What Is Recovery?

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People who have been successful in overcoming their dependence on alcohol and other drugs usually refer to their new lifestyle as being in "recovery." But addiction experts agree there is more to recovery than just being sober.

While there's no standard definition of "recovery" in the addiction community, several organizations have come up with working definitions to help better understand and measure recovery efforts.

A standard definition of recovery includes ensuring that vital recovery supports and services are available and accessible to all who need and want them. 

Defining Recovery

Part of the reason why it's so tricky to define recovery is that everyone's recovery journey is unique.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Commission (SAMHSA) and a variety of partners in the behavioral health care community collaborated to define recovery in a way that would capture shared experiences of those recovering from both mental disorders and substance use disorders.

According to SAMHSA, recovery is "a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential."

SAHMSA also defined four major dimensions that support recovery, including:

  • Health: Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being
  • Home: Having a stable and safe place to live
  • Purpose: Conducting meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society
  • Community: Having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope

Prior to this, the Betty Ford Institute created the following working definition of recovery: "A voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship."

"Recovery may be the best word to summarize all the positive benefits to physical, mental, and social health that can happen when alcohol- and other drug-dependent individuals get the help they need," the expert panel wrote in a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

In this definition, personal health refers not only to physical and mental health but also to social health—participation in family and social roles. Citizenship refers to "giving back" to the community and society.

Guiding Principles

Along with a working definition, SAMHSA defined 10 guiding principles that support the recovery definition.

  1. Recovery emerges from hope.
  2. Recovery is person-driven.
  3. Recovery occurs via many pathways.
  4. Recovery is holistic.
  5. Recovery is supported by peers and allies.
  6. Recovery is supported through relationship and social networks.
  7. Recovery is culturally-based and influenced.
  8. Recovery is supported by addressing trauma.
  9. Recovery involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility.
  10. Recovery is based on respect.

Stages of Recovery

Sobriety—defined as complete abstinence from alcohol and all other non-prescribed drugs—is a necessary part of recovery but it's often just the first step. In fact, experts agree there are several stages of recovery, although like the definition of recovery, there is not a universal agreement on the stages of recovery.

  • The Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel: Early (one to 12 months of abstinence), sustained (one to five years of abstinence), stable (more than five years of sobriety)
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse: Early abstinence, maintaining abstinence, and advanced recovery
  • The Developmental Model: Transition, stabilization, early, middle recovery, late recovery and maintenance

Achieving Recovery From an Alcohol Use Disorder

Many people are able to quit or cut back on drinking and feel that this is all it takes to achieve recovery. Experts believe, however, that being in recovery from an alcohol use disorder (or any other type of substance use disorder) is not just about remaining sober, but building a better life without alcohol.

In recovery, you take all the tools and skills you have learned during your addiction treatment to become a healthier person, a better spouse and parent, a productive member of society, and a good neighbor and citizen.

According to SAMHSA, there are some key signs that let individuals know they are in active recovery:

  • You can address problems as they happen, without getting stressed out and without relapsing.
  • You have at least one person with whom you can be completely honest.
  • You know which issues are yours and which ones belong to other people, and you have personal boundaries.
  • You take the time to restore your energy—physical and emotional—when you're tired.

Press Play for Advice On Achieving Sobriety

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring Dirty Heads Vocalist Jared Watson, shares how he found sobriety. Click below to listen now.

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Rules of Recovery

Once you are in recovery, some experts believe that there are certain "rules" that can help ensure that you don't relapse.

  • Change your life: The idea is that recovery revolves around creating a new life for yourself—one in which you create new healthy relationships, find sober fun, and explore ways to manage life stressors without alcohol or drugs.
  • Be completely honest: Living with an alcohol use disorder may have meant lying—to yourself and your loved ones about your alcohol misuse. In recovery, honesty can help people learn to trust themselves again and to deal with past lies.
  • Ask for help: While you won't want to hang around with your old drinking pals in a bar, isolation is not the answer. In fact, studies have found that joining a self-help group can increase your chances of long-term recovery.
  • Practice self-care: Self-care, including practicing mind-body relaxation, helps people in recovery be kind to themselves, release any negative feelings, and find time to relax so they can better cope with life stressors.

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.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. What is recovery? A working definition from the Betty Ford Institute. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2007;33(3):221-8. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2007.06.001

  3. Roth JD. The Alcoholic Family in RecoveryJ Psychother Pract Res. 2000;9(3):170-171.

  4. Melemis SM. Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):325-32.