated and identified, it is imperative that those whose recovery is in jeopardy immediately activate an effective first line of defense. An optimal response includes a combination of self-help measures—including prayer and meditation—and getting rid of all addictive substances in their possession. Most importantly, addicts in crisis must immediately reach out and activate their RP support system. Immediately calling their sponsor, therapist and/or addiction counselor, together with getting to a meeting as soon as possible are critically important first steps. Oftentimes family members, trusted friends, an EAP, and even an employer may be called to arms on a struggling addict’s behalf.
Needless to say, addicts’ ability to work with their support team to successfully avert an impending relapse is greatly enhanced if they have received coaching on developing a strong reservoir of resiliency to call upon in emergencies.
Many if not most recovering addicts will experience one or more relapse episodes over the course of their journey through recovery. This is very often a devastating experience for those who have made a substantial investment in their sobriety. The loss of self-esteem and accompanying sense of shame can become truly overwhelming. Unfortunately, when individuals do not have a strong, recovery-focused support system in place, their sense of shame and loss of self-efficacy often blocks them from seeking help. Sadly, many of these people lose faith in themselves and drop out of recovery. This underscores the critical importance of inculcating in clients a strong sense of resiliency to fall back on in times of crisis.
Interface between Resiliency and Wellness in Recovery
A wellness-oriented lifestyle both complements and facilitates ongoing development of resiliency, which plays such an important role in successfully navigating the lifelong process of recovery.
As detailed in my book The Wellness-Recovery Connection (2004), a balanced nutritious diet is essential in repairing damage to the brain and other parts of the body wrought by years of abusive drinking and drug use. Likewise, a sound regimen of physical exercise plays an important role in strengthening recovering addicts’ resiliency. As an added bonus, vigorous exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins, which stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, elevating mood and combating depression. Integral components of a wellness lifestyle also include learning to manage stress and how to quiet the mind via meditation or other techniques, developing a healthy social support system, seeking spiritual growth and grounding, and cultivating a strong sense of central purpose. Integrating these components into our recovery serves to strengthen that our overall resiliency while concurrently promoting a strong sense of self-efficacy.
The flip side is that possession of a strong resilient core is incredibly empowering when we are attempting to implement health conducive changes or are confronted with a challenging health problem. For example, many alcoholics completing treatment are also smokers who carry nicotine addiction over into their recovery. Predictably, those who fail to quit often shorten their life spans by years, even decades. As many substance abusers claim that giving up smoking is harder than quitting heroin, conquering nicotine addiction requires heroic application of resolve.
Coping with a serious life-threatening illness, such as advanced heart disease or cancer, is extremely draining and requires a high level of resolve and perseverance. A good friend of mine named Steve, who served as my mentor going back to our days in high school, recently succumbed to a ten-year battle with prostate cancer. Throughout this trying period he demonstrated an overwhelming amount of resolve and an amazingly positive attitude toward life. Carrying on for over a decade while his PSA level hovered at astronomical highs, he constantly amazed his doctors by remaining virtually symptom free. He continued to lead an incredibly full life, with frequent RV trips throughout the west accompanied by his devoted wife. While I am sure Steve had his moments of despair, he never shared these with his friends, whom were constantly amazed by his upbeat outlook. He was, indeed, the personification of resiliency as he served as a source of inspiration for everyone around him right up to the end.
I hope this column has helped you gain a fuller understanding of the powerful interconnection between resiliency and wellness in recovery. As always, feel free to share this with clients and others who may benefit from the message.
Alcoholics Anonymous. (1953). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Hewitt, M. (2016). Lecture on “Resiliency and Health” presented at Banner University of Arizona Medical Center, Tucson, AZ on October 5, 2016.
Newport, J. (2004). The wellness-recovery connection: Charting your pathway to optimal health while recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
“Resilience: All about resilience.” (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/resilience
Sideroff, S. (2016). Self-regulation and stress coping at the foundation of resilience recovery. Counselor, 17(5), 28–35.