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Understanding the Stages of Recovery From Alcoholism

Written by Thomas Christiansen

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Trisha Sippel, PhD

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Medically Reviewed by Trisha Sippel, PHD

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Updated 07/15/2020

Recovery from an alcohol use disorder involves making the decision to change, committing to that decision and getting help along the way. A good support system is key to recovery.

A person with an alcohol use disorder may not realize they have a disorder, or may not be prepared to do anything about it. Making the decision to start treatment and committing to staying sober can be hard. There are alcoholism recovery stages a person will go through that are based on the stages of change model used to describe the experiences a person has when they are making a major life change.

The stages of alcohol recovery that a person will go through during this process include:

  • Discovering the problem
  • Contemplating recovery
  • Mentally and physically committing to recovery
  • Staying sober

Challenges of Alcohol Recovery

Before beginning alcohol recovery it is important to know that setbacks involving the resumption of alcohol can occur during any step of the process. Making it through the recovery process without experiencing a single setback is possible, but uncommon. People should know that experiencing a setback does not mean that recovery is not possible. The recovery process can last years or a lifetime for some. However, with the correct support, it is possible to achieve a healthier, sober lifestyle.

Discovering The Problem

During the first phase of alcohol recovery, the person will start to recognize the effects that drinking alcohol has on their lives. Either on their own, or with the help of people who are concerned about them, they will discover that alcohol is negatively impacting their life. Some of the signs of alcoholism that they may realize are happening include:

  • Using alcohol to handle stress or other negative emotions
  • Consistently using alcohol for longer than intended or drinking more than intended
  • Unable to stop drinking despite wanting to
  • Craving alcohol use
  • Getting angry or defensive when confronted about using alcohol
  • Being secretive or lying about alcohol use
  • Drinking by yourself or at odd times of the day
  • Feeling guilty about drinking alcohol
  • Continuing to drink despite it causing problems at work, financial concerns or legal issues
  • Having conflicts with or losing family or friends due to alcohol use
  • Neglecting responsibilities or important commitments to drink

Alcohol use can also affect a person physically. The physical signs of alcoholism are:

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Blacking out while drinking
  • Needing to drink more in order to feel the effects of alcohol (developing tolerance)
  • Continuing to drink excessively despite it making you physically sick

During the discovery phase, a person may start to recognize that alcohol is causing a problem in their life, but they are unwilling to do anything to change. Despite the negative consequences, it is causing, they continue to use alcohol. In some cases, it may take a big event, such as getting a DUI or an intervention from friends and family, for the person to realize that they need to make a change.

Contemplating Recovery

Once a person is starting to realize that they may need to do something about their alcohol use, they have reached the stage of contemplating recovery. During this stage of early alcohol recovery, the person has decided to make some sort of change within a given amount of time, usually six months or less. During this stage, they will consider quitting drinking alcohol, but will most likely not stop drinking yet.

During this phase, the person may be more willing to listen to family and friends who are concerned about them. They may be more receptive to exploring treatment options and contemplating others helping them through that process. It is important for them to know that they will have support moving forward.

Mentally Committing To Recovery

When someone mentally commits to recovery, they are preparing themselves for the process they are about to go through. In this stage, people can take the opportunity to learn about alcohol recovery treatment and educate themselves on what happens during each stage of recovery. Knowing what they are about to go through and being prepared for it will make the process easier.

Physically Committing To Recovery

When a person physically commits to recovery, it is usually the first real step toward making a change. The physical stages of alcohol recovery involve alcohol detox, where a person tapers off alcohol use and will have to deal with the symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal can be painful and difficult to manage, but there are medically-assisted detox programs where a person can receive professional help through this process.

Following detox, the person should participate in an alcoholism treatment program, where they will get counseling and emotional support to make it through cravings for alcohol and continue their sobriety. This decision can also involve group therapy or support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous to have a way to learn from other’s experiences and be held accountable by others in the group or by a sponsor.

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Staying Sober

Once a person has made it through treatment, their goal is to abstain from alcohol use in their daily life. Maintaining this goal will mean readjusting to life without alcohol. Staying sober can be a challenge, especially for those who have chronically used alcohol. They will likely face the temptation to drink, but once they make it to this stage, they will have developed a set of tools to help them cope with cravings for alcohol.

Full Recovery From Alcoholism

For most people, it takes a long time to fully recover from an alcohol use disorder. In some cases, they may never truly get there. It is not uncommon for someone to struggle with an alcohol use disorder for most of their life. There will always be temptations and thoughts of resuming alcohol use, but with the support of family and friends, it’s possible to stay sober.

If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol use, it’s never too late to get help. Contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to learn how you can take your first steps toward long-term sobriety. 

View Sources

Hashemzadeh, Mozhdeh; et al. “Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavioral Change: A Systematic Review.” Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. Accessed September 26, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. “5 stages of treatment.” Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Accessed September 26, 2019.