Resilience in recovery from addiction and trauma
By Jeff van Reenen (MSc MFDAP), Addiction Treatment Programme (ATP) Manager at The Priory Hospital Chelmsford
It's important to recognise the role 'resilience' plays in recovery and understand what resilience is. Prior to Norman Garmezy's research on resilience in relation to recovery from trauma, most research on trauma and negative life events had a reverse focus. Instead of looking at areas of strength, it looked at areas of vulnerability. Often, it looked at the experiences that make people susceptible to poor life outcomes, rather than focusing on the strength and resilience that could occur as a result of the trauma or traumatic experience.
The Addiction Treatment Programme at The Priory Hospital Chelmsford helps patients focus on their own resilience. This positive thought process allows patients to meet their world on their own terms and encourages them to realise they are in charge of their own destiny. This is essential for recovery from addiction and is particularly powerful in working with past trauma and traumatic events.
Can resilience be learned?
We all possess the same fundamental stress response system which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience the question is: why do some people use this system so much more frequently or effectively than others? Research shows that a life of active addiction will detract from and derail this in-built stress response system.
The Addiction Treatment Programme at Priory Chelmsford helps the patient refocus and relearn this self-control. This can help the patient to see it is their own perception, and not so much their circumstances, that will have a major effect on whether they recover from trauma or not.
Patients are supported to begin thinking about events in different ways. They can learn to view them in positive terms or in a less emotional way. This ultimately changes how they experience and react to events.
Research shows that people can be trained to better regulate their emotions. This is done by changing the way they explain events to themselves. This can be:
- From internal to external - "bad events aren't my fault"
- From global to specific - "this is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life"
- From permanent to impermanent - "I can change the situation rather than assuming that it's fixed.
This can help people be more psychologically successful and less prone to depression. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience can seemingly be learned over time, creating resilience when there may have been none. If adversity is framed as a challenge then people can become more flexible and more likely to deal with it, move on, learn from it and grow.
How can you build resilience?
One of the first steps towards healing is to establish and maintain boundaries around self-destructive behaviour. After doing this, it is helpful to encourage them to acknowledge these behaviours and find meaning within them. By acknowledging resilient thoughts and actions a person can move towards self-compassion by speaking about difficult times in their life. Simultaneously, we provide them with the support to continue with small steps towards greater resilience.
A conversation is required between therapist and patient to determine how much stronger they have become because of certain experiences, and what it may have required to break through the pain.
Questions need to be asked, such as:
- How did you survive?
- What did you tell yourself that enabled you to rise again and again?
- What kept you motivated to survive?
They can then see what they have learnt about themselves through this.
Recognising and honouring resilience is the key to trauma recovery. Resilience lives in the trauma wound and it can't be fully recognised unless the suffering that caused the wound is embraced.
Finally, to conclude, research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught and learned and that this can be hugely beneficial for psychological well-being.