How an Alcoholism Treatment Program Works

An estimated 17 million adults across the United States are dealing with alcohol use disorder (AUD. Figures from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) highlight the vast reach of alcoholism, but there’s a silver lining. No matter the severity of this problem, overcoming your battle with alcoholism is possible. 

Treating this condition requires several therapeutic approaches that can be used in a formal treatment program. Comprehensive recovery efforts should include a combination of behavioral therapies, medication, and mutual-support group participation. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery, combining these three approaches has helped many people maintain their sobriety in the long-term.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies allow for people to modify their problematic alcohol drinking patterns and behaviors. The following treatments are based on scientific evidence and are led by mental health professionals through counseling sessions during recovery programming. The most common therapies used to treat alcoholism include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing maladaptive behavior patterns that result in substance abuse. It teaches the person how to detect and correct behaviors attributed to drinking. It will also address co-occurring disorders that cause drinking, such as problems with depression or anxiety. In essence, CBT helps a person change how they think and position them to control their emotions and select healthy behaviors, which allows them to make better decisions all around, especially when it comes to drinking. 
  • Motivational enhancement: Motivational interviewing helps people overcome their resistance to treatment and stopping substance abuse. Once thoroughly assessed, a therapist will work with the person in private sessions. 
  • Contingency management: This approach provides incentives for behavioral changes that relate to drinking. When a person reaches a specific treatment milestone, such as a negative alcohol test, they’ll receive a voucher for activities they enjoy. For example, someone who attends a particular number of 12-step programs will be entered into a drawing with others to win a prize. 
  • 12-Step facilitation: Commonly used in treatment programs, 12-step facilitation incorporates similar principles of 12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These programs are geared toward helping those that see their lives becoming unmanageable due to addiction and confuses on surrounding themselves to a higher power. It is designed for those in treatment to become familiar with 12-step programs once they finish formal treatment. 
  • Family behavior therapy: This therapy is geared toward the youth and their families. FBT addresses several types of behavioral issues and family conflicts. It uses contingency management for behavioral expectations. It can also be used with adults if at least one member of the family participates in sessions with the person getting treatment. 

Pharmacotherapies/Medications Used for Alcoholism

Although behavioral therapies are necessary when getting help for alcoholism, they often require pharmacotherapy as a secondary solution to use in conjunction with therapy. There are three FDA-approved medications available to treat alcohol dependence, including:

  • Acamprosate: This medication is given to help curb drinking in a person who isn’t currently drinking alcohol. Unlike other alcohol dependence medications, acamprosate can be used in those with hepatitis or liver disease. It’s been found to increase periods of abstinence from alcohol and decrease the risk of using alcohol after a period of abstinence. However, for those who continue drinking and use the medication, it won’t reduce the number of days they consume significant amounts of alcohol. Fortunately, acamprosate is safe and has few side effects. 
  • Disulfiram: Also known as Antabuse, this drug is used to discourage a person from drinking alcohol. Those who consume alcohol while using disulfiram will develop extremely unpleasant side effects in as little as ten minutes. Side effects may include chest pain, nausea, flushing, blurred vision, and anxiety. Although few studies prove its effectiveness in reducing cravings, it does serve as a deterrent as long as the medicine is taken. 
  • Naltrexone: This oral or injectable medication is used to reduce the pleasurable effects of alcohol and reduce cravings. Naltrexone is responsible for blocking the endogenous opioid released when alcohol is consumed. Naltrexone reduces a person’s desire to drink and decreases the effects of alcohol when ingested. Although it helps a person remain abstinent, it does have some downsides, including that a person can’t drink alcohol for seven days prior to use. Those who need opioids for pain relief can’t use naltrexone because it stops opioids from working. Those with severe liver failure or acute hepatitis can’t use naltrexone. 

Partial Hospitalization 

Once you’ve completed a residential program, a person who’s stable might be transferred to a partial hospitalization program. During this intensive form of therapy, the individual will live in transitional housing or at home while attending counseling sessions and classes during the day. A partial hospitalization program will last around two weeks. 

Medical Detox

During your initial entrance into treatment, you must go through medical detox. It’ll help your body rid itself of alcohol and other toxins to mitigate the inherent dangers of alcohol withdrawal


If you face travel or scheduling issues, you can opt for online teletherapy to start your substance abuse treatment from the comfort of your home. Teletherapy appointments provide flexibility and connect you with licensed professionals for individual and group therapy sessions. 

How to Decide on Treatment

In the past, alcohol rehab programs provided a similar treatment standard across the board, despite a person’s gender, age, psychiatric history, or other key demographics. Fortunately, alcohol treatment programs have come a long way and are specialized to meet the needs of a varied and diverse group. Choosing the right treatment is a bit of a challenge, but the results of searching carefully are more like to lead to success.  

Choosing a Specific Option

When you select the right level of care that provides the best therapeutic approach, you should consider the specifics of treatment. Factors that should weigh into your decision include:

    • Age: Children and teens will present different issues than adults. Younger people typically respond to treatment better than adults. 
    • Types of Addiction: The program should focus strictly on your alcoholism and other substances you might be using with alcohol. Co-occurring conditions that include anxiety, depression, personality disorders, or an eating disorder must also be targeted during treatment. 
  • Gender and sexuality: A gender-specific program will allow you to focus on a recovery program without distractions or social pressures. The programs enable the individual to concentrate on the unique issues they experience by sexual orientation or gender.
  • Profession or social status: Exposure to demographic groups in treatment is an equalizing experience that demonstrates the reality of alcoholism as a universal disease. You’ll feel more comfortable and able to express yourself with your peers. 
  • Religion, Values, Culture: A program that goes against your religious beliefs is unlikely to be effective. When choosing a facility, look for a program that aligns with your spiritual nature and cultural heritage.
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