Addiction Recovery: Overcoming Your Alcohol or Drug Problem

3 min read · 4 sections
Evidence-Based Care
Expert Staff

Addiction, clinically referred to as a substance use disorder (SUD), is a disease that impacts millions of people. Fortunately, addiction is a treatable disorder, and long-term recovery is possible. While there is no cure, addiction—like other chronic conditions such as asthma or heart disease—can be managed.1

The recovery from addiction process requires continuing care and support, not just for days or months following active addiction, but for years. Research indicates that more than 25 million people with a previous history of addiction have achieved long-term recovery.2

What you will learn:
An explanation of addiction recovery
The recovery process
The importance of aftercare
Addiction treatment options available

What Is Addiction Recovery?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines recovery as the process by which you stop using drugs and alcohol and resume a healthy, productive life.1 There are multiple pathways to recovery—each is multifaceted, involving various components or steps—that allow you to work towards improving your overall health and well-being, live a self-directed life, and attempt to reach your fullest potential.3

Recovery from drugs and alcohol starts when you make the decision to put an end to your substance use. Being in recovery involves voluntarily deciding to incorporate positive values and changes in your life, and therefore, looks different for every person.3

The 4 main elements that support a successful recovery journey include:4

  • Health. This means living a life that promotes physical and psychological health and overcoming the disease, and managing co-occurring conditions.
  • Home. Having a stable and safe place to live is key to supporting a life in recovery.
  • Purpose. Meaningful daily routines such as attending school, going to a job, volunteering, participating in hobbies, and engaging in social and community activities promote independence and overall well-being.
  • Community. Having a support system that provides strength, hope, and encouragement serves as a foundation for recovery.

Stages of Recovery

Each person’s timeline for recovery varies based on their unique needs, substance use history, and life circumstances. However, recovery can be thought of in 4 primary phases that include withdrawal, early, middle, and late phases of recovery.

Substance Abuse Withdrawal

Withdrawal, the first stage in recovery, may involve experiencing physical and psychological symptoms, depending on the substance used. These symptoms may include:5

  • Irritability.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Memory problems.
  • Paranoia.
  • Insomnia.
  • Fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Drug and alcohol cravings.

During this first phase of recovery, the overarching goals include:5

  • Providing a foundation for lasting recovery.
  • Taking recovery one day at a time rather than dwelling in the past or thinking too far into the future, which can be overwhelming.
  • Counteracting the lifestyle of addiction.
  • Identifying and eliminating avoidable triggers.
  • Reducing stress and anxiety.

Early Recovery

Early recovery refers to early abstinence from drugs and alcohol. In early recovery, feelings might operate like a pendulum and may include:5

  • Increased energy and optimism.
  • Overconfidence.
  • Trouble concentrating and remembering.
  • Intense feelings.
  • Mood swings.
  • Other substance use.
  • Inability to prioritize.
  • Mild paranoia.

Research indicates that more than half of individuals who enter recovery relapse in the first 3 months.6 That’s because during this early recovery, triggers lead to thoughts of substance use, which individuals can either stop—using the tools they’ve learned—or continue to think about, begin to crave, and eventually, give in to the cravings and start using drugs or alcohol again.

During early recovery, individuals are encouraged to engage in non-trigger activities such as:5

  • Exercising.
  • Participating in mutual-help groups.
  • Finding new hobbies or recreational activities.
  • Eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Engaging in self-reflection activities.
  • Watching non-substance-related shows and movies.
  • Keeping a structured routine.

Middle Recovery

Once you reach the middle phase of recovery, you have established abstinence. You have worked to identify relapse triggers and found healthy ways of coping as well as other sober activities to incorporate into your lifestyle.5 During this stage, individuals may continue to feel the benefits and challenges associated with abstinence, including:5

  • Continued lifestyle changes.
  • Anger and depression.
  • Isolation.
  • Family adjustments.
  • Emotional swings.
  • Unclear thinking.
  • Positive benefits of abstinence.

The risks of relapse during this stage of recovery include:5

  • Increased emotionality.
  • Behavioral drifts backward.
  • Decreased ability to feel pleasure.
  • Feeling fatigued or having low energy.
  • Taking a new substance.
  • Stopping your structured routine.
  • Relationship or interpersonal conflicts.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Insomnia.
  • Paranoia.
  • Relapse justification

This phase of recovery typically lasts 1-3 years.

Late Recovery/Maintenance

The final stage of recovery is referred to as adjustment and resolution. During this phase, you have established and maintained abstinence, experienced feelings of accomplishment, and worked towards continued relationship and lifestyle changes to sustain abstinence.5

Additional objectives for the late recovery/maintenance phase include:5

  • Continuing to monitor yourself for signs of relapse.
  • Accepting that recovery is a lifelong process.
  • Addressing underlying mental health conditions that can surface and potentially lead to substance use.
  • Continuing with aftercare activities, which may include mutual-help groups or ongoing counseling.
  • Maintaining a balanced lifestyle that includes exercising, eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, fostering positive relationships, and participating in healthy social and recreational activities.

Addiction Treatment Options for Drugs and Alcohol

If you are ready to take the first step in your recovery, help is available to you right now. There are treatment options that can help you establish and achieve long-lasting recovery. Effective addiction treatment is unique to you, and your treatment plan includes comprehensive interventions that are tailored to your health and overall recovery needs and may include:7

  • Detox. Medically managed detox helps you rid your body of substances safely and as comfortably as possible. Healthcare professionals may utilize medication and other interventions to help prevent and/or alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Detox, alone, however, is not typically enough to sustain recovery. It is typically the first step in a more comprehensive treatment program.
  • Inpatient treatment. Sometimes referred to as residential treatment, inpatient programs require you to live at the facility for the duration of treatment and participate in education, individual and group counseling, and behavioral therapies.
  • Outpatient treatment programs. Outpatient treatment varies in intensity, depending on the program. While you travel to the facility for a specified number of hours each day and days per week, you return home or to a sober living environment at the end of each day. Beyond that, treatment looks very similar to the interventions and services provided in an inpatient setting.

Behavioral therapies are effectively used in the treatment of addiction. Common therapies used in SUD treatment include:7

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT promotes the learning of healthy cognitive and behavioral skills to replace maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving that contribute to drug and alcohol use.
  • Contingency management (CM). Contingency management uses rewards to reinforce recovery goals, such as maintaining abstinence or attending therapy.
  • Motivation enhancement therapy (MET). This therapy aims to end any ambivalence you may have about ending your addiction and motivates you to enter and remain in treatment.

Importance of Aftercare

Aftercare, or continuing care, refers to groups, programs, and services that continue after formal treatment ends and help with relapse prevention.8,9 It is an essential part of your ongoing recovery process as it helps support your progress and monitor your condition. Studies indicate that aftercare programs that actively engage individuals for longer periods lead to better outcomes.9

Aftercare goals include:

  • Sustaining abstinence.
  • Continuing recovery.
  • Mastering community living.
  • Developing vocational skills.
  • Finding employment if needed.
  • Assuming increasing responsibility.
  • Resolving relationship issues with family and loved ones.

Aftercare encompasses several services that can continue or begin after a formal treatment program, including:9,10

  • Life skills education.
  • Relapse prevention.
  • 12-Step programs and other mutual-help peer support groups.
  • Case management.
  • Vocational training.
  • Housing services.
  • Group, family, and individual counseling.
  • Job search help.

Studies suggest that aftercare programs can improve your relationships, develop your life skills to help you sustain recovery, prevent relapse, and address mental health conditions.11

Don’t continue to struggle with addiction. Effective treatment options are just a phone call away. Talk to a trusted loved one, a licensed medical professional, or call American Addiction Centers (AAC) at

And start your recovery journey today.

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