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What’s the Purpose of Alcohol and Drug Counseling?

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Addiction recovery entails a process of healing and growth that happens in stages. During the initial stages, overcoming the physical effects of substance abuse becomes the primary goal in treatment. During the later stages, undoing the effects of addiction on the mind becomes the primary treatment goal. Alcohol and drug counseling addresses the psychological and behavioral components of addiction throughout the recovery process, though more so during the later stages of treatment.

Alcohol and drug counseling provides those in recovery with the support and guidance needed to develop healthy mindsets and ultimately settle into a drug-free lifestyle. As each person enters recovery with his or her own sets of circumstances, alcohol and drug counseling works to uncover the underlying issues that drive addictive behaviors while providing much needed coping strategies for dealing with everyday life stressors.

The Effects of Substance Abuse on the Brain

While different substances do vary in their effects, all addictive substances produce psychoactive effects, altering brain chemical pathways over time. These effects change the brain’s overall chemistry and ultimately change the way it works. According to the University of Utah Health Sciences, the effects of alcohol and drugs on dopamine neurotransmitter levels in particular account for the addictive potential of most all psychoactive substances.

Dopamine acts as the primary chemical messenger within the brain’s reward system, which plays a central role in the addiction process. Since the brain reward system defines a person’s motivations, belief systems and priorities, anything that disrupts dopamine output on a consistent basis can essentially rewire reward system functions.

Addiction’s Aftereffects

The effects of substance abuse skew brain chemical levels further and further off balance as ongoing fluctuations in dopamine levels interfere with reward system functions. Consequently, a person’s mindset starts to focus more and more on alcohol/drug effects.

This state of mind gives way to the poor choices and destructive actions addicts carry out in an effort to get and use drugs. For many in recovery, these effects can persist long after drug or alcohol use ends.

People first entering alcohol and drug counseling treatment remain vulnerable to many of the same addiction-based thinking patterns that drove continued drug use, including:

  • Experiencing strong alcohol or drug cravings when under stress
  • Reacting to environmental cues that triggered substance abuse in the past
  • Wanting to spend time with old drug or alcohol-using associates

Alcohol and drug counseling treatment targets this mindset, helping addicts undo addiction’s aftereffects and develop healthy coping strategies for better managing everyday life.

Goals of Alcohol and Drug Counseling

Alcohol and drug counseling treatment approaches can vary depending on each person’s situation in terms of:

  • Addiction severity
  • Support system (or lack thereof)
  • Motivation to get well
  • Psychological state

Ultimately, the overall goals of alcohol and drug counseling treatment remain the same.

Initial Assessment

Upon entering alcohol and drug counseling treatment, a person undergoes an initial assessment to determine his or her treatment needs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, many treatment programs use the Addiction Severity Index, which measures seven addiction-related components:

  • Family and/or social problems
  • Drug use practices
  • Alcohol use practices
  • Mental health problems
  • Health problems
  • Legal problems
  • Employment problems

Information gathered forms the basis for alcohol and drug counseling treatment with treatment programs administering periodic assessments every three to six months to gauge a person’s progress.

Ongoing Abstinence

As maintaining ongoing abstinence remains a primary treatment goal, alcohol and drug counseling breaks this task down into steps or stages, according to Dartmouth College. Not surprisingly, the very first step in this process entails helping addicts acknowledge and recognize the substance abuse problem as well as the faulty thinking patterns that go with it.

Interventions used in alcohol and drug counseling target the key areas that most challenge a person’s recovery efforts, including:

  • How a person structures his or her time
  • Cravings triggers
  • Social pressures to use, such as friends, family, coworkers
  • High risk situations

In effect, alcohol and drug counseling provides an environment where addicts can identify the challenges they face and develop healthy coping strategies.

Working through Underlying Issues

For many people struggling with addiction, underlying emotional conflicts drive them to substance abuse as a means for escaping the emotional discomfort surrounding unresolved issues. Many addicts in recovery also struggle with feelings of shame and guilt over their behaviors towards others when using. These conditions no doubt work against a person’s desire to maintain abstinence and can easily re-ignite substance abuse practices during difficult times.

Alcohol and drug counseling treatment enables addicts to bring these issues out into the open, which can go a long way towards defusing addiction’s hold over one’s motivations and belief systems. From there, alcohol and drug counseling provides addicts with coping skills for managing uncomfortable emotional issues when they surface.

Co-Occurring Conditions

People with chronic and/or long-term substance abuse histories may well develop psychological disorders as a result of the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol on brain function. Also known as dual diagnosis conditions, someone struggling with both addiction and mental health issues faces an even more difficult challenge in recovery as these conditions tend to aggravate one another.

Much like alcohol and drug counseling interventions help addicts develop strategies for managing addiction-based behaviors, these same interventions can also help in working through the faulty thinking and behavioral patterns that drive mental illness. In cases of dual diagnosis, treatment providers use an integrated approach in terms of treating both conditions together as opposed to treating them as separate disorders.

Types of Counseling

Alcohol and drug counseling can be administered individually as well as in a group setting, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. The two approaches differ in focus, with individual counseling addressing the personal issues that drive addiction while group counseling helps a person learn healthy ways of dealing with conflict on an interpersonal level.

Group settings also expose those in recovery to like-minded individuals facing similar challenges in their day-to-day lives. In effect, alcohol and drug counseling groups become support systems in and of themselves, with members offering support and guidance to one another.


While the physical challenges involved with overcoming addiction can be daunting, the psychological aftereffects of addiction can quickly drive a person back to using when needed supports are lacking. Alcohol and drug abuse counseling treatment provides the type of guidance and support needed to maintain abstinence for the long-term.