There is overwhelming scientific and medical evidence that addiction is a disease.

While it can be managed like other chronic conditions, there is currently not a cure.

According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment,1 97% of the people in recovery surveyed agreed that “recovery is a continuous process that never ends.”  In order to maintain recovery over time, a long-term strategy needs to be incorporated into a treatment plan.

Recovery from addiction isn’t simply about not using drugs or alcohol any longer—although that’s of course a major component.

Ultimately, substance use treatment is intended to help a person in recovery become someone who is able to keep a steady job, have healthy relationships, and live a meaningful and rewarding life.

There has been extensive research conducted on how best to help people in recovery to meet this goal, and some of the most valuable information has come from those who are in recovery themselves. In 2014, a survey was conducted of more than 9300 people who considered themselves in recovery or recovered from a substance use disorder. The results were published in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.2

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Survey participants were asked to identify the six elements of “essential recovery” and “enriched recovery” to support their definition of recovery, and the most endorsed responses (more than 90%) included:

  • Being honest with myself

  • Handling negative feelings without using drugs or alcohol

  • Being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to

  • A process of growth and development

  • Reacting to life’s ups and downs in a more balanced way than I used to

  • Taking responsibility for the things I can change

This study suggests that recovery should be approached with a combination of determination and acceptance.

Viewing recovery as an ongoing process of personal development, constantly working to improve yourself, can be important in helping someone to stick with it.

Additional research shows that connecting with the community is also important for maintaining substance abuse recovery over time. The Harvard Medical School Special Health Report “Overcoming Addiction” identified two basic steps that are necessary for recovery: replacing addiction with other interests, and exercising3. The idea behind these two steps is that starting to cultivate a personal passion gives people a sense of purpose. These steps will also help someone in recovery become invested in other people—who will in turn become invested in them and support their recovery journey. By adopting these new routines, a person in recovery can find opportunities to make positive changes to sustain over time.

Ultimately, maintaining recovery means changing.

For someone in recovery, it can be important to avoid the people and places that were part of their addiction experience. Falling in with old friends can easily lead to falling into old habits. New brain-imaging research shows that being around places that trigger memories of use can actually activate cravings in your brain—even long after you stop using.4 If someone used drugs or alcohol to escape or to relax, they’ll need to find new coping techniques. As we mentioned, exercise and new hobbies offer healthy ways to cope—but meditation, reading, or experiencing nature are all great options, too. Finding new ways to deal with stress, fear, anger, and other destructive emotions will not only help with recovery, but it will help you lead a happier life.

To create a successful long-term recovery plan, every person in recovery should meet with their doctor or addiction specialist to discuss personal needs and to decide on the treatments that will work best.

Each personal long-term recovery plan may include some combination of: medication therapy, behavioral therapy, and peer support. Understanding the steps that you can take to assist in your recovery, or the recovery of your loved one, will only increase the odds of long-term success. Talk with a healthcare professional about whether incorporating some of these steps in a treatment plan can help you or your loved one, as you work toward sustained recovery.

2. Kaskutas et al. “Elements that Define Recovery: The Experiential Perspective” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75 (6) 999-1010 (2014)
3. Editor Howard J. Shaffer, Ph.D., C.A.S., “Overcoming Addiction.” Cambridge, MA. Harvard Medical School Special Health Report 2011
4. Limbic Activation During Cue-Induced Cocaine Craving Anna Rose Childress, P. David Mozley, William McElgin, Josh Fitzgerald, Martin Reivich, and Charles P. O’Brien, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1999 156:1, 11-18