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Stages of Addiction Recovery

Addiction recovery doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a cyclical process that follows a specific pattern. For many addicts, their recovery journey starts by just becoming open to change. While the recovery process isn’t perfect, its stages of change can be predicted and planned for in treatment. By understanding the stages of recovery, addicts and their loved ones can better prepare for the ups and downs of recovery and treatment.

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What Are the 5 Stages of Addiction Recovery?

Addiction recovery is the process of medical and psychotherapeutic treatment for alcohol or drug addiction. What recovery looks like can vary from person to person and depends on factors like age, background, substance of choice, and existing mental health issues.

Luckily, the recovery process has a reliable, well-researched model to follow. The five stages of addiction recovery are based on the Transtheoretical Model of Change, developed in the 70s while treating cigarette smokers that wanted to quit.

Don’t let the word “theoretical” confuse you; the Transtheoretical Model of Change is a proven method that shows people don’t change behaviors quickly and decisively. Instead, people change their behavior continuously through a cyclical process.

Recovery Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation

People typically don’t see their behavior as problematic in the pre-contemplation stage. Perhaps they have yet to experience the negative consequences of their addiction or are in denial about the severity of their issues.

Signs someone is in the stage of pre-contemplation include:

  • Disinterest in hearing how bad their addiction is
  • Disinterest in receiving any advice to quit or change their substance abuse
  • Gets defensive about their alcohol or drug use
  • Denies their substance use or that it’s a problem

Recovery Stage 2: Contemplation

As the name would suggest, people in the contemplation stage are beginning to consider that they have a substance abuse issue or are considering cutting down or moderating their alcohol or drug use.

The individual may only think about this internally or mention it to close friends and family.

Signs someone is in the stage of contemplation include:

  • Open to hearing about the possible harms of their addictive behavior
  • Open to learning about ways to control or quit abusing the substance
  • Considers cutting down or changing the amount of a substance they abuse
  • Still unwilling to promise or commit to quitting

Recovery Stage 3: Preparation

In the preparation stage, the person is beginning to move forward with plans made in the contemplating stage to change their substance use.

Typically, the individual is pretty motivated to make a change, providing the perfect opportunity for loved ones to step in and help with planning.

Signs someone is in the stage of preparation include:

  • Plans to either cut down or quit the substance completely
  • Obtains resources to stop (i.e., nicotine patches or a prescription for a medication-assisted treatment)
  • Removes triggers from their environment to avoid cravings or temptation to fall into addictive behaviors (i.e., no alcohol in the house or avoiding people still using the substance)
  • Creates a support system of friends and family members to encourage them, books treatment for detox or addiction treatment, joins a support group, or establishes accountability buddies

Recovery Stage 4: Action

The action stage can often be the most stressful part of addiction recovery. Preparation is over, and real change begins to happen, whether that’s through entering a rehab program or quitting on their own.

However, with good preparation, the action stage can be an era of huge growth and healing for the patient and their loved ones.

Signs someone is in the stage of action include: 

  • Enters detox and/or treatment center for their substance abuse
  • Attends one-on-one behavioral therapy or group therapy
  • Attends support group meetings
  • Actively avoids all contact with the substance and people who use the substance
  • Learns new coping mechanisms for stress
  • Reaches out for support when they need it

Recovery Stage 5: Maintenance

Possibly the most crucial stage of addiction recovery is the maintenance stage.

The person has come a long way and made significant changes to their life and mental health; now, they must maintain those positive changes.

Recovery is seldom ever perfect, and relapses are incredibly common. But with the right non-judgmental care and support, the maintenance stage can help lessen the blow of any potential relapses.

Signs someone is in the stage of maintenance include:

  • Stays abstinent from drugs or alcohol
  • Sticks to limits set during treatment
  • Continues to focus on harm reduction
  • Avoids triggers and old friends that still abuse substances
  • Commits to aftercare like support groups, 12-step recovery programs, therapy, etc.

Why Is Aftercare Important?

Aftercare refers to continuing addiction treatment after the initial treatment program ends. Typical aftercare includes support groups, ongoing therapy, sober living arrangements, and medication-assisted treatments for relapse prevention.

The main goal of aftercare is to apply and reinforce the positive changes that the initial inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment program achieved. Aftercare also ensures the patient has ongoing support during stress or temptation.

Does Relapse Mean Substance Abuse Treatment Failed?

Absolutely not. In fact, relapse is part of the Transtheoretical Model of Change and is a common part of the recovery process.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40–60% of people with substance use disorders will relapse at some point.

When relapse occurs, it’s a sign that the patient should resume treatment, modify treatment, or use a new treatment method. If you experience relapse after treatment, don’t assume the treatment didn’t work or think you’re a failure. Instead, simply be honest with yourself and recommit to your treatment.

How to Help Someone in Recovery

Being there for someone in recovery isn’t easy, but you can play a big role in that person’s successful recovery. You can help by offering non-judgmental support during recovery and after addiction treatment, whether that’s a ride to treatment or lending an ear when they need to talk.

However, ensure that your personal boundaries and self-care stay in check during this process. Watching someone you care about go through the ups and downs of treatment can be difficult, so be aware that you don’t take on their stress as your own.

Start Your Recovery Journey Today

Many treatment options are available if you or someone you know is ready to start recovering from addiction.

Find an addiction treatment facility that meets your needs with SAMHSA’s online treatment locator, or you can call (800) 662-4357. While the journey to recovery isn’t easy, the right addiction treatment program can put you on the right path to success.

FAQs About Stages of Recovery

What are the 5 stages of recovery?

The five steps of recovery are:

  • Stage 1: Precontemplation
  • Stage 2: Contemplation
  • Stage 3: Preparation
  • Stage 4: Action
  • Stage 5: Maintenance

How long does addiction recovery take?

There’s no set amount of time that recovery takes. The timeframe will depend on the patient’s readiness to commit, the substance they’ve been abusing, and any existing mental health concerns.

Can your brain heal from addiction?

It depends. Addiction is a lifelong disease treated through therapy and lifestyle changes. However, some addictive substances can cause damage to the brain, making addiction harder to address.

Our brains can repair and adapt after prolonged drug or alcohol abuse, but this healing takes time. However, with enough time and therapy, people with addiction can heal and thrive despite the trauma of addiction.

Should I quit alcohol or drugs cold turkey?

No, quitting alcohol or drugs cold turkey is seldom a good idea. While some people may find success this way, people with prolonged substance abuse often experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey.

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. So if you’re considering quitting substance abuse, speak with a doctor or healthcare provider before stopping completely to ensure you’re not putting yourself in danger.

What should I expect during substance abuse treatment?

Substance abuse treatment typically includes detoxification, one-on-one behavioral therapy, group therapy, and skill-building exercises. Sometimes, family therapy may also be offered. However, the types of therapy available may vary depending on the substance being abused and the individual’s unique needs.

Does relapse mean the addiction treatment didn’t work?

No. Unfortunately, relapse is a common part of drug or alcohol addiction recovery. When a person relapses, this usually indicates that they should resume treatment, modify it, or try a new type of treatment.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

  1. 5 Stages of Treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64208/

  2. LaMorte, W. W. (2022, November 3). The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). Behavioral Change Models. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/mph-modules/sb/behavioralchangetheories/behavioralchangetheories6.html

  3. Lassiter, P. S., & Culbreth, J. R. (2017, February 17). Theory and Practice of Addiction Counseling. Google Books. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://books.google.com/books?id=ZeeVDgAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PT294#v=onepage&q&f=false

  4. Prochaska, J. O., & Velicer, W. F. (1997, September). The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change. American Journal of Health Promotion. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.4278/0890-1171-12.1.38

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, March 9). Treatment and Recovery. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

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