Anyone who has undertaken the journey to a sober, healthy life free from addiction knows that it is neither short nor easy. It’s also a highly personal journey, so the individual steps or stages of addiction recovery are difficult to define, even in general terms. The specific addiction recovery steps one goes through will vary according to the type of addiction, the substance(s) one is addicted to, the treatment or recovery plan being followed, and the individual seeking rehabilitation. That said, in this article, we will attempt to provide a kind of generalized “roadmap to recovery,” listing some of the stages that most people on a path to successful recovery from addiction follow.
These stages have been synthesized from some of the most important writing and research in the field of addiction treatment. Some of the experts in this field list 3 primary steps for recovery, others specify 5 or 6, stages and a few list 9 or more. We settled on four stages of recovery. Our choice of this number shouldn’t be seen as disparaging any experts and their choice of lower or higher numbers – we just chose the steps to overcoming addiction that in our experience indicate the path that most recovering addicts follow.
The stages of rehab we discuss below also shouldn’t be confused with 12-step programs. As useful as these insights might be, and as valuable as they have been and continue to be to generations of people seeking recovery and a sober life, they’re not really “steps” or “stages” per se, in that they don’t reveal much about rehabilitation from addiction as a process. We feel that the four categories we have chosen do a good job of describing the key elements of the journey to recovery as a process, one that is completed by making simple steps, one after another, until the goal of freedom from addiction has been reached.
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This article provides an overview of the most common steps to recovery from addiction. If you are looking for additional information about addiction recovery stages, we urge you to call our 24-hour hotline at (888)-459-5511 to speak with a knowledgeable representative, who can offer more personalized information.
Stage 1: Early Awareness and Acknowledgement
The journey to recovery and a life of sobriety begins long before most people realize that they’re on any kind of journey. So it is important to understand that there are stages of addiction treatment that occur long before a person actually checks in to a treatment program, stages that are essential to being able to take advantage of such treatment and achieve recovery.
The earliest phase of addiction recovery has been termed the pre-contemplation stage, because the journey to recovery often begins long before the addict even realizes that he or she is undertaking such a journey. Often, those who are in the pre-contemplation stage have yet to admit to themselves that they have a problem. They may be “going through the motions” of talking about addiction because they’ve been pressured by loved ones or their employer or the legal system, but deep inside they still believe that they can “handle it” and are not really addicts. Addicts in this stage often blame their addiction on outside factors such as a stressful job or home life, rather than a situation that they created themselves.
People in this stage may be aware that there are negative repercussions associated with their addiction, but they tend to justify their behavior because they see its benefits more clearly than they see its deficits. This stage is often looked back upon by recovered addicts as their “rock bottom,” the “low point” of their addiction. But it has an “up side” in that the feelings one experiences during this stage often lead to the next stage of recovery.
During this stage, the individual has realized that he or she is an addict, and accepted that they need to make changes. They have become aware of the impact their addictive behavior is having on their lives, but they are still uncertain whether it is worth the effort required to change. They are still struggling to understand the root causes of their addition, and unsure as to how to change. They’re open to change, as long as it’s “someday,” not right now. It is common for addicts to remain in this stage for months or even years, as they begin to think about potential courses of action. Choosing to seek help is a huge step, and many addicts in this stage of recovery are simply not ready to make that step yet.
The end of the contemplation stage is often signaled by a growing sense of simultaneous anxiety and excitement, because the addict starts to make concrete plans for their recovery. At this stage people begin to see that they are responsible for their choices and have the ability to make plans that can affect their lives in many positive ways.
Early manifestations of such plans can involve gathering information about possible rehab options, making a pledge of abstinence (even if it fails), or attending outpatient counseling or rehab sessions. They have begun to prepare for the possibility of a life without drugs or alcohol, and are starting to make plans as to how to achieve it. This is a huge step, and formulating a timeline to start the recovery process helps them move on to the next step – taking action.
Stage 2: Determination / Commitment To Action
This phase of addiction recovery is the stage in which people take actual steps to change, and the physical process of recovery actually begins. It may consist of the person changing his or her surroundings or behavior, developing a fitness plan or diet, or checking in to an accredited rehabilitation program.
This stage is the foundation for long-term sobriety. Making these changes not only “starts the ball rolling” in terms of the steps to recovering from addiction, it also builds confidence and creates a feeling of self-confidence. It also requires the most effort, but in the long term that can create the most feelings of satisfaction, because you’re finally “doing something.”
During these early stages the individual can feel a great deal of vulnerability, because for many people it’s the first time they’ve allowed outsiders to look at their lives honestly. Fortunately, the feelings of satisfaction associated with finally taking action towards recovery often prove that their efforts and their feelings of vulnerability are more than worthwhile.
Among the steps to overcome addiction, this is extremely important, because you get to meet with the rehab center you have selected, and determine whether it’s a good fit for you.
The rehab center will certainly have some questions for you as well, and may ask you to undergo diagnostic tests or screenings to determine how the program can best tailor its treatment plans to your particular recovery needs. The addiction treatment program staff will be interested in determining where in the preparatory stages you are, the severity of your addiction, your and your family’s personal history with substance abuse, and even your financial situation and ability to pay for the treatment, either via insurance or personal funds.
Remember, however, that this is your opportunity to determine whether the program really meets your needs as well. There is no shortage of addiction treatment programs out there, so it’s important to select one that you are likely to stick with and see through to the end: recovery.
Detox and Withdrawal
Most alcohol or drug treatment recovery programs – whether they are offered on an inpatient or outpatient basis – require a stage of detoxification at the beginning of the rehab process. This step of addiction recovery is to rid the body of all traces of the drugs or alcohol. Detox can be a challenging period and can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms.
During the initial period of detox, and even afterwards in many cases, individuals may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. These occur because the body has become accustomed to having high levels of the substance in its bloodstream. Depending on the addiction, withdrawal can start to appear within a few hours of the last use, and may include symptoms such as:
- Extreme depression
- Inability to concentrate
- Decreased appetite
- Severe fatigue
- Runny nose
- Sleep problems
- Extreme sweating
- Nausea, cramping or diarrhea
- Trembling or shaking
- Rapid heart rate
- Troubled breathing
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart attack
This step of rehab is usually safe when undergone in a supervised medical setting. But because the symptoms of sudden withdrawal can be unpleasant and in some cases dangerous, medications may be used to ease them. The severity of detox symptoms varies widely, based on the type of addiction or volume of alcohol used, how long they were used, the individual’s body type and metabolism, and whether there are other addictions or mental health issues involved.
Even after the initial stages of withdrawal have passed, some people may experience a rehabilitation step that some have labeled Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome or PAWS. This, if it occurs, can last for months, and is characterized by irritation, panic, anxiety, trouble sleeping, poor concentration, and depression. Even if you don’t experience PAWS, it’s important to realize that you are not likely to transition into feeling great, so you will probably need to lean on your rehab community for support.
Stage 3: Rehabilitation / Finding A New Way Of Living
Once the individual has gone through the period of detox and physical withdrawal, now the real work of rehabilitation begins. This is the stage of the recovery process in which individuals delve into the core reasons for their addictions and then confront and address those issues so they can move on with their lives without relapsing back into addiction. There are a number of common therapies used in treatment programs to facilitate this stage.
Individual Behavioral Therapy
In individual, one-on-one therapy, people in rehab work with experienced therapists to identify when they first began to abuse substances and why they abused them. In these sessions, the therapists present strategies for how recovering addicts can re-direct their time to focus on new interests, and avoid falling back into destructive patterns. Individuals learn time-management skills so that they have less “down time” to become boring and be tempted to relapse into addiction. They also learn how to identify addiction “triggers” and how to deal with triggering situations when they arise.
Most rehab programs supplement individual therapy with group therapy as well. These sessions allow people recovering from addiction to interact with others who are in the same situation. This often helps by reinforcing that they are not alone in their struggles.
Because the addict’s behavior cannot help but affect the people in his or her life, many rehab programs offer family therapy as one of their steps to rehab. In these sessions, people who have often been the most affected by their loved ones’ addiction get to participate in the recovery process. Family therapy can help tremendously to resolve past issues and create a present environment that serves as a pillar of support for the recovering addict. Thus it can be one of the most important of addiction recovery stages.
Stage 4: Ongoing Recovery / Maintenance
Even after individuals have completed their rehabilitation program, they are not finished with recovery. In fact, for many people the real work is just beginning, because recovery is a lifelong process, one that requires ongoing work and attention. It’s an ongoing journey, and will continue to have ups and downs that will tempt former addicts to relapse, so ongoing support is important. To provide this support, most programs will meet with each participant to prepare them for life “back in the world,” and to develop a plan for aftercare.
Most treatment programs provide followup programs to assist patients as they return to normal life. These programs may involve ongoing counseling sessions, either on an one-to-one or group basis. They may also involve weekend stays if the individual feels the need for a “refresher course.”
These ongoing programs are often not required, but they are highly recommended. Even after a person leaves the formal treatment program, it takes time to uncover and deal with the many feelings and issues that lead to addiction. To succeed at rehabilitation, the individual must be willing to continually grow and work on themselves.
Once you have settled back into your normal life, it is unfortunately quite easy to grow complacent. The disease of addiction requires constant vigilance to overcome, and one of the best ways to avoid relapse is to work with your follow-up counselors to recognize “prelapse,” the situations that – for you – have always been a temptation and made you feel that you just can’t cope without a drink or a hit of your preferred drug.
Learning anti-relapse strategies can help you to detect prelapse early, and realize that the temptation to stop your exercise program or skip your follow-up counseling sessions may be a precursor to falling off the wagon.
In addition to follow-up programs run and supervised by your primary rehab center, in every community there are numerous independent support groups for recovering addicts, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Many recovering addicts have found these groups to be tremendously helpful with their ongoing recovery.