What to Expect From Drug and Alcohol Rehab Programs

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A first-time rehab experience can be intimidating. Even if you want to quit an addiction, you may still be nervous about going to rehab because you don't know what to expect.

Knowing what happens in rehab can put your mind at ease. Here are some of the most common features of rehab programs so you can be as prepared as possible for the experience.

When to Consider Rehab

Once you recognize that you need some help with an addiction, you will probably consider other options before entering a formal rehab program. Peer support groups, including 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous as well as SMART Recovery or Celebrate Recovery may be right for you.

A physician who specializes in addiction medicine can offer help with acute detoxification as well as with medications that reduce the craving for alcohol and prevent relapse from alcohol and other drugs. People who have exhausted these options will often need to find an inpatient program.

Signs that you need help with your addiction include when substance use negatively affects many aspects of your life such as your job, your relationships, your hobbies, your mental health, and/or your physical health.

Ask yourself what substance use is taking away from your life. Are you withdrawing from activities you used to enjoy? Are you constantly thinking about the next time you can drink or use drugs?

Self-medicating with substances, like drinking or taking drugs to treat underlying symptoms of anxiety or depression, is another reason to consider rehab. Rehabilitation centers can help diagnose mental health conditions that may be co-existing with your substance use disorder, and they can treat both appropriately.

Developing a tolerance to or a dependence on a substance may be indicators of addiction. If you can't imagine participating in your life without the use of drugs or alcohol, consider rehab as a treatment option to help you live substance-free.

Types of Rehab Centers

There are a few different types of rehab centers that you can consider. You do not have to determine which best fits you and your unique circumstances on your own. Usually a doctor, mental health professional, or social worker, as well as staff members at the rehab center, will help you decide.

  • Long-term residential treatment: This is a type of rehab that offers 24-hour care in a residential setting (not a hospital). Stays tend to last between six and 12 months. Socialization with staff and other residents is part of the treatment, as are group therapy sessions, individualized therapy sessions, educational programs on mental health, addiction, nutrition, and more.
  • Short-term residential treatment: These programs are based on the 12-step approach to addiction recovery. Short-term residential treatment was originally designed for people with alcohol use disorder, but now it treats people with many types of substance use disorders. These treatments tend to be three to six weeks in length and are followed by outpatient therapy and support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) to reduce the risk of relapse.
  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient treatment means that you live at home while you go to a treatment center regularly throughout the week. You'll attend many of the same types of programs that residential treatment centers offer (therapy sessions and educational courses), only you don't live at the treatment center.

A Typical Day in a Rehab Facility

If you are in residential treatment, your days typically follow a structured routine. The idea is that consistency (and not having to make as many decisions throughout your day) will help support you as you recover.

Below are examples of what takes place during a typical day in rehab. Of course, what your day looks like will vary based on the rehab center, the severity of your addiction, and your personal circumstances.

Mornings

You'll generally wake up at a set time each morning. Nurses give out any medications to those who have them prescribed. For instance, a doctor at a rehab center may provide you with a medication to manage withdrawal symptoms or to treat mental health conditions.

You'll be served breakfast and afterward, attend your first session of the day, such as group therapy. You may be given a break during the session to reflect, journal, or practice any skills you learned during the session.

Afternoons

After lunch, you'll attend another session, such as individual therapy. You may be given free time to choose an activity, such as attending a fitness session if your rehab center has a gym. Physical exercise can help manage mood swings during withdrawal.

Or, you might attend an educational course. Many rehab centers educate participants on mental health, addiction, and/or nutrition. Balanced nutrition can help you manage the stress of recovery and even curb withdrawal cravings.

Evenings

You'll have dinner, and perhaps end the day with another group session to reflect on your progress so far and how you feel about all you experienced throughout the day. You'll be given time to get ready for bed. Many rehab centers typically have a set time for "lights out," when free time is done for the day and you're encouraged to get to sleep.

Checking In

When you first arrive at a rehab program, staff members will often start by having you complete an intake interview to find out more about you. This is an important step in the rehab process, because this information will be used to start customizing your treatment plan.

During an intake interview, you will answer questions related to your substance use and your lifestyle. These questions may include:

  • In the past 30 days, on how many days did you drink alcohol, drink alcohol until you became intoxicated, and/or use illegal drugs or marijuana?
  • In the past 30 days, where have you been living most of the time?
  • In the past 30 days, how stressful have things been because of your alcohol or drug use?
  • In the past 30 days, how often did your substance use cause you to reduce or give up activities?
  • Do you have children? Do they live with you? If not, do they live with someone else due to a court order?
  • Do you attend school or have a job?
  • In the past 30 days, have you been arrested for drug-related offenses?
  • How would you rate your overall health?
  • In the past 30 days, have you gotten inpatient or outpatient treatment for a physical complaint, mental or emotional difficulty, or alcohol or substance use?
  • How satisfied are you with your life and with yourself?

Be prepared to answer the questions honestly. While discussing your life, your choices, and your substance use can be difficult, remember that accurate information will help the staff develop a program best suited for you and your needs.

The common length of stay in drug and alcohol rehab is 28 to 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. While treatment for any period of time is helpful, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends people spend at least 90 days in treatment.

The Detox Process

After the initial assessment, you'll go through the detoxification process. Detox is the process of removing drugs or alcohol from your body after prolonged use. Though this can be a difficult process for some, it's important to cleanse your body of these substances so that you're ready both physically and mentally for the work that lies ahead in rehab.

If you suddenly stop using a substance that has a high potential for dependency (such as heroin, morphine, benzodiazepines, or alcohol), you may experience some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. In many instances, medication will be given to ease the withdrawal symptoms associated with these drugs.

Therapy

Various types of therapies will be used throughout the recovery process, depending on your needs and the rehab program you are attending.

Individual Therapy

You'll work with a mental health professional in one-on-one sessions. During these sessions, you'll take an honest look at yourself, your addiction, and the effect your addiction has had on your life. This personal education can be a powerful way to help you heal. Your therapist will also help you identify your addicition triggers. Once you've identified them, the therapist will teach you how to cope with them in a constructive way.

An addiction specialist will customize the right types of therapy for your unique needs. Therapy can come in many forms, but research suggests that behavioral therapies are most effective in treating addictions. Two of the most common behavioral therapies used in this setting are cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you understand the underlying beliefs and behaviors that contribute to substance use. It also teaches you healthy coping mechanisms to use during recovery.
  • Motivational interviewing is a technique in which a counselor or therapist asks you questions such as "Why do you want to stop drinking?" or "How has substance use impacted your life?" The goal is to resolve the ambivalence that many people feel when they want to make a change but fear that they're not ready. Motivational interviewing can help you can solidify your goals to live substance-free and renew your motivation to do so successfully.

Family Counseling

Research has shown that including family and friends in the recovery process significantly improves rehab outcomes. Because of this, many addiction rehab facilities offer family therapy as part of their program.

Family members are often deeply affected by their loved one’s addictive behaviors. Family counseling is a safe space for everyone to share their experiences and for family members to learn how they may have enabled or contributed to your addiction. Acknowledging and working through these complicated and sometimes painful emotions can promote healing and continued growth. 

During family counseling, your family members will also learn about the dynamics of addiction and how to best support you once you leave the rehab facility. 

Many programs include family members and friends throughout the entire rehab process, from the initial assessment through aftercare. Others require family members to attend Al-Anon meetings if they want to visit you while you are in treatment.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is a cornerstone of many rehab centers. Group members, led by a therapist, discuss their progress, challenges, and experiences with addiction recovery. Some groups focus on specific phases of recovery (i.e., withdrawal or relapse prevention), while others provide support for people who have mental health concerns (i.e., social anxiety disorder or difficulty managing anger).

There are often recovery groups that offer safe spaces for people of certain genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds. Some rehab centers offer LGBTQ+ groups or groups for those who have been previously incarcerated.

Many of the same techniques used in individual therapy are used in group therapy, such as psychoeducation, motivational interviewing, and skill development.

Group therapy is linked with positive outcomes for addiction recovery because of the social support it offers. Members benefit from sharing their experiences, hearing other people's stories, forming bonds, and supporting each other.

Aftercare Planning

Toward the end of your time in a rehab center, you and your counselor will come up with a continuing care (aftercare) plan based on your progress up to that point. Aftercare can significantly reduce drug and alcohol relapse rates. This makes it an incredibly important component of your treatment.

Your plan will include social and medical support services to help in your transition. It may include transitional housing (like a sober living home), follow-up therapy and counseling, medical evaluations, alumni support groups, and other suggestions to help you avoid the situations and triggers that might cause you to relapse.

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Your Rights As a Patient

The American healthcare system provides patients in rehabilitation centers rights that are important to be aware of if you or a loved on enters an addiction recovery program. These rights include:

  • The right to access your patient records
  • The right to participate in your care (make decisions about your care and refuse care if you are not a minor)
  • The right to informed consent (being informed of the benefits and risks of treatment and consenting to treatment prior to it being administered)
  • The right to receive equal treatment, free of discrimination or any type of patient abuse (physical, mental, sexual, or otherwise)

Under these rights, a patient is also protected from cruel treatment such as unnecessary restraint or seclusion.

Though you have the right to make informed decisions about your own care, you can also designate someone else to make decisions about your care if you choose.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If you are coping with a substance use disorder, it is crucial that you get help. It's natural to feel intimidated or scared. But remember that rehab is meant to help you achieve lasting recovery. If you're considering rehab as an option for recovery, you can start by talking to a doctor, therapist, counselor, social worker, or by calling a community center or rehab center for more information.

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