The Different Stages of Addiction Recovery

 stages of addiction recovery

Different Steps and Stages of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery

Drug or alcohol addiction is a chronic disease, and recovery is often a lifelong process.1(pg.5-3 paragraph1) No recovery story is the same, but many people experience general stages while healing from substance use disorder.2(pg.328 stages of recovery) This page will delve into what recovery may look like, common stages of recovery, difficulties on the way, and how to get help.

What does Addiction Recovery Mean?

Recovery, as a word, has a variety of meanings for people struggling with addiction.1(pg.5-2 “recovery” has many meanings) For most, it describes the overall pursuit of health and wellness by changing harmful habits such as substance use and other activities with negative life consequences.3(about recovery) Most people have remission as a goal of recovery, the point in recovery where a person is able to manage their illness in a stable manner that allows them to function well in society and reach their potential.3(about recovery)

Each substance abuse recovery journey looks different. Some people may begin recovery through 12-Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), while others may enroll in formal treatment programs or just decide to cut back with the support of a loved one.1(pg.5-4 conceptual controversies in recovery)

On any path, cycles of abstinence and relapse are common, and a person should continue to pursue recovery.1(pg.5-3 paragraph1) In fact, it can take 4–5 years after remission before the risk of relapse becomes less than 15% (the general risk of developing any substance use disorder).1(pg.5-7, recovery supports) This is due to the chronic nature of the disease.1(pg.5-3 paragaph1) And each stage of recovery combats its own risk factors for relapse.2(pg.328, the stages of recovery)

Three General Stages of Substance Addiction Recovery

Rather than measuring progress by completion of external steps, the stages of recovery are recognized by a person’s personal growth and development.2(pg.328 the stages of recovery) Broad terms can describe 3 general stages of substance addiction recovery, but the length and personal experience of each stage vary from person to person.2(pg.328 the stages of recovery)

Abstinence Stage

The abstinence stage of recovery consists of a focus on avoiding the substance of use and managing a person’s cravings.2(pg.328 abstinence stage) This stage generally beings as soon as a person stops using a substance and may continue for 1 to 2 years.2(pg.328 abstinence stage) Some components of the abstinence stage include:2(pg.328 abstinence stage)

  • Recognizing a person has an addiction.
  • Practicing honesty.
  • Developing coping skills for cravings.
  • Joining self-help groups.
  • Avoiding friends or situations that encourage substance use.
  • Dealing with prolonged (post-acute) withdrawal symptoms.
  • Practicing self-care.
  • Redefining personal image as a non-user.

This stage can be difficult as a person begins to resist the physical and emotional benefits of using a substance and redefines their self-image.2(pg.328 abstinence stage) Some people are caught unaware by post-acute withdrawal symptoms and do not understand the stages that precede relapse.2(pg.328 abstinence stage) The abstinence stage is an important time for education on these aspects of recovery so that correct expectations can assist perseverance through the difficulty.2(pg.328 abstinence stage)

Repair Stage

The repair stage is where a person may begin to focus on repairing any physical, emotional, relational, or societal damage caused by addiction in their life.2(pg.328 repair stage) Confronting the damage is an important step in regaining control over a person’s life, but it can feel more difficult than the abstinence stage.2(pg.328 repair stage) During this 2–3 year period, people in the repair stage work to:2(pg.328 repair stage)

  • Overcome negative self-talk.
  • Separate their identity from their addiction.
  • Repair relationships.
  • Be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
  • Make self-care a habit.
  • Engage with healthy alternatives to substance use.
  • Cultivate health and balance in life.
  • Continue engagement with self-help groups.

Growth Stage

The growth stage is the time when a person can begin to “move forward” and address factors that may have predisposed them to addiction.2(pg.329 growth stage) At this point, 3 to 5 years after cessation of use, a person begins to work through family issues, past trauma, or other root issues that would make them more susceptible to future use.2(pg.329 growth stage) During this stage, the development of healthy life skills set a person up to resist substance use as normal stresses of life present themselves.2(pg.329 growth stage) In the growth stage, a person may be working on:2(pg.329 growth stage)

  • Identifying and repairing negative thought patterns.
  • Understanding negative cultural or familial patterns, letting go of associated resentments, and moving forward.
  • Challenging fears with skills learned in therapy.
  • Defining and holding healthy boundaries.
  • Giving back and helping others.
  • Periodic self-reflection on lifestyle and mindset to ensure continued healing.

Relapse in Recovery

In each stage of recovery, a person faces different challenges that may lead them to relapse.2(pg.325 introduction) Physical symptoms and cravings, emotional difficulty, continued lack of self-care, and failure to develop healthy life skills can all contribute to relapse, depending on where a person is on their journey.2(pg. 328-329, end of each stage of recovery section) Relapse is common for those in recovery.1(pg.5-7 recovery supports) Recognizing and treating relapse when it occurs is more important than uninterrupted abstinence, and people who relapse can still have positive long-term outcomes.1(pg.5-13 recovery management check-ups)

Recognizing the stages of relapse before substance use can lead a person to get help sooner and avoid substance use. The 3 stages of relapse can be summarized as follows:2(pg.325 the stages of relapse)

  • Emotional relapse: During this stage, a person is not consciously desiring substance use, but the unhealthy emotional coping mechanisms put them at risk for future use. In fact, denial may play a big role in emotional relapse.2(pg.326 emotional relapse)
  • Mental relapse: In mental relapse, a person “battles” their own thoughts regarding substance use. They are internally torn between a desire to recover and a desire to use again. Cravings, thinking about “positive” experiences while using, and rationalizing their substance use may all contribute to mentally relapsing.2(pg.326 mental relapse)
  • Physical relapse: This is the stage in which a person physically uses their substance again. It may be “just one” use of a drug or a drink, but it can quickly become uncontrolled use if unhealthy thought patterns are continued.2(pg.326 physical relapse)

Recognizing emotional or mental relapse when it is occurring is much easier to address and resist than physical relapse when the opportunity presents itself.2(pg.326 physical relapse last paragraph)

Where to Find Help in Recovery

As stated above, recovery can begin in a variety of settings.1(pg.5-4 conceptual controversies in recovery) Where a person begins may depend on what is available to them locally, their personal values, or the type and severity of their addiction.1(5-2 key findings #3)Settings for healing commonly include an experience in one or more of the following:

  • Formal treatment centers or rehab facilities: These treatment programs may be inpatient with 24/7 treatment, outpatient with flexible scheduling, in-hospital, residential, a few weeks long, or several months. Professionals in addiction treatment can individualize a plan to meet the current and future needs of those enrolled in their programs.
  • Mutual aid groups: These are free, community-run groups such as AA or NA that consist of individuals who are in different stages of recovery. They offer peer support, shared experiences, encouragement, and the opportunity to give back. Mutual aid groups have helped many people battling addiction for over 100 years.1(pg.5-8 mutual aid groups)
  • Recovery housing: Living with others who are striving to live a substance-free life and develop healthy habits can provide the encouragement and support needed for a person to reenter life after treatment without substance use. People may stay in recovery housing or a sober living home for months or years after the initial treatment depending on their personal needs.1(pg.5-11, recovery housing)

Finding An Addiction Recovery Center Near Me

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use disorder, help is available. The road to recovery may be long, but it does not have to be lonely. Treatment centers such as Virtue Recovery Center (VRC) offer professional help to get started on the road to recovery and resources to help you continue.

With facilities at the following locations:

VRC’s facilities offer addiction treatment for people across the United States. Whether struggling with drug addiction, alcohol use, co-occurring disorders, past trauma, or eating disorders, VRC is equipped to help. Admission counselors at VRC are available at all times to answer any questions about enrollment, levels of treatment, or other aspects of addiction recovery. Its rehab facilities offer medical detox, residential rehab, outpatient programs, and aftercare management and resources for their enrollees. Reach out to VRC today and begin your road to recovery.


  1. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. (2016, November). Facing addiction in America: The surgeon general’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health: Chapter 5: Recovery: The many paths to wellness.
  2. Melemis, S.M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 88, 325-332.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2022). Recovery.