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The Stages of Alcohol Recovery

Teens in an AA group holding hands  

Each person’s journey to recovery is a little different, but there are some familiar stages along the way that many people experience. Being familiar with common stages of alcohol recovery can help people understand what to expect and make the process a little easier.

Scientists who study alcohol use disorder and addiction have come up with a road map of alcoholic recovery called the Stages of Change Model. Each stage describes one step on the path to sober living.

People on a recovery journey may also be interested in learning about intentional change theory. This theory says that when people want to create lasting change, they go through a process of analyzing who they want to be in the future, thinking about how that compares to where they are now, experimenting with new behaviors or habits and building relationships that can offer support. People struggling with alcohol use may do some of these actions as they build a new life for themselves during the recovery process.

What is Alcohol Recovery?

Recovery is not one clear, well-defined path where everyone does the same things in the same order. It’s not like school, for example, where people take certain classes in a certain order during certain grades, and then are completely done once they graduate. Different stages of alcohol recovery will probably happen at different times for each person. When someone decides to quit drinking, they may move through the stages one by one, or they may move back and forth through stages or skip through different stages. Recovery is a lifelong process. People who have an alcohol use disorder may experience a setback and need to revisit the different stages. Everyone’s experience is unique.

The Stages of Change Model in Addiction

The stages of overcoming addiction include:

  1. Precontemplation Stage: During this stage, someone may start to experience negative side effects from drinking, but they don’t yet believe that it’s a problem. A person at this stage might act defensively about their drinking and engage in alcoholic rationalization, which is when someone comes up with excuses for their drinking. Alcoholic defense mechanisms for someone at this stage might include denying that their drinking is causing problems, blaming others for their drinking or isolating themselves from others. Alternately, people might stay at this stage because they’re afraid of change or because they have given up hope that life will be different.
  2. Contemplation Stage: People often reach the contemplation stage when something big happens (e.g., an intervention or legal issues) that make them face their alcohol use. Contemplators start to realize that there is a problem but they are still hesitant to try to change. They may learn about strategies for quitting and make pros-and-cons lists, but don’t actually take any steps toward alcohol recovery. A person may stay at this stage for months or years. At this stage, supporting a recovering alcoholic may include supporting them while they consider options and being willing to have honest conversations. If they are receiving help from a substance abuse professional, they may complete a risk-reward analysis, where they examine reasons to keep drinking versus reasons to quit and consider why past attempts to become sober haven’t worked.
  3. Preparation/Determination Stage: A person moves into the third stage when they make the decision to quit drinking alcohol. At this point, people often start taking small steps that help them cut back. They may do a lot of research on treatment options and start coming up with a recovery plan. At this stage, talking to a substance use professional is very helpful for knowing what options might work best and understanding what is realistic during the recovery process.
  4. Action Stage: This stage is about putting plans into action and beginning treatment. The first step is to detox the body from alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can be a dangerous process for people who have been drinking heavily. People should have a loved one monitor them and be ready to seek medical attention if there are severe symptoms. Once this process is over, people transition into seeking treatment, which may consist of therapy, rehab or support groups. A person in recovery is often at the Action Stage for three to six months.
  5. Maintenance or Setback Stages: Maintenance is all about learning to stick with changes over time. People at this stage may have new experiences, new emotions and build new lifestyle habits. Drinking will still be a temptation, and people may come across triggers that make them want to drink, but the feeling lessens over time. During this stage, many will experience pink cloud syndrome, where they feel intense happiness and confidence. Unfortunately, these feelings can make people overestimate how easy recovery will be and when they eventually go away, intense negative emotions can take their place that can make it hard to deal with sobriety. During the Maintenance Stage, some people will have an alcohol setback. Often, experiencing a setback will make people even more committed to staying sober in the future.
  6. Transcendence/Termination Stage: People recovering from alcoholism may reach this stage several years after they begin their journey. This final stage occurs when a person no longer feels like alcohol has control over them. They are much less afraid of experiencing a setback and have settled into a new lifestyle and habits that weren’t previously possible while they were drinking.

Duration of Recovery

Long-term recovery from alcoholism is an ongoing process that’s different for everyone. Working with a counselor or medical professional can help a person ensure they are progressing in recovery.

The Maintenance Stage of recovery can last years as people try to figure out what types of strategies work best for them. About 40% to 60% of people struggling with any drug or alcohol addiction will experience a setback. For people dealing with alcohol abuse, the number may be even higher, with some reports saying up to 90% of people will experience a setback within the first four years of recovery. However, setbacks don’t mean that treatment failed or that recovery is ruined. Addiction treatment experts view setbacks as a temporary roadblock, not the end of the road. Additionally, the longer someone goes without resuming substance use, the less likely they are to drink again. Resources like therapy and support groups can help with alcohol setback prevention.

Finding Treatment for Your Teen

Alcohol addiction treatment can guide people of all ages through the stages of recovery. Inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, therapy, and support groups all help teens stay on the right track. If you are interested in teen alcohol rehab for your child, contact Next Generation Village. Take the first step toward a healthier future for your teenager, call today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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