Psychological resilience is an individual’s tendency to cope with stress and adversity. On the surface, most addicts lack resilience. Otherwise, why would they be turning to an addictive substance or behavior as their primary coping mechanism? Underneath, however, addicts often find that they are incredibly resilient. When the “easy out” of addiction is taken away, they often learn they can handle more than they ever expected.
Better still, resilience is a process (rather than an inherent trait). That means that individuals who lack resilience can learn it. Healthy people generally develop resilience in childhood as they face and overcome challenges both with and without assistance from caregivers. Addicts? Not so much. Because addicts are nearly always raised in dysfunctional environments with a limited range of coping skills, they turn to what’s available (most often dissociation) to escape rather than deal with their feelings.
Unfortunately, this often carries forward into adulthood, resulting in addiction. Rather than facing adversity head-on, addicts avoid it through various forms of emotional escape – drinking, drugging, gambling, sex, porn, etc. This is not because they inherently lack resilience; it’s because they never learned the skills of resilience.
The good news is that resilience is a process that can be learned. The following practices can help any person – addicted or not – steadily increase his or her resilience to almost any challenge.
- Don’t Wait for Happiness: Many addicts feel they are undeserving of happiness or that their life has been so negatively impacted by their addiction that they cannot experience happiness. This is not true. Though many addicts do experience degrees of anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure) in early recovery while their brain “reboots” from the super-stimulation of addiction, this goes away as recovery takes root.
- Face Challenges: Addicts’ dysfunctional coping patterns typically involve avoiding problems, issues, and concerns. This habit must break. Even if you need to ask for help to overcome some adversity, you must do it. In time, as you overcome one issue after another, you find that doing so gets progressively easier.
- Give Yourself a Pep Talk: Addicts’ critical self-dialog undermines their confidence in their ability to be resilient and to cope with challenges in healthy ways. This critical self-dialog gives voice to old beliefs and shame. It is important to identify these beliefs as false and to replace them with more affirmative beliefs about oneself.
- Be Optimistic: Past trauma, the onset of addiction, and the consequences of addiction can all result in a firm belief that life just doesn’t turn out well for addicts, even in recovery. But this belief is simply not true. So choose to be an optimist. Being an optimist doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna – simply seeing the brighter side of every situation. It means maximizing your strengths and achievements and minimizing your weaknesses and apprehensions. Research tells us that optimistic people experience fewer addictions, mental illnesses, and physical illnesses, and they enjoy a better quality of life. They also live longer.
- Stay in the Moment: Active addicts tend to spend far less time in the current moment and more time reliving the past or obsessively worrying about the future. Recovery, however, occurs in the present – today, one day at a time. Resilience can only be applied to the concerns we are facing in the here and now.
Recovering addicts, if they hope to achieve long-term sobriety, must accept the fact that life continually presents difficulties – financial challenges, injury, illness, flat tires, and all sorts of other unexpected obstacles. Unfortunately, many addicts, because they’ve spent their lives avoiding rather than facing and overcoming challenges, can feel stuck when they run into one. They don’t know how to overcome even the simplest of obstacles because they’ve never done it before. The good news is that anyone, even seemingly helpless recovering addicts, can develop resilience, learning to face and overcome obstacles. Over time, as they practice the skills of resilience, even the biggest problems don’t deter them. Eventually, many recovering addicts find that they actually enjoy facing and overcoming life’s challenges.