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Let’s face it: stress happens. Whether it’s chronic (a rough daily commute) or acute (like a sudden serious accident), stress is a real physiological phenomenon, wears many faces, and can be the root of a long list of health issues.
Substance use disorders (SUDs) can be one of them. It’s not a coincidence that a more common co-occurring disorder that we treat among clients is “post-traumatic stress syndrome” (PTSD). Stress — (in this case, more typically, an acute form of stress such as sexual abuse or active combat) — is the trigger.
But chronic stress, too, can exact its toll over time, leading to substance abuse. A pretty common example might be the client who starts misusing prescription drugs in order to cope with a highly demanding job. That’s why developing stress resilience is crucial to the long haul of recovery, and thankfully, today there is a whole field devoted to its study. There are even “stress scientists” who, in addition to studying stress as a phenomenon and its impact on human beings, want to know the secret to coping well in the face of really big stressors.
What Is Stress Resilience and its Characteristics?
Stress resilience is what characterizes those who are able to cope reasonably well in the face of severe levels of stress. Stress scientists use a more technical definition: they describe stress resilience as “a process whereby people exposed to severe levels of stress, trauma, and adversity are able to thrive and survive despite their difficulties.”
What does that look like? It turns out that stress-resilient people tend to have certain characteristics. These include:
- A past experience of adversity from which they were able to rebound
- Adaptability (they are able to “bend but not break”)
- An ability to bounce back from adversity
- Healthy self-esteem and self-confidence
Some Tips for Building Stress Resilience
All of these characteristics can be honed and developed in the pursuit of greater stress resilience. What follow are some tips for grooming them:
- Change your perspective towards stress. Dreading stress is natural. That can tend to amplify an already stressful situation, however. Instead, wherever it is possible, try to look for the silver lining in stressful situations. Stress can be an opportunity for self-growth and new lessons about oneself, after all.
Not all stress is bad either, according to the experts. Some stress apparently actually has positive benefits, but a disclaimer here: it’s important to make the distinction between good stress and bad stress; most people in recovery have experienced more than their fair share of bad stress, and need to be validated in knowing that what they have gone through is something they shouldn’t have had to experience. In these cases, such as trauma, surviving is itself a show of resilience that’s important to celebrate and draw on in pursuit of the goal of ultimately thriving.
- Take up yoga. Yoga literally embodies adaptability. It’s about contorting your body into stretches you never knew existed and holding yourself in these often weird, uncomfortable and at times somewhat painful positions. Over time, though, and with practice, yoga has been shown to help clients heal from post-traumatic stress, by teaching them that they can literally bend without breaking when under fire.
- Work on your stress coping skills. We talk about these all the time in recovery. You know what they are (regular exercise, attending 12-step meetings, meditation, time management and so on). These take regular practice in order to become second nature.
- Try doing something that really scares you, like public speaking. What did Nietzsche say? Yep. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” or something along those lines. Public speaking is right up there with death as a leading fear among Americans. If that doesn’t scare you, do something else that does. Successfully confronting an object of fear can build the courage you’ll need to stick with recovery when the going gets tough.