What Is Long-Term Recovery from Substance Abuse?

Going through the recovery process can be a harrowing process. This step is important for anyone who has suffered through substance abuse and addiction.

When a person has started to overcome their addiction and regain their health, they enter a state of remission. Recovery begins when a person voluntarily incorporates the positive behavior they learned during their treatment program into their lives.

Most people who want to recover go through an addiction treatment program. Once the program is over, there is a risk of relapse if a person does not get the proper support for their long-term recovery from substance abuse.

In fact, studies have shown that the post-acute withdrawal symptoms from some drugs and alcohol abuse can last for months or years. This is one reason why long-term support is crucial to long-term recovery.


Stages of Recovery

Recovery from substance abuse does not happen in one day. It is a complete lifestyle stage that occurs gradually over the course of months and even years. According to researchers Carlo DiClemente and James Prochaska, there are six distinct stages of the recovery process.

1. Precontemplation

In this initial stage, a person will not consider their substance abuse to be a problem. They do not want to listen to advice or want to be told about harmful side effects.

2. Contemplation

When a person has realized they have a problem, they have reached this stage. They may want to make a change, but they feel like they cannot fully commit. In a 2019 report, 2017 report, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that out of 18.9 million people with a substance abuse disorder 95.7 percent of people did not consider that they needed treatment and 1.2 percent recognized their need for treatment and sought out treatment. The percentage of people not ready to stop using was 39.9 percent.

“In 2019, common reasons for not receiving substance use treatment among people aged 12 or older with a past year SUD who did not receive treatment at a specialty facility and perceived a need for treatment were as follows: not being ready to stop using (39.9 percent), not knowing where to go for treatment (23.8 percent), and having no health care coverage and not being able to afford the cost of treatment (20.9 percent) (2019 DT 7.67). The percentage who did not receive substance use treatment at a specialty facility because they were not ready to stop using remained stable between 2015 and 2019. However, the percentage in 2019 for people who did not receive substance use treatment at a specialty facility because they did not know where to go for treatment was higher than the percentages in 2015 (12.5 percent) and 2017 (10.9 percent), but it was similar to the percentages in 2016 and 2018. The percentage in 2019 for people who did not receive treatment at a specialty facility because they had no health care coverage and could not afford the cost was lower than the percentage in 2018 (32.5 percent), but it was similar to the percentages in 2015 to 2017.”

3. Preparation

A person is ready to make a change. They want to talk to people about how they can get help and start making plans for a treatment plan.

4. Action

For many people with substance abuse, this stag may include a detox or enrollment in a treatment center or program. This stage also includes addressing many of the underlying causes of a person’s addiction.

5. Maintenance & Relapse

In this stage, a person begins to adapt to their new lifestyle. However, there is always a risk of relapse as substance use disorder is a chronic disease.

6. Termination

This is the ultimate goal of any recovery process. At this stage, the person in recovery feels they are no longer threatened by their substance of choice. They will feel confident about living their new life free of substances.

What Recovery Looks Like at Different Recovery Points

The recovery process will look different for each individual depending on their habits and what drug or drugs they used. This is a brief description of what sobriety may look like after one day, one month, and one year.

One Day

Day one of recovery will be the hardest day for most people. Many people suffer from withdrawal symptoms. These are usually the opposite of the symptoms experienced while on that drug. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Increased heart rate
  • Delirium

One Month

By one month, the withdrawal process should be complete. However, some people may still suffer through post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Many people have completed or are continuing to work through a treatment program. These programs should be complemented with therapy and support groups. Some people also move into a sober living facility to encourage recovery.

One Year


At the one-year mark, most people feel a sense of accomplishment that they have gone a whole year without using drugs or alcohol. At this point, many people have transitioned out of any treatment centers or sober living facilities. By one year, most people feel confident that they can achieve their goals without substance use. However, it is still recommended that individuals continue attending support groups and meetings.

What Is Considered Long-Term Treatment?

There are a variety of treatment options available for anyone with a substance abuse disorder. A short-term program is any program that lasts less than three months. Long-term treatment is generally considered a program that includes at least 90 days in a residential setting.

Short-Term Sobriety

During the short-term sobriety stage, a person in treatment will usually get introduced to a 12-step program or a similar recovery community. In addition, they will typically start a therapy program that may include medication. Some individuals choose to move into a sober housing facility.

Long-Term Sobriety

During the long-term sobriety stage, people should continue with their recovery programs:

  • 12-step programs
  • Maintaining positive relationships
  • Discarding toxic relationships
  • Ongoing medication
  • Ongoing therapy
  • Finding creative outlets
  • Volunteering
  • Repairing family relationships
  • Staying active

Focusing on healthy habits and constructive programs encourages long-term sobriety while helping to avoid relapse. The best way to incorporate these aspects into recovery is by maintaining a strong, healthy support system.


What Is a 12-Step Program?

Most individuals who are recovering from alcohol or drug abuse will usually go through a 12-step recovery program. Some of the most popular groups include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
  • Heroin Anonymous (HA)
  • Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
  • Sober living facilities

These groups typically follow a 12-step process that was initially defined by Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 steps from Alcoholics Anonymous are written as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  1. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  2. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  3. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  4. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  5. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  6. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many other groups have followed the principles laid out by AA and have similar steps. These groups also have sponsor systems. This is when a new member is paired with a long-term member who they can rely on for support and guidance.

What Does It Take for Most People to Achieve Long-Term Recovery from Substance Abuse?

Many people suffering from an addiction can reach a point of sobriety. Unfortunately, many people then suffer a relapse. Anyone wanting to get sober and stay sober needs to have the drive to do it and have a long-term addiction recovery plan. If someone is feeling forced or unmotivated, they might not stay sober.


Here are five steps that can help encourage more long-term recovery.

1. Attend Support Groups

No matter what type of lifestyle a person has, it is therapeutic to share experiences with like-minded people. Studies show that support groups are beneficial for anyone looking for long-term recovery. These groups offer encouragement and support.

Many traditional support groups are faith-based 12-step programs. Other newer groups are more science-based including Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART).

Addiction experts typically recommend attending at least one support group per week. Some people find it helpful to attend meetings more frequently, especially right after completing an addiction treatment program. It is also helpful to attend the same meeting each week so participants can bond with each other.

2. Uncover Root Causes of Drug or Alcohol Use

One of the key steps in improving long-term recovery is understanding what caused a person to use alcohol or drugs in the first place. Some people turn to substance abuse to self-medicate, while others rely on these substances to handle stressful situations.

Once an individual understands why he or she abused drugs or alcohol, the odds or maintaining long-term recovery improve. However, this process is not always easy. Some people have a difficult time identifying the root causes of their addiction and what triggers them to turn to substance abuse.

Counselors and therapists can help a person work through their feelings and help uncover whatever the underlying cause may be. Therapists may use a variety of techniques including Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectal Behavioral Therapy to help patients deal with trauma and change their behaviors.

3. Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Another key step in improving the outcome of long-term recovery is making healthy lifestyle changes. These habits include:

Eating Healthy Foods

Many people suffering from addiction do not care what kind of foods they eat. Once someone is on the road to recovery, it is important to make healthy dietary changes including eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk food. Healthy food can give a person more energy and help them feel motivated.

Staying Physically Active

Adding movement as part of a daily routine can significantly improve a long-term recovery outlook. Whether it is walking, hiking, doing yoga, or lifting weights, exercise can help a person feel good about his or her body. Exercise also reduces boredom, which is a common trigger for a relapse.

Staying Busy

With a rewarding job or engaging hobby, a person in recovery is less likely to go through a relapse. Finding something that gives a person meaning in their life or something that they are passionate about helps prevent boredom. Simple hobbies that can keep someone busy while also providing a creative outlet include cooking, painting, or writing.

Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

Having a sleep routine is also important to an overall healthy lifestyle. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps with body regulation..

4. Join an Alumni Program

When a person has completed a substance abuse program, he or she may be able to join an alumni program. This can be another way to find support in addition to standard support groups. Alumni groups can help a person stay connected with the people who went through the program at the same time as them. They can share supportive stories and help each other through common struggles.

5. Recognize When You Need Help

Even after taking all the right steps, a person may still find themselves struggling with cravings. They might find themselves obsessing over drugs or alcohol even with a good support group. When that happens, it is important for an individual to recognize when he or she needs helps.

When they can identify the signs of a potential relapse and get help before that happens, this could help prevent a relapse. Some people turn to a single support person, while other people may work with an outpatient rehab center.

It is also important to recognize that there is no shame in asking for help. If a person refuses to ask for help when they need it, they are more likely to relapse.

The Path Towards Long-Term Recovery

While the road to long-term recovery can seem long and overwhelming, there is hope for those who want to find their way out. With a treatment plan, strong support system, and long-term goals, individuals who have suffered through substance abuse can achieve a healthy, productive lifestyle as contributing members of society.