Drug & Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Millions of Americans, in fact 22.5 million, needed treatment for drug or alcohol use disorders in 2014. Addiction is a well-researched field, with multiple treatment avenues available for those who are ready to ask for the help they need and want to lead a healthier life. But it also means that treatment options can feel overwhelming at first glance.

How do I know I have an addiction?

Technically the term “addiction” isn’t used anymore when it comes to getting a diagnosis. In the most recent edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, drug and alcohol addiction are called “use disorders” (i.e. Alcohol Use Disorder; Opioid Use Disorder). The three most common symptoms of a use disorder include needing more of the substance over time to achieve the same effect, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use, and being unable to quit even when you know there is a big problem.

Use disorders can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms you have. These symptoms include:

  • Being incapable of limiting drug or alcohol use.
  • Making unsuccessful attempts to curtail use.
  • Spending much time using or obtaining the substance.
  • Experiencing cravings to use.
  • Falling behind in work, school, or family responsibilities due to use.
  • Continuing use even when aware of the problems it causes.
  • Abandoning former interests or hobbies to engage in use.
  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs in unsafe situations, such as driving.
  • Requiring more of the substance to achieve the same effect.

What should be my first step towards recovery?

Asking for help gives you the best chance in changing the pattern of addiction. Going it alone rarely works, and isolating will only set you up for relapse. Getting help can look like talking to your doctor, a mental health professional, or a loved one. You can also enlist the support of strangers by attending a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous and asking for local recommendations. Addiction is common, so never be silent for fear that you still shock your doctor or counselor. Their job is to help you take that next step.

Do I need to see a doctor or a mental health professional?

Yes. They will respect your confidentiality, so you should feel free to share all information about your patterns of use. A doctor or mental health professional can evaluate you to determine whether you meet the criteria for a use disorder. Drinking and drug use can cause serious damage to your body, so it’s important to get checked out by a doctor. He or she will conduct a physical exam and other necessary tests. When you go to your appointment, share with your doctor any symptoms you’ve experienced, your habits of use, and other major stressful life events that have occurred recently. The more information you can give them, the better care you will receive.

How can I get help for a loved one with an addiction?

First, understand that recovery requires a willingness to change. However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait until things hit rock bottom to approach your loved one about their harmful behavior. If you’re considering planning an intervention or approaching your loved one about the addiction, always talk with a professional first about how to avoid harm. They may recommend that they be in the room with you to have the difficult conversations. If your loved one isn’t ready to change, self-help groups like Al-Anon also can provide emotional support and guidance for you and your family.

What are the characteristics in an excellent treatment program?

For drug and alcohol use disorders, there are a variety of treatment options. How do you know which is best for you? A stellar treatment program will:

  • Offer you detoxification support.
  • Address all the person’s needs that the addiction impacts.
  • Offer you counseling and behavioral support.
  • Consider medication as an option.
  • Evaluate you for other mental health concerns.
  • Educate you about healthy coping skills and habits.
  • Provide follow-up services to prevent future use.

What will happen once I decide to seek treatment?

There are three major components to quitting drug and alcohol use. The first is detoxification, where a person abstains from using so that the substance can leave their body. Medication is often prescribed during this stage to reduce the intensity of symptoms. The second step involves seeking treatment, which might include additional medications, counseling, and evaluation of other mental health problems. Treatment occurs in outpatient or inpatient programs. Finally, you will need to find support for the long-term to prevent relapsing on the substance.

Should I choose inpatient or outpatient treatment?

Depending on the resources available, what your health insurance is willing to cover, the intensity of the disorder, and the type of use disorder, mental health professionals may suggest inpatient or outpatient behavioral health treatment.

Inpatient treatment – Inpatient programs are 24-7 facilities that provide housing, medical care, and therapy for those with severe addictions. Over half of people who receive treatment for drug or alcohol use disorders participate in inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment programs include short-term detox centers, long-term programs which last anywhere from a few weeks to a year, or recovery programs which provide housing to bridge the transition to independent living. Long-term programs are often recommended for those with an additional mental illness diagnosis who require extra support or persons with a criminal history.

Outpatient treatment – Outpatient treatment can range from a individual therapy session once a week to more intensive day programs that offer individual and group therapy, psychoeducational classes, and other activities. The distinguishing factor is that outpatient treatment is not 24-7 and does not always provide onsite medical care. Individuals may transition to outpatient treatment from detox centers or longer inpatient treatment programs.

What types of therapy have been proven to work?

Many types of therapy and multiple behavioral interventions have proven effective in treating addiction. The most commonly used therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people evaluate and correct negative thought patterns and behaviors that lead to addiction. Behavioral therapy such as REBT can provide positive reinforcement strategies that encourage continuing with sobriety. Group therapy has also proven effective when it happens concurrently with individual counseling. Multidimensional family therapy examines how improving the functioning of a family system can reduce the triggers of drug and alcohol abuse.

An increasingly common tool used in treatment addiction is called motivational interviewing (also known as MI). Used by doctors, therapists, and other health professionals, motivational interviewing is a conversational technique that helps a person assesses their readiness to stop the behavior and seek treatment. Rather than trying to convince a person to change a habit, MI acknowledges that there are good things and bad things about using drugs and alcohol and not using them. This helps an individual become more comfortable with moving towards making a permanent change.

Will I be prescribed medication?

Medication alone can’t cure drug and alcohol use disorders, but it can prove extremely effective in reducing the symptoms of withdrawal and the possibility of relapse. Pharmacotherapy can also help reduce the symptoms of other mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, that promote drug and alcohol use. Medications are commonly prescribed for those addicted to opioids (including prescriptions drugs and heroin) and alcohol.

Opioid use medications include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. Methadone and buprenorphine work to reduce cravings and the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, and naltrexone keeps opioids from having their usual effect in the brain. While these medications do not cure the addiction, they help prepare an individual for therapy and evaluating what changes can help them maintain sobriety.


Alcohol use medications include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram. Acamprosate diminishes symptoms of withdrawal such as feelings of depression or anxiety, thereby reducing the chance of relapse. Disulfiram (also known as Antabuse) produces unfavorable physical reactions when someone drinks alcohol, such as nausea and facial redness.

What lifestyle changes can I make to prevent relapse?

Once you leave a treatment program, you might find that your old triggers will be waiting on the doorstep when you get home. It’s important to explain to your friends and family that you’re serious about recovery. Develop relationships that aren’t based on drinking or using drugs. Know when and where support groups meet in your neighborhood. Maintain a distance from people, places, and events that promote old habits. Most people with use disorders experience relapse. While a relapse might be upsetting, it is no excuse to give up hope.

Living a healthier life can also lift your mood, give you energy, and reduce the cravings for alcohol or drugs. Getting a proper night’s rest, exercising regularly, and coping with stress effectively can make a huge difference. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and yoga can also prove instrumental in recovery.

Can alcohol and drug use disorders really be treated?

Yes! Be aware however, that detox is just the first step. Addiction is chronic, meaning that it is a lifelong challenge. Stressful events, anxiety, depression, and other factors can trigger a relapse, so most people need long-term support for their decision to quit. Maybe you’ll always crave the substance, or maybe you won’t, but you can control what goes into your body. Remember, a day where you don’t use is better than one that you do. Make the choice to start your recovery today.

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