The stages of alcohol recovery
It’s easier to walk down a difficult path if you know where it leads. The recovery process takes time, effort, willpower, and support—but the sober life at the end is worth it all.
The Stages of Change Model is a tool that outlines the steps many individuals take on their journey of alcohol recovery. While every person’s journey to sobriety is unique, you may recognize yourself or a loved on in any of these steps.
Stage One: Precontemplation
Signs of a drinking problem might include financial issues caused by buying alcohol, struggling in relationships because of the substance, legal problems, and using alcohol to deal with stress. Some of the physical symptoms include nausea, restlessness, shakiness, insomnia, and sweating.
During the precontemplation stage, an individual is feeling these effects of their addiction, but he or she is not interested in changing their habits. They will likely be defensive about their habit and even deny that it’s beyond their control. It sometimes takes a big wake-up call to push them to realize they may be an alcoholic and to move on to the next stage, such as a legal issue or loved ones holding an intervention.
Stage Two: Contemplation
When the individual reaches Stage Two, he or she is considering changing at least part of their habits within the next six months, but ultimately feels ambivalent. They’ll be weighing the pros and cons of quitting and might be more receptive to information about their addiction than they were in Stage One. It’s helpful during this time for loved ones to make themselves available for honest, non-judgmental conversations. The decision to move toward recovery can feel overwhelming, and often the support of family and friends is a crucial factor in moving forward.
Stage Three: Preparation
Some people consider Stage Three the first real step toward recovery, as it’s when the struggling individual has made a commitment to change. He or she may start to take small steps away from negative habits. Researching alcohol recovery is also common and extremely helpful during this time. In fact, jumping into recovery without understanding what it entails can make it harder than it needs to be. For example, the detoxification process can cause severe physical effects if not approached in the right way.
There are also complicated emotions to work through. For many, addiction can feel like a relationship, something that they’ve been relying on for support. Losing it can lead into the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally, acceptance.
Stage Four: Action
If Stage Three is about committing the mind to recovery, Stage Four is about committing the body. The individual is likely to actively seek support during this stage. The first action to take is detoxification, or “detox.” If attempting a detox alone, the individual should seek a family member or friend to monitor them throughout the process and be prepared to seek medical help if they start experiencing seizures, hallucinations, and confusion. At a treatment facility, detox involves three key processes:
The doctors will conduct blood tests and health screenings to assess what kind of damage the addiction has inflicted on the patient’s body.
The individual may be given medication to help ease the withdrawal symptoms and prescribe a balanced diet to fight malnutrition. The patients will also learn what to expect during treatment and recovery.
Once stabilized, the individual will begin the transition from detox to treatment. Many people choose to use an outpatient program so they can continue working at their job and stay close to loved ones. However, for more serious cases, doctors may recommend a partial hospitalization program (PHP) or residential treatment.
During treatment, some people will embrace the new, healthy habits they’re learning. They’ll rediscover favorite hobbies that were left in the past, and oftentimes pick up new ones. It’s also common to make new friends. However, some patients will accept the sober life but won’t pursue any other life changes after detox. These individuals may find themselves experiencing dry drunk syndrome. They’re stuck in all of their old habits, minus the alcohol. In this state, it’s difficult to see the benefits of sobriety, and the individual may struggle with relapse until they make real changes throughout the rest of their life.
Stage Five: Maintenance
As treatment progresses, the focus will turn from learning about the sober life to practicing recovery techniques every day. An individual in this stage will be discovering freedoms in their new life that they may have never thought they could experience. They’ll likely still feel the temptation to drink, but they’ll be focused on their goal. After all, alcohol recovery isn’t about abstaining from a substance—it’s about changing your whole life.
During this time, the individual may begin to feel extreme emotions, developing into what some call pink cloud syndrome. Pink cloud is a phase in which the emotions that were suppressed by addiction come flooding back. The positive emotions can feel powerful and extremely encouraging. Unfortunately, when they stop, the lows can be crushing. Recovery can feel like a roller coaster as the emotions work themselves back to normal, and being unprepared for it can trigger a relapse.
In any stage of alcohol recovery, relapse is a very real possibility. Understand what makes a situation high-risk for you. If a relapse does happen, remember that it’s only temporary. Although you might feel an overwhelming sense of failure, it doesn’t mean the treatment isn’t working. In fact, relapse is very common and an accepted part of the Stages of Change model.
Stage Six: Transcendence
Many people include this stage as the final step in the path to recovery. Someone who reaches it will feel they no longer need their old habits or lifestyle. The pain of alcoholism might even feel profoundly distant from who you are now. While one Harvard study found that this stage occurs after five years of sobriety, every person’s journey is different. Keep moving forward, and one day you’ll look back and see just how far you’ve come.
Want to know more? Alcohol dependence is undoubtedly hard work to overcome. But when it’s time, we’re here to support you. Explore our alcohol treatment page for information on the signs of addiction and treatment options.
“Stages of Change Model.” University of Rochester. University of Rochester, 26 May 2011. Web. 25 Jan 2016. <https://www.rochester.edu/uhs/healthtopics/Tobacco/AssessmentFiles/rediness.html>.
“What are symptoms of an alcohol use disorder?” Rethink Drinking. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Web. 25 Jan 2016. <https://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/Whats-the-harm/What-Are-Symptoms-Of-An-Alcohol-Use-Disorder.aspx>.
Smith, Emily. “Overcoming the ‘Pink Cloud’ During Addiction Recovery.” AddictionInfo. AddictionInfo, 5 Nov 2013. Web. 25 Jan 2016. <https://www.addictioninfo.org/articles/recovery/overcoming-the-pink-cloud-during-addiction-recovery>.
Melemis, Steven M., M.D. Ph.D. “Withdrawal.” Addictions and Recovery. Addictions and Recovery, 2 June 2015. Web. 25 Jan 2016. <https://www.addictionsandrecovery.org/withdrawal.htm>.
Cromie, William J. “Five Years Is Magic Number for Recovering Alcoholics.” The Harvard University Gazette. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 14 March 1996. Web. 26 Jan 2016. <https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/03.14/FiveYearsIsMagi.html>.