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What resiliency research teaches us

March 1, 2010
by Bruce A. Campbell, LCSW, LADC, CCS
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The larger recovering community plays a critical role in supporting individuals' recovery

In 2008, the Bangor Area Recovering Community Coalition (BARCC) in Maine held its first summit on addiction recovery, entitled “Broadening the Base for Recovery: Promoting Pathways to Recovery in the 21st Century.” The conference provided a framework for viewing recovery from research in the field of resiliency developed over the past 20 years. While information abounds regarding the brain chemistry of addiction, resiliency research describes the “brain chemistry of recovery.” The recovering community is inherently equipped to foster resiliency in individuals seeking recovery from addiction.

As recovery advocates call for a shift from chronic disease management to recovery management via recovery-oriented systems of care, resiliency research provides the architecture that builds a bridge linking prevention, treatment and recovery. It provides a framework for environmental supports that enhance all aspects of clinical interventions. From its origins in prevention, resiliency research is applicable to any group supporting the recovery process.

In an economic climate of constricted resources, with an underfunded system often at odds with itself, the recovering community stands in the gap as an underutilized resource. Resiliency provides the language that speaks across divisions as we progress through the 21st century.

What is resiliency?

Rooted in anthropological study, the term “resiliency” emerged in the early 1990s. Bonnie Benard's Fostering Resilience in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community first codified what resiliency looked like and how it could be achieved.1 Since then, a significant body of research has been developed on the subject, mostly in relation to prevention and youth development. The brain dynamics of recovery are found in the literature of resiliency. Environmental strategies influence an individual's capacity for sustained recovery. Resiliency is independent of any particular treatment modality, yet is applicable to all of them.

Some common definitions of resilience include:

  • An occurrence of rebounding or springing back;

  • That property of a strained body that enables it to recover its size and shape as it is unloaded after some initial deformation; and

  • Increased probability of school and life success despite adversities caused by early characteristics, conditions and experiences.

Resiliency literature points to the brain as being hard-wired for resilience. It is an inborn capacity for adaptation and survival.2A “resilient” person is someone who demonstrates social competency, problem-solving skills, a sense of autonomy, and hope for the future.

The ability to foster this type of brain development is best achieved when individuals belong to social groups with specific characteristics. Researchers identify three primary elements necessary to develop a resilient individual: high expectations, caring and support, and opportunities for participation.2 These “environmental protective factors” can be found at the family, school, workplace, organizational, or community levels.

When exposed to such an environment, particularly when in relation with a caring adult or peer, an individual who otherwise might be at high risk for problems can “turn around.” Mentors become “turnaround people” and schools become “turnaround places.”3 Counselors, treatment centers, peer groups, facilitators, sponsors, home groups and fellowships all offer examples of potential turnaround opportunities. The recovering community is an alternate culture that provides environmental protective factors for individuals seeking recovery.

A resilient person's attributes

The irony of resiliency research is that it simply rediscovers what is natural in a healthy, close-knit community. It is precisely this that makes the recovering community a resilient community comprising resilient individuals. Based in the common experience of individuals recovering from addiction, the recovering community is intentional; it has a unique purpose.

Resiliency is spoken in the language of recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) 2005 National Summit on Recovery defined recovery from alcohol and drug problems as a process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness and quality of life.4 Resiliency tenets are embodied in the guiding principles articulated from that summit and reflect the constructs of resiliency research. These principles are paraphrased in these characteristics of a resilient person in recovery:

Social competence. Learning to re-socialize without drugs and alcohol is an essential skill of early recovery. Learning to work and have fun in recovery requires developing interpersonal skills, relationship skills and functional work habits. These are essential developmental tasks that must be mastered to some degree to ensure lasting recovery. It is like learning how to ride a bike: At first it feels awkward and is often clumsy, but with practice and skill it becomes easier and, in time, automatic. As Benard quotes Goleman in his discussion of the brain, “…the finding that the brain and nervous system generate new cells as learning or repeated experiences dictate has put the theme of plasticity at the front and center of neuroscience.”2