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How to Overcome Drug and Alcohol Addiction

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Addiction is a strong, negative force in the U.S. and around the world. Signs and symptoms of addiction may begin slowly and without the individual’s awareness, but in a short amount of time, someone can find themselves unexpectedly in the depths of addiction.

Overcoming addiction can be a challenging and, at times, overwhelming process to undertake. This process often involves relapse, and the individual continuing with the risks associated with further substance use.

It’s important to understand that substance use disorder is a chronic medical disease, much like heart disease or diabetes, and it can be treated.1 Addiction causes permanent changes in the brain, making decisions and judgment, like trying to quit, more difficult.

However, effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment works to address the needs of the individual. While there is no cure for addiction, treatment and management can work and you can successfully find recovery with the right steps.

If you are currently struggling with drug abuse, the information discussed here can help you begin your journey to a life without drugs and alcohol.

Steps for Overcoming Addiction

While everyone’s path to a drug- and alcohol-free life will be different, there are a few general steps that can help you or a loved one begin that journey.

  • Talk to a doctor or addiction specialist. This is the best to way to learn about the type and length of treatment you may need. Your physician can talk to you about services such as detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, behavioral therapy, and aftercare.
  • Talk to friends and family. An open, honest conversation can initiate family-based therapy, such as family counseling. Talking to friends, family, and/or coworkers can also open lines of communication that will be necessary in the event you enter a rehab program and need time away from family and work obligations.
  • Contact an addiction treatment center. Sometimes just making that first call and learning what your options are can help you better understand what your next steps should be.
  • Stick with your treatment plan. Your treatment plan will be personalized for you and can be adjusted as you progress through your recovery. Your aftercare will be especially important as you live your new life of sobriety and greater well-being.
  • Ask for help. Whether it’s your friends, family, physician, therapist, or your support group, lean on those who can help you get through this challenging and rewarding time.

What is the Most Common Form of Treatment for Addiction?

If you are considering treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, be sure to consult with an addiction professional about the safest way to do so. Removing the substance will likely trigger unwanted withdrawal symptoms depending on the type of substance and the level of use.

For example, people dependent on alcohol may have seizures when use ends, while people dependent on opioids may experience uncomfortable effects, including nausea, vomiting, fever, and sweating.

Because of this, some individuals will require a period of formal detoxification. Detox is the process of allowing the body to remove the substance from the system. Often, detox is completed in an inpatient setting so that medical professionals can monitor vital signs and aid in the process by administering medications to ease symptoms.

Behavioral Counseling

When needed, detox is an important part of treatment, but it is not the only part. Once abstinence from the substance is established, the focus can shift to behavioral therapy. Counseling can help individuals maintain sobriety and reduce the risk of future relapse. Behavioral counseling encompasses a variety of treatment modalities and treatment styles.

  • Inpatient/residential drug treatment. These treatments are the most intense because they provide structure and professional support 24 hours per day. Short-term, inpatient programs may be located at hospitals. They will focus on achieving symptom stability and patient safety. Residential treatments can last for a year or more, with most stays lasting between one and three months.
  • Outpatient counseling/treatment. From weekly, individual sessions to partial hospitalization programs lasting for multiple hours each day, outpatient treatment will vary greatly depending on the status of the person in recovery. The commonality will be that the person is free to leave the treatment center at the end of the day and return home. Generally, outpatient treatment offers assistance a few times a week for a few hours.2
  • Transitional housing. These programs serve as a bridge between inpatient and outpatient care. They retain some of the structure of residential treatments while permitting more freedom and control for the person in recovery. The residents will live with other people in recovery, pay bills, cook, clean, and attend treatment as they move towards fully transitioning back into their normal lives.
  • Support groups and group sessions. Group sessions that are led by group members may be helpful when combined with other modalities but are not recognized as a singular, specialty treatment.

Within each modality, there is an assortment of treatment styles based on the theoretical orientation of the therapist or program. The best treatment programs and providers will utilize styles and techniques based on research and studies (evidence-based therapies). While there are many styles, some of the most helpful are:

It is important to note that there are differences in these treatments based on the needs of the individual. Even if one style works for one person, there is no guarantee it will work for someone else. The best outcomes will occur when the person in recovery is treated in an appropriate modality with a suitable style and a competent treatment team.

Help for Mental Health Issues

Another key facet of behavior counseling is to acknowledge and treat any mental health issues or concerns that are present.

Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety often play a role in the development of addiction, since some people may use substances to self-medicate their condition. Other people may experience unwanted mental health effects as a result of changes in the brain that are commonly seen during active addiction and early in recovery.

Some people may find success from an integrative approach where one therapist or treatment team will address many aspects of the person’s well-being.

It has been found that roughly 50% of individuals who experience a mental illness during their life will also experience a substance use disorder, and vice versa.3 Treating these co-occurring conditions together will lead to better results.

Medications for Addiction Treatment

Behavioral counseling can be helpful in treating addiction and mental health issues, but in some cases, it may be more effective when paired with medications. For someone entering a period of recovery, a medication evaluation from a physician or addiction specialist is a valuable option. Medications that treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns can reduce triggers of future use and end the need for self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

Other medications will target addiction and recovery directly by treating symptoms of withdrawal during detox and preventing future relapse. This is sometimes referred to as “medications for addiction treatment,” or medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and is used as part of treatment for:

  • Opioid dependence.
  • Alcohol dependence.
  • Tobacco dependence.

Each medication will work differently on the brain. For example, drugs like methadone and buprenorphine reduce cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms by activating opioid receptors in the brain without producing the dramatic effects and withdrawal symptoms that come with opiates like heroin.

Another medication used to treat opioid dependence, naltrexone, works by blocking receptors in the brain so that other opioids, like heroin or fentanyl, cannot produce a high.

Learn Tools for Relapse Prevention

Whether someone is living at a transitional house, going to multiple hours of treatment daily, taking medications, or attending weekly therapy, the emphasis will be on relapse prevention to achieve longer stretches of recovery. When focused on relapse prevention, the individual will:

  • Identify triggers that lead to use or cravings for substances.
  • Acknowledge behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that precede use.
  • Learn coping skills and healthy supports.
  • Develop a safety plan with lists of behaviors and contacts to utilize when symptoms are high.

Treatment for addiction is not easy or straightforward. If you or someone you care for needs assistance navigating through the steps of addiction treatment, call to receive more information and available treatment options.

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Jennifer Fifield is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for drugabuse.com and recovery.org. She holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism and a master’s degree in Health Promotion Management. Jennifer has served as a content editor on numerous articles, web pages, and blog posts within the medical, dental, and vision industry. She has 15+ years of experience in higher education including writing/editing, administrative, and teaching positions within the health/wellness, accreditation, and health communications areas.
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