Early Abstinence From Drugs and Alcohol

The Second Stage of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Recovery

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Early Abstinence Is a Tough Stage of Recovery. © Getty Images

If you have committed to getting help for your alcohol or drug abuse and have sought professional treatment, you will soon begin a phase of your rehabilitation known as early abstinence or early sobriety.

The toughest part of trying to recover from alcohol and drug problems comes during this stage when a number of issues make it difficult to focus on learning to live a sober life and make trying to stay clean and sober a struggle.

It is the second of four stages of recovery or rehab defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  1. Treatment initiation
  2. Early abstinence
  3. Maintenance of abstinence
  4. Advanced recovery

Treatment Issues

If you have entered a specialized alcohol and drug treatment facility or you are getting professional help from a physician's office or outpatient clinic, you will work with trained addiction specialists, which can include counselors, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and social workers.

In the early abstinence phase of your treatment, they will help you recognize the medical and psychological aspects of alcohol and drug withdrawal, identify triggers that prompt you to use drugs or alcohol, develop techniques of avoiding triggers and learn to handle cravings without using.

Following are some of the issues that your counselor will try to help you with during the early abstinence stage of recovery:

Addiction and Associated Symptoms

If you have sought help to quit drinking or doing drugs, chances are you have developed some level of chemical dependence or addiction to your drug of choice. Your counselor will help you identify behaviors you have exhibited that could be considered addictive, such as how much time and effort you have put into pursuing your drug and your continued use in spite of negative consequences.

Your counselor will also discuss the health effects that can be caused by your substance abuse, and by your withdrawal from it. If you were an intravenous drug user, for example, your counselor will try to determine if you have engaged in other high-risk behaviors and if you may have contracted the HIV virus.

As with all of these treatment issues, the goal of the counselor is to educate you about the risks and dangers so that you can begin to make more healthy choices in your life.

Relapse Triggers

It's likely that during your substance abusing days you associated your drinking or drug use with certain people, places, and things. Perhaps you always stopped by the same bar or you only used drugs when around certain people. You may have had a favorite glass you drank from or a favorite crack pipe. All of these can be triggers that can cause you to relapse.

It is absolutely critical to your continued abstinence that you avoid the triggers and other high-risk situations. Your counselor will help you identify the people, places and things that you associate with your drug use and help you develop strategies for avoiding these triggers.

The caseworker or counselor will also help you learn to develop alternative responses to high-risk situations when they do occur, such as someone offering you drugs or being in social situations where alcohol will be served.

Filling the Time

If you are seeking help for an alcohol or drug problem, you probably spent a great deal of time with your drug of choice. One of the symptoms of addiction is the amount of time the drug use assumes in the user's life. Many addicts organize their entire daily routine around obtaining, administering, and recovering from the effects of their drug.

Once you quit using, there will be a void in your daily schedule and/or a sense of loss. You may be used to a daily schedule that is chaotic and disorganized, due to your drug pursuits. You may find it difficult imagining what you will do now that you are no longer using drugs.

Your counselor will work with you to develop a daily or weekly schedule to help you begin to structure your time and to replace your drug-seeking and using activities with healthy alternatives. Order and structure can help to lessen the risk of relapse.


Not everyone experiences cravings during early abstinence, but for those who do, it can become overwhelming. Craving is a strong urge to return to drinking or using drugs. Craving can be both physical and psychological to the point that you can become obsessed with thinking about using again.

The counselor will help you recognize what craving feels like and learn that it is temporary and will pass. More importantly, your counselor will try to help you learn that you have choices; you can choose to "sit the craving out." You do not have to respond to the urge in a self-damaging way.

The longer you remain abstinent, the fewer cravings you will have and the less intense they will become. But if you give in to the urge, they will remain strong.

Continue Social Pressures, Use of Other Drugs

If you seek professional help for an alcohol or drug problems, these are some of the issues that your counselors will help you with during the early abstinence stage of your recovery.

Social Pressures

For many alcoholics and addicts, their entire social life revolve around their drinking buddies or drug-using friends. After you enter recovery, you may find that most, if not all, of your friends were other alcoholics or addicts.

These "friends" can put a tremendous amount of pressure on you to relapse.

They may not want you to recover, because if they accept that you are an alcoholic or an addict, that means that they probably are, too. Consequently, they may blatantly or subtly try to sabotage your recovery.

Your counselor will strongly encourage you to avoid your old friends at all costs during early abstinence. You will be encouraged to make new, sober friends. You will also be encouraged to participate in support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, where you can develop positive relationships with drug-free and recovering people.

Postacute Withdrawal Symptoms

The physical withdrawal symptoms from quitting alcohol and drugs go away in a relative short time, usually less than a week. But many alcoholics and addicts will experience long-lasting changes in mood, affect, and memory throughout early abstinence.

Symptoms can include anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and memory loss. These symptoms are known as postacute withdrawal symptoms.

If you develop any of these symptoms during your treatment, your counselor will try to help you realize that they are the result of your alcohol or drug use and are not independent, fundamental problems.

You will learn that these symptoms can't be self-medicated and will only become worse with further drug use. And like cravings, they too shall pass.

Use of Other Drugs

You may decide that you are really only addicted to your drug of choice, although you frequently use another drug or drugs as well. If you used cocaine, for example, you may not consider your alcohol consumption to be at a problem level. Or if you were a problem drinker, you may consider smoking marijuana to be less harmful.

During your treatment, your counselor will encourage you to achieve total abstinence. Here are the reasons that total abstinence is critical to your recovery:

  • Other drugs, such as alcohol, can trigger a craving for your drug of choice.
  • You might transfer your addiction from one drug to the other.
  • If you continue using, you will not learn how to cope without mood-altering aids.

Although your current use of other drugs may not currently be a problem, if continued, they could quickly become substitutions for your drug of choice.

Getting Through Early Abstinence

This stage of recovery is not easy, which is why few manage to accomplish it without help. If you are in a professional treatment program, you will receive support and encouragement you need to make it. You will set and meet goals that are necessary for your continued recovery.

Your counselor will help you establish a drug-free lifestyle that involves participating in support groups; avoiding social contact with drug-using friends; avoiding high-risk situations and triggers; and replacing your former drug-related efforts with healthy recreational activities.

You will be given the tools you need to live a clean and sober life.

Return to The Four Stages of Recovery


National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide." Revised 2007.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "An Individual Drug Counseling Approach to Treat Cocaine Addiction: The Collaborative Cocaine Treatment Study Model." Accessed May 2009.

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