Recovery Is a Lifelong Journey. New Research Shows it Should be Treated as Such.

Research shows there is a net benefit in helping addicts understand recovery as a life-changing commitment that one practices over several years, even a lifetime, rather than something they can just “take care of” in a few days or weeks.

Talk about rehab

According to statistical data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 15 million U.S. adults are addicted to alcohol. The crisis of alcohol addiction in America costs the nation about $249 billion each year in health care costs and other strains on the economy (lost workplace productivity, collateral damage, criminal justice costs). Given the severity of the public health crisis, it’s within the public interest to solve America’s epidemic of alcohol addiction.1

Thankfully, new research developed by Virginia Tech and published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found that people recovering from alcohol addiction are more likely to build strength in their recovery and not relapse if they’re taught to view recovery as a lifetime commitment, rather than something that “just happens” in the span of a few days, weeks, or months.

What the Findings Show

Many have come to view America as the land of quick fixes and “fast solutions” to everything, but it seems alcohol addiction requires a long-term approach to create truly effective treatment. Warren Bickel, senior study author and Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research professor spoke to this point: “By focusing on decision-making and adding the perspective of evolutionary biology, we’ve taken a fresh approach that is showing us ways to predict how an individual would experience recovery,” he said.2

According to the research, humans have biologically evolved to find better stability in their life-changing behavior shifts if those shifts are supported by long-term work and affirmations, such as working on one’s recovery as though it were a lifetime activity. Again quoting Bickel, “In evolutionary biology, organisms decide whether to put their resources into their personal development or into biological imperatives, such as finding food or reproduction. People in unpredictable environments are positioned to favor short-term goals. They have faster life-history strategies, including brief relationships, early reproduction, reduced self-care, and substance use. In more supportive environments, it becomes practical to prepare for longer-term outcomes, so people with slower life-history strategies might work on personal development, fitness, education, and health goals.” Bickel’s last point, the biological benefit of supportive environments and the practicality of preparing oneself for positive long-term outcomes seems applicable in addiction recovery. When recovering addicts settle in for the long haul, they’re more likely to experience long-term success.

Bickel and his team analyzed the health outcomes and recoveries of 110 adults who had struggled with alcohol addiction. Based on survey results, the researchers noticed that those in recovery who had more methodical, long-term strategies towards their recovery also tended to be more focused on future rewards and personal growth. They also exhibited positive economic, health, and personal development behaviors. Finally, they were more likely to be clean from alcohol and to have been clean for some time.3

Sunshine and hourglass

Conversely, those taking a faster “let’s just get this over with” approach to their recovery tended to focus more on immediate rewards. The researchers found this group showed reduced concern for personal health and long-term recovery. Finally, this group was more likely not to have been sober for as long as the previous group and to have experienced relapses more recently.

The researchers’ conclusion was best summarized by Liqa Athamneh, a postdoctoral associate and one of the study’s authors. Athamneh posited that addicts’ decision-making is influenced by the “…length of the temporal window of integration,” which essentially means how far in the future people can imagine and integrate plans, goals, strategies, and intentions into their current choices. According to the research, recovering addicts who could extrapolate their decisions into the long-term future were more likely to have built strength and consistency in their sobriety than those recovering addicts who were more focused on the short-term and immediacy of their recovery process.

While addiction recovery looks different and is different for all who go through it, the findings seem to show that recovering alcohol addicts can create firm stability in their recovery when they approach it from the perspective of a lifetime commitment and something they have to continue to work at, rather than something that can be rushed or taken care of quickly. Ideally, such findings will help inform addiction treatment programs and the strategies utilized by drug and alcohol rehab centers to help recovering addicts get clean and stay clean.

What the Findings Mean for Addiction Recovery

Unfortunately, addicts are often fed the narrative that they can attend treatment for a few days or weeks and will be “cured” of their addiction. While it is absolutely possible to get off of drugs and alcohol and to be truly free of addiction, doing so requires a considerable commitment and a long-term plan, not just a few weeks in treatment.

Qualified residential drug and alcohol rehab centers empower recovering addicts with the tools they need to uncover the underlying reasons why they began using drugs and alcohol in the first place. So empowered, recovering addicts can begin working from the ground up, overcoming and discarding old triggers and drug-use incentives, and building healthy coping strategies and life skills to assist them in pursuing healthy goals and lifestyles after rehab.

Beyond that, drug rehab programs can (and should) also teach recovering addicts how to make a lifetime commitment to their recovery. Taking this approach helps recovering addicts create a sobriety plan that will last for life and eliminate their risks for relapse.

Sources Cited:

  1. NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023. ↩︎

  2. ScienceDaily. “How we view the future may hold keys to recovery from alcohol use disorder.” Science Daily, 2022. ↩︎

  3. Alcoholism. “The phenotype of recovery VI: The association between life-history strategies, delay discounting, and maladaptive health and financial behaviors among individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders.” Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2021. ↩︎