Addiction treatment includes a wide range of interventions and treatment stages aimed at helping a person recover from alcohol and drug addiction. Addiction treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach but is often tailored to meet a person’s individual needs. While you may be inspired as you prepare to start an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program, you may be wondering what to expect.
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What Is Addiction?
Historically, addiction has been misunderstood to be the result of a weak character or immorality. People who struggled with addiction were often mistreated. For many years, addiction treatment involved being admitted to lodging homes, inebriate homes, or sanitoriums (i.e., mental institutions) until a person “dried out”—or detoxed from substances—without medical treatment.
Today, we have a better understanding of addiction. Researchers have discovered that addiction alters brain function and chemistry. Substance use hijacks the brain’s reward pathways to create intense cravings. Uncomfortable and sometimes medically significant withdrawal symptoms can occur when people stop using the substance.1 Withdrawal symptoms and cravings make it hard to break the cycle of addiction.
According to The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is “a primary, chronic [long-term] disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.” 8
Addiction is not a character defect; instead, it’s a complex medical disorder that needs specialized treatment.1 The overall goals of addiction treatment are to help people overcome withdrawal symptoms, work through cravings, and abstain from alcohol or drug use.
What is Recovery?
Recovery is a life-long endeavor that is not the same for every person. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”11 Recovery involves many aspects of a person’s life because substance misuse often adversely affects several areas of life (e.g., relationships, career, finances, or health).
There are also many paths to recovery. For example, some individuals find that complete abstinence from all substance use is a key factor in preventing the progressive symptoms associated with addiction. In other situations, a person with a substance use disorder may engage in harm reduction techniques and employing healthy thought and behavioral patterns without focusing on strict abstinence from all substances to achieve the “health and wellness” associated with recovery.
What Is Addiction Treatment?
There are many aspects of drug and alcohol addiction treatment, including medical care, counseling and education, and therapy, especially behavioral treatment modalities.
A medical team may prescribe medication to stabilize your brain chemistry, help alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and reduce cravings.1 The type of medication differs depending on the substance used. For example, opioid addiction treatment involves specific types of medications (e.g., methadone or buprenorphine).
During addiction treatment, the medical team often also addresses any underlying mental health issues. Many people with addiction have co-occurring disorders. A co-occurring disorder can be any diagnosis you have in addition to a substance use disorder, such as a mental health condition like an anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, or another mood disorder.1 In some cases, other mental health conditions predate the substance use disorder. 2 Substance use can develop as a response to mental health symptoms.1
The active phase of addiction treatment begins after a person goes through the initial detoxification stage. Active treatment involves altering thought patterns by employing new behavioral strategies and coping mechanisms. Treatment facilitates, counselors, and therapists can assist with developing new methods of dealing with cravings, stressors including anxiety and other mental health symptoms, and personal conflict.1
People in treatment often attend individual or family counseling sessions as addiction can affect members of the family.4 Family counseling helps rebuild relationships damaged by addiction. Experts have found that family counseling may help prevent some interpersonal issues that can occur due to addiction, such as family estrangement or divorce. Family support may also help a person maintain sobriety.5
What Are the Goals for Each Stage of Addiction Treatment?
Each stage of addiction treatment aims to help a person with substance use disorder achieve specific goals. The stages are as follows.
Detoxification (detox) is the initial period of stopping the use of drugs or alcohol. The goal of detox is to rid the body of alcohol or other substances safely. If you have a moderate or severe substance use disorder, you may need the help of a medical team who will create a personalized detox plan. The detox plan may involve quitting “cold turkey” if it is safe to do so based on your previous substance use, medical history, and the withdrawal symptoms associated with the substance in question.
In other cases, the team may slowly help your body adjust to lower levels of drugs or alcohol. During detox, medication is often given to alleviate some withdrawal symptoms to relieve discomfort and alleviate the risks of potentially dangerous or life-threatening symptoms. One such medically significant effect of detoxing from alcohol is delirium tremors, commonly known as DTs.
Medical detox provides continuous medical care. Your care team may also suggest non-medical detox in an outpatient setting or while you begin rehab.
After detox, you may participate in an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation (rehab) program. During inpatient rehab, you stay at a residential facility for several weeks or months. Outpatient rehab programs, sometimes called day treatment, are those you attend for a set schedule of programming while living away from the facility.6
The goal of alcohol and drug rehab is to continue working toward sustainable recovery. You focus on managing cravings for drugs or alcohol. You also explore any unhealthy or non-productive thought and behavioral patterns common for those with substance use disorders.11
During rehab, counselors and therapists help you examine the effects of addiction. At the same time, you learn new coping mechanisms and identify the thought patterns that led to non-productive behaviors.8 You also learn strategies for maintaining long-term recovery, such as relapse prevention tools.
Many recovering people need help to repair the damage related to addiction. Substance use-related issues can affect any aspect of your life, including your interpersonal, financial, and legal wellbeing.4 During rehab, you work on recovering from these setbacks, including beginning to cope with grief and loss. You may also work with a therapist or counselor to plan for your future, such as actively participating in community or social activities, finding a new education or career path, and planning for sober housing after rehab.
Many people continue to attend individual, group, or family therapy for months or years after initially participating in formal addiction treatment. Some attend peer support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or get involved with sobriety teams, which are structured coaching programs that may be faith-based or intended for a specified demographic. Many people need ongoing mental health care, including medication management by a doctor or psychiatrist.1
Before you leave rehab, the team helps you develop an aftercare plan. Ongoing treatment helps you stay focused on your goals and remain sober.
After rehab, people often set personal goals to help them progress in their recovery. A list of post-rehab goals might include:
- Repairing relationships with friends or family members
- Finding new sober friends
- Moving to a new living situation
- Re-establishing a career
- Exploring new hobbies and interests
These goals can support a person’s long-term sobriety.8 Post-treatment goals often center around developing a new lifestyle that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol.
What Are the Challenges of Addiction Treatment?
Each stage of alcohol and drug addiction treatment has unique obstacles that can challenge your addiction treatment goals.
During detox, you may struggle with cravings and withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms usually decrease in intensity after detox is complete and you may go longer periods without feeling them.6 But as you work through the process of repair damage caused by your addiction, you may begin confronting underlying emotions like anxiety or grief that can trigger a psychological rather than physical desire to use substances.
After leaving treatment, you may encounter challenges that have the potential to lead to relapse. Factors that can increase the risk of relapsing include: 5
- Having a social circle of individuals who use substances or are not supportive of your recovery
- Living in an environment that does not facilitate recovery-focused goals
- Not having access to services you need for recovery support due to finances, insurance coverage, or lack of local resources
- Encountering intense stressors that you do not yet have the coping skills to work through without external support
You may choose to move, change jobs, set boundaries in your relationships, or make other changes to limit your exposure to certain triggers.
Relapse is part of many individuals’ recovery journey. People in recovery and their family members must understand that while relapse is not desirable, it can be a part of the process and does not indicate that treatment didn’t work or that you have failed as a person.8 If you relapse, your recovery team can help you regain your sobriety. Your team may include professionals from your treatment program, peers from support groups you attend, supportive loved ones, and medical professionals.
What if I am Not Ready to Quit Using Drugs or Alcohol?
You may not be in a highly motivated state of mind when you begin addiction treatment. Many individuals enter treatment after a medical event due to pressure from family members, as part of a court program, or other “external” motivators. You may not feel a strong personal motivation to become and stay sober. You may recognize that you need certain types of help but feel reluctant to start intensive treatment methods like detox or inpatient rehab.
Recovery programs can provide you with guidance and support, regardless of your current state of mind. If you are concerned about your drug or alcohol use, a substance use specialist can help. A specialist will not demand a lifelong commitment to sobriety. You are not required to stop using drugs and alcohol before you enter treatment. Instead, your specialist will discuss your concerns and treatment goals. They work with you to develop a personalized care plan that meets your needs.11
After speaking to a specialist, you might decide to enroll in an inpatient or outpatient rehab program. You may work with a therapist or a counselor at an outpatient clinic.1,11 Some clinicians offer therapeutic modalities like motivational interviewing, specifically intended to help individuals find their own “internal” motivators.
You may also choose to start seeking support through your local or spiritual community instead of participating in formal addiction treatment immediately. Some join peer support groups, like AA or NA, that are areligious and facilitated by other people in recovery.
Call 800-926-9037 Who Answers? to speak to a treatment specialist about nearby rehab centers. Our specialists can answer your questions about addiction treatment and explore available services. We can help you find a rehab program in your area.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.
- Santucci, K. (2012). Psychiatric disease and drug abuse. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 24(2), 233–237.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Substance abuse treatment and family therapy. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39. Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy, DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 04‐3957.
- Melemis, S. M. (2015, September 3). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
- Harwood, H. J., Gerstein, D.R. (1990). A study of the evolution, effectiveness, and financing of public and private drug treatment systems. Treating Drug Problems. Volume 1. National Academies Press.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).
- Pasareanu, A.R., Opsal, A., Vederhus, JK. et al. (2015, March 14). Quality of life improved following in-patient substance use disorder treatment. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 13(1),
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). What are the other health consequences of drug addiction?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2016). Chapter 4 Physical Detoxification Services for Withdrawal From Specific Substances. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Power of Perceptions and Understanding: “Why Addiction is a “Disease” and Why It’s Important”.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018, October 12). Recovery and Support Tools and Resources.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2019, September 15). Definition of Addiction.