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Quitting Drugs or Alcohol and Getting Sober

When a person is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, their whole life may feel out of control. They may try to quit through willpower alone, but realize that getting clean and sober is challenging, especially because of the way substance misuse changes the brain over time.1

While addiction is a chronic disorder, it is treatable.1 Finding treatment that meets your individual needs can be key to helping you recover and manage your addiction.1 Seeking help is a brave first step, but you may have questions about the process. This article will help you better understand what it means to get clean and sober and sustain long-term recovery.

What’s the Difference Between Quitting and Sobriety?

Quitting substance use (or “getting clean”) simply means you stop using that substance. Sobriety is a term often associated with 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which follow a set of spiritual principles (outlined in the Big Book of AA), and refers to the ongoing process of living without the use of drugs or alcohol in addition to living in a way that supports an individual’s long-term recovery.2, 10

During the initial phases of quitting a substance, more focus will be on controlling and alleviating the physical discomfort and potential risks of detoxification and withdrawal. These include withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and becoming medically stable with the help of medications if needed.2

Detoxification is the initial step in the approach to quitting drugs or alcohol. After an individual completes the detoxification stage, where all substances are eliminated from the body under a safe and supervised setting, the individual is typically advised to undergo a formal treatment program.

As they progress in treatment, other therapies and services may be used to help people understand more about what contributed to their substance misuse and how to establish healthier patterns after treatment.2

Going through detox, entering into a treatment program, and getting sober comes with ups and downs and may even involve relapse.2 If relapse does occur, it is not a sign that you have failed but rather it is an indication that your treatment plan needs to be adjusted with the help of your treatment team, which may include doctors and mental health professionals.2

Recognize the Need for Getting Clean and Sober

Understanding the common signs of addiction may help you or a loved one identify the need to get help for substance misuse. It can be hard to know exactly when to get treatment, so it’s best to speak with your doctor about options. They can also diagnose a substance use disorder (SUD) based on the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).3 If you or a loved one have experienced 2 or more of these criteria in the last 12 months, you may need to seek help:4

  • Using the substance in ways that pose a danger to yourself or others. For example, driving under the influence.
  • Relationship problems due to substance misuse.
  • Neglecting major roles at work, school, or home because of substance misuse.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut down or quit using the substance.
  • A need to use more of the substance to get the same effect, known as tolerance.
  • Using larger amounts of the substance or using for longer periods of time.
  • Trying to cut down or stop using the substance without success.
  • Spending excessive time using the substance.
  • Physical or psychological problems because of substance misuse.
  • Stopping participation in activities you used to enjoy because of substance misuse.
  • Experiencing cravings for the substance.

Tips for Getting Clean and Sober

Recovery from substance misuse is a lifelong journey that may include multiple rounds of formal treatment and an ongoing commitment to the recovery process.5, 7 Getting clean through detox is an important first phase of treatment, but detox alone may not support long-term sobriety. Therefore, it is best to continue treatment after the detox phase to help achieve long-term abstinence and a life of recovery.

Addiction treatment varies from person to person depending on the substances misused and individual needs.7 When looking for treatment, the most important aspect is that it addresses the whole person including physical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal needs.7 Formal addiction treatment can include:6, 8

  • Detoxification. The detox process is a first step toward getting clean and sober and includes supervision to help safely manage acute intoxication and withdrawal from substances. Detox can take place in various settings at different intensity levels.
  • Inpatient or residential. Inpatient or residential facilities are those in which a person lives while undergoing treatment. Treatment can be at varying levels of intensity depending on the person’s needs and can last from a few weeks to several months.
  • Outpatient facilities are those in which a person visits throughout the week to undergo treatment. There are varying levels of intensity with some programs requiring just a couple of hours a week and others requiring several hours of treatment per week.

Toward the end of formal treatment, you will work with the treatment team to create a continuing care, or aftercare plan to help with long-term recovery. Everyone is unique and will require their own strategy for getting clean and staying sober. Some aspects of a long-term recovery plan may be:11

  • Setting goals and taking steps to achieve them.
  • Dedication to improving relationships.
  • Learning ways to cope with challenging situations without substance use.
  • How to effectively manage your time.
  • Understanding your triggers to use substances and learning how to control them.

Ask for Help When Getting Sober

There are several resources available to help you with quitting substance misuse and entering formal treatment. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with your primary care doctor. They will know your personal history and background and will be able to offer advice from a medical perspective.

If you have a friend or loved one who you trust and/or understands the struggle of addiction, consider talking with them about your own struggles. They will not only be a source of support early on in recovery, but they can help as you continue through the steps of getting sober.

Aside from consulting with your doctor and loved ones, you may also benefit from the following resources:

You can also reach out to the caring staff at American Addiction Centers (AAC) who are available 24/7 via our confidential helpline at . They can help you understand treatment options, provide resources, and check your insurance coverage at AAC facilities. There are also free alcohol abuse and drug addiction hotline numbers you can contact.

Learn About Relapse Warning Signs

Research indicates that people recovering from a substance use disorder have internal risk factors and external triggers that can increase the potential for relapse.5, 12 Learning to identify your personal triggers for substance use can help you create more effective relapse prevention strategies. Some relapse warning signs include the following:5

  • Thinking about using the substance.
  • Withdrawing from support when you need it.
  • Starting to reassociate with people you used substances with.
  • Continuing the behaviors you had when using substances.
  • Not taking prescribed medications to help with sobriety or co-occurring disorders.

Psychological risk factors that may contribute to a relapse include:5

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Reliance on substance use to bring about positive psychological effects, such as sociability and decreased anxiety.
  • Reduced motivation to change.
  • Lack of adequate coping skills.
  • Inadequate social and emotional support.

Create a Relapse Prevention Plan

Having a plan in place to help you get sober and stay sober can be key to a successful long-term recovery. The following tips may be helpful when working to prevent relapse:5, 13

  • Work with your therapist to learn how to identify unique triggers and relapse warning signs.
  • Identify situations that pose a relapse risk and create strategies to cope and manage, such as avoiding certain places or environments.
  • Strengthen communication skills and interpersonal relationships.
  • Develop a recovery-oriented support network.
  • Learn ways to reduce and manage negative emotional moods.
  • Understand and manage cravings and urges.
  • Develop healthier lifestyle choices, such as a better diet, adequate sleep, or new hobbies.
  • Take medication with the approval of your doctors.
  • Get help for co-occurring mental health conditions, such as therapy or medication.

Therapy to Help with Getting Sober

Individualized treatment is a key component to long-term sobriety. Part of your treatment plan will likely include therapy, which, as part of evidence-based treatment, could be vital in preventing relapse.7 Behavioral therapies can include: 8, 9, 14

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to use drugs.
  • Family therapy can help loved ones understand addiction and improve family dynamics at home.
  • 12-Step facilitation therapy helps people by promoting acceptance, surrender, and involvement in group work.
  • Contingency management principles include giving people rewards when they engage in positive behaviors. This may help reinforce healthy behavior patterns.

Substance-Specific Quitting Help