What Happens in Rehab?

Rehab facilities are often the first step to getting clean or sober. By providing a combination of medical and psychological care, skills development, and isolation from drugs and drug use, treatment centers can provide a gateway to allow substance abusers to find themselves so that they can learn how to stay clean.

However, choosing to attend rehab is a big step. If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, you are probably wondering what happens in rehab, how does it work, and what should you expect.

While every rehabilitation center is different and you will receive different care depending on the program and therapy you choose, most follow a similar treatment structure.

What Happens in Rehab Before Treatment

In most cases, you will follow a specific intake structure designed to give your counselor, therapist, and doctor’s the information they need to treat you appropriately.

Initial Consultation

During your initial consultation, your therapist, case worker, or representative will discuss your options, answer your questions, and help you with intake or preparatory planning. Here, you will learn about your possibilities and what your treatment will likely include. If you have a case worker, he or she will help you to set up the consultation.

Psychological Assessment

A quality rehabilitation center will perform a full psychological assessment before beginning your treatment. Here, an addiction psychiatrist will assess you to determine your mental state, whether you have a comorbid disorder such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc., so that the clinic can work to provide you with a better treatment plan.

Physical Assessment

A physician will work with you to determine the level of your addiction, any health problems that could affect your recovery or which may require treatment for you to be healthy. This will include a Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment to determine your level of addiction and the potential severity of your withdrawal.

Custom Treatment Plan

Your physician and psychologist will work together to create a custom treatment plan that meets your individual needs. This will include medical detox, a therapy schedule that meets your needs, a psychological reevaluation after detox, nutrition and physical coaching, complementary treatment, and aftercare.

What to Expect in Rehab

While every patient moves through the stages of addiction recovery at their own pace, your rehabilitation treatment will likely move through several stages which include different types of treatment and different goals or focuses. Knowing what to expect in rehab can help you to plan, make the right decisions for your needs, and choose whether to attend an inpatient or outpatient program.

beginningstreatment-what-happens-in-rehab-article-photo-man-eating-healthy-food-and-drink-detox-juice-645052519During detox, you will receive medical care to help you safely withdraw from your substance. However, a detox program will vary significantly depending on whether you choose an inpatient residential program or an intensive outpatient program. Step 1: Detox


Pharmacotherapy and medication management are offered in almost all rehabilitation programs. Here, your physician will administer medication to target specific substance use disorders, to prevent withdrawal symptoms and even to block the effects of a substance should you take it. Detox medication such as buprenorphine (Subutex), Disulfiram (Antabuse), Naltrexone (Revia), benzodiazepines (diazepam, chlordiazepoxide), anticonvulsants (Depakote, Tegretol), anti nausea medication, and antidepressants are used to treat patients detoxing from substances.

Some, like buprenorphine work to block the effects of substance abuse, so that even if you slip up and abuse, you do not get the high from it. Most are used to reduce withdrawal symptoms down to a safe level or to reduce them entirely, so that you can withdraw with minimal personal discomfort, without life threatening symptoms like seizures, or in an outpatient setting.

Inpatient Residential

In inpatient residential care, you are given full medical attention with full access to a physician, who will monitor your vitals, withdrawal symptoms, and administer medication such as methadone or Suboxone to help manage your withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient detox is typically held in a medical facility or in the clinic’s in-house medical detox center. This detox lasts up to about 14 days to ensure that drugs or alcohol are fully out of your system.


Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) are designed to help you through detox with minimal supervision, meaning that they are only suitable for patients with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms. Here, you typically visit a physician for 15-20 minute checkups once per day and detox typically lasts about 4-7 days. In most cases, your initial physical assessment will include a Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment, which will help your physician or counselor to determine if you qualify for ambulatory detox or if you must be referred to inpatient care to withdraw safely.

beginningstreatment-what-happens-in-rehab-article-photo-man-being-mad-at-his-fiance-in-their-living-room-90149077Early abstinence is defined as the first period of rehabilitation, typically beginning with detox. Here, your goal is almost entirely focused on moving past substance use and harmful behavior. Step 2: Early Abstinence

This is often considered to be the most difficult period of recovery, because you must overcome the strongest cravings, experience withdrawal symptoms, and begin to learn coping skills that will help you to remain clean or sober. After detox, you will begin to work with a therapist or trained addiction counselor who will help you to begin to overcome cravings and triggers, so that you can learn the tools to remain clean or sober after you leave.

Early abstinence typically involves moving through detox, beginning to learn new life skills, and learning to see your addiction in context as something that is treatable.

  • Understanding the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain and body

  • Learning to see substance use disorder in context with other health and behavioral problems

  • Understanding the process of withdrawal

  • Learning strategies for fighting and ignoring cravings and triggers

  • Identifying high-risk situations or triggers for substance abuse

  • Understanding cravings

  • Coping with cravings and triggers

  • Understanding abstinence

  • Understanding how prescription and over-the-counter medication affects your sobriety

  • Understanding and using support and mutual-help groups such as 12-step

  • Toxicology screening to ensure that you are not using

Maintaining abstinence programs are typically begun after you have been abstinent for a period of 30-90 days, and include long-term abstinence treatment, group therapy, aftercare, and ongoing recovery. Step 3: Maintaining Abstinence

Your maintaining abstinence stage will typically include skills development, coping skills, stress management, anger management, relaxation, self efficiency, nutrition, exercise, and other tools which you can use to build a healthy lifestyle.

In addition to continuing therapy you can expect to learn:

  • Relapse planning

  • Coping skills

  • Stress management skills

  • Advanced handling triggers

  • Responding to slips and substance use

  • Structuring your time

  • Handling negative emotions

  • Living with enablers

  • Managing a family dynamic

  • Rebuilding relationships

  • Understanding healthy vs. Unhealthy relationships

  • Daily living skills (money management, housing, legal assistance, etc.)

  • Spirituality

  • Parenting (where applicable)

  • Stress management and life balance

  • Nutrition

  • Fitness and health

beginningstreatment-what-happens-in-rehab-article-photo-positive-female-psychologist-shaking-hands-with-her-client-526088398Your rehab program will discharge you either after a certain number of days or after you have been deemed to be ready to remain clean or sober on your own. Step 4: Discharge

Discharge is typically 30-90 days after intake, but may extend as long as 18 months after intake. This is when you leave rehab completely and move into an aftercare program or sober house, seek out group support, and take up the responsibility of maintaining your substance free life on your own.

beginningstreatment-what-happens-in-rehab-article-photo-group-therapy-in-session-sitting-in-a-circle-with-therapist-168157913Most rehabilitation centers offer some form of aftercare, which will help you to ease back into your life, will help you to find and move into self-help groups such as 12-step groups, and will help you to adjust to your normal life and responsibilities. Step 5: Aftercare

An aftercare plan designed around your life to help you decide what to do in specific situations. For example, you may have specific strategies, people to contact, people to avoid, things to do or take care of, and specific strategies for coping in case of triggers.

Sober Living

A sober living home or sober home is a bridge between rehab and regular life, where you can live in a group home under supervised care. This can help you to adjust to living outside of rehab, while having someone available to help monitor you, provide accountability, and ensure that you do not start using again.

Alumni Program

An alumni program allows you to stay in touch with rehabilitation and other recovering addicts after discharge from a residential treatment program. Alumni programs help you to connect with others who have recovered, work to offer continued therapy, and provide encouragement and accountability through progress checks and follow ups.

Many residential treatment centers will require you to have remained sober outside of treatment for a certain amount of time (months to years) before enrolling in an alumni program. Others enroll newly recovered individuals to boost their contact with indivdiuals who have remained clean or sober for a long period of time. Alumni programs offer sober events, group meetings and therapy, support networks, and other services, but exact functions vary from group to group.

Ongoing Recovery

Ongoing recovery can include phone support, therapy, network assistance, and other aid depending on the rehabilitation program. In most cases, ongoing recovery includes support for 1 year or longer, allowing you to call to get help, to talk through cravings, and to see a therapist or addiction consultant as needed.

Group Therapy

Most aftercare will include an introduction to a group therapy that meets your personal goals and needs. This is important because it allows you to move away from your rehabilitation clinic and back into your life, without dropping the support and accountability that comes with it. Group meetings can help you to stay clean or sober by providing motivation, accountability, and like-minded friends who will listen and understand or help you with cravings.

There are many types of group therapy, and your rehabilitation center may offer their own, or they may connect you with a compatible program in your area.

How Does Rehab Work

A rehabilitation program works by giving you a structured plan that will help you to detox, undergo behavioral therapy, and learn skills to help you to stay clean or sober. Depending on the facility, this may include one or more of a variety of common treatment models and therapies.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a comprehensive treatment strategy designed to tackle both cognitive and behavioral problems in addiction. The treatment is divided into two stages: functional analysis and skills training. These allow you to first determine which areas of behavior and thinking cause problems and then work to fix them. CBT is evidence based and one of the most popular addiction therapies, because it is proven to reduce both short and long-term substance use. CBT includes individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and skills training.


Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a cognitive behavioral treatment designed to help patients recognize dialectical behavior, extremes of emotions, and addiction. DBT is unique in that it creates individual prioritization schedules for the patient, to attempt to tackle the most pressing issues first. DBT typically helps you deal with life threatening behavior, resistance to therapy, to improve your quality of life, and then to build skills and coping mechanisms, in that order. DBT is comparable to CBT in effectiveness, and includes individual therapy, coaching, group therapy, and phone coaching.


EMDR combines cognitive behavioral therapy with rapid eye movement treatment offering patients a combination of therapies. While somewhat controversial, many patients experience success with EMDR through the focus on building strong patient-therapist relationships, cognitive behavioral therapy, and thorough follow-up process for patients to ensure their success. EMDR includes primarily individual therapy divided into 8 phases of progress, moving you from addicted and learning about your addiction to processing emotions and behavior patterns, to learning skills and techniques to improve your life.

12-Step Model 

Many rehabilitation centers work using a 12-step model. Because 74% of all treatment centers offer some form of the 12-step model, it is highly likely to be available in any treatment center you choose. The premise of the 12-step model is that your group supports each other on your way towards getting clean, while learning skills, accepting a higher power, and building tools to have a happy and sober life.

Skills Development

Every rehab will include some form of skills development which will often include nutrition, stress management, anger management, and life skills. These will vary depending on the treatment center.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is an intrinsic element of nearly any rehabilitation program. Here, you will receive skills training, go over emotional and behavioral problems, discuss problems as a group, and work together to overcome obstacles. Group therapy allows you to be challenged and inspired by your peers who have experiences like your own, which can be crucial in helping you to overcome barriers to your recovery.

Complementary Therapies

Most rehabilitation centers offer a variety of complementary or alternative therapies to supplement primary therapy. These can be evidence-based but may not be, and may be elective or mandatory with the program depending on your treatment plan or your personal preference.

Nutrition Therapy

Nutrition therapy is a mandatory element of many rehabilitation programs, because it is a required element of complete rehabilitation. In nutrition therapy, you will receive a healthy diet, learn to care for yourself and eat so that your nutritional needs are met after leaving rehab, and possibly given intensive supplements to correct nutrition deficits while in therapy.

A proper nutrition schedule and plan is crucial to complete recovery because you need it to build your health, to completely recover from addiction, to fight cravings, and to reduce the damage caused by substance abuse. Because nutritional deficiencies can cause cravings, crashes similar to drug cravings, health problems, and depression, learning to manage and maintain a healthy diet enables you to recovery.

Exercise Therapy

Exercise is an increasingly mandatory element of rehabilitation because it helps your brain to recover so that you can be healthy. Light to moderate exercise has been shown to boost the mood, reduce cravings, and give you more energy, so that you feel better and are more prepared for the day.

Many rehabilitation centers offer programs designed to help you build exercise habits, learn safe and effective exercise options, and to simply enjoy working out with yoga, dance, aerobics, horseback riding, and other activities.


Mindfulness is a science-based complementary treatment that can help you to reduce stress, manage your emotions, manage cravings, and improve behavior patterns to reduce substance use or abuse. While not effective on its own, studies show that continued use of mindfulness greatly reduces the chances of relapse.


Equine therapy or horse therapy involves caring for, interacting with, and training with horses under the supervision of a mental health expert or counselor. This treatment is used to build responsibility, emotional awareness, responsibility, independence, impulse control, social responsibility, and self-awareness, all of which can help you to stay clean or sober.


Acupuncture is typically offered to help calm the body, stimulate blood flow, and stimulate nerves. In some cases, acupuncture may be part of a spiritual treatment as well, but not always. Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate neurotransmitter production, which can help relaxation and boosting the mood.

Music & Art Therapy

Art and music therapy works to give patients an outlet where they can relax, learn new skills, and focus on something outside of themselves. Like equine therapy, music and art therapy works to build self reliance, responsibility, habits, and impulse control, which can help you in other areas of recovery.

What’s Important in Rehab

Choosing a good rehab center means selecting a facility that can offer the kind of care and treatment that will help you to get clean or sober, support you as you work to improve yourself, and offer follow up care to help you adjust to living outside of rehab. The center you choose, what they offer, and how they approach treatment affects what happens in rehab, so it is crucial that you choose a clinic that can offer everything you need to recover.

Your Case Manager

Your case manager or counselor will control your experience at rehab. It is crucial that you be able to work with a quality and qualified case manager who cares about you and your well being.

Staff Qualifications

A good rehab center will provide qualified and trained staff, licensed nurses, and licensed therapists or psychologists. Rehabilitation facilities vary a great deal in quality, with some offering little more than glorified hotel service so it is important that you seek out a facility with a fully qualified staff who can offer you the in depth medical and psychological care that you need.


 Your therapist or counselor should be fully qualified, but should also be able to build a relationship with you. Treating patients with addiction often means looking past the addiction to find the roots of that addiction, including emotional and behavioral problems, and your therapist must be willing to do the work to achieve that. This necessitates treating you as a person with problems not as an addict, so that the therapist can treat you and not just your addiction.

Structured Plans for Recovery

A good rehab center should offer structured plans for therapy, treatment, activities, and group activities, so that you know what to do and why. Planning your recovery ensures that every aspect of your recovery is accounted for, including nutrition, exercise, behavioral therapy, etc. While structured plans are important, your facility should also work to update treatment plans based on new information, so that you always receive the most relevant treatment.


Inpatient rehab is isolated and prevents you from seeking entertainment outside of the facility. It is important that your facility provide a variety of activities and entertainment options. While basic rehab centers will provide table games like ping pong, this can become boring and demotivating over a period of 30-90 days. A quality rehab facility will offer a wide variety of entertainment such as a swimming pool, ball-based sports like tennis or baseball, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, or even surfing if you are attending near an ocean.

Paying attention to amenities will allow you to choose a facility that stimulates your imagination, allows you to inspire and motivate yourself, and makes it easy for you to find something healthy to do. Activities like swimming, biking, or playing baseball relieve stress, provide an outlet from therapy, and can help you to learn to enjoy yourself without substances.

beginningstreatment-what-happens-in-rehab-article-photo-portrait-of-a-happy-teenager-girl-smiling-and-looking-at-side-outside-on-the-beach-376393804If you’re wondering what happens in rehab, learning about a typical day in a treatment center will give you an excellent idea of what to expect and how it works. Your day in rehab will change dramatically depending on whether you choose inpatient or outpatient care. A Typical Day in Rehab

Inpatient Residential

Inpatient care involves a very structured and organized day, which plans your activities, progress, and treatment throughout the day. While much of the day is planned, it is set at a pace which reduces stress while allowing you time to relax, interact with other patients, and take part in voluntary activities or entertainment. While specific amenities and opportunities will vary depending on the treatment center, you can expect a typical day in rehab to follow this pattern:


You will likely be woken early in the morning, at the same time every day, to enjoy a healthy breakfast. Meals may be taken in your room, but will more likely be held in a cafeteria or dining room style communal room.

Morning Meditation or Yoga

Many treatment programs introduce a morning meditation, mindfulness, or yoga class, before or shortly after breakfast, to help you relax and begin the day.

Own Time

You may get a few hours of time to yourself after a group session, which you can use to relax, read, meditate, or enjoy the facility’s amenities.


You will be served a healthy lunch in a community setting.

Group Session

You will likely attend a morning group therapy session shortly after breakfast. This session may follow the 12-step program or may follow CBT or DBT style group therapy. These daily sessions will change in topic, but will often have a theme, will allow participants to discuss their personal experiences, and will focus on building skills, discussing problems, and learning coping skills.

Individual Therapy

You will meet with your counselor or therapist to receive therapy or treatment. This is typically CBT or DBT, but may be another style depending on the facility. Here, you will work closely with your therapist to identify triggers, reasons behind substance use, behavioral responses, emotional responses, and other barriers to you getting clean.

Counseling and Classes

Depending on your personal problems, you may receive sessions to help you handle anger, stress, grief, or other emotions. These classes often revolve around your personal issues, but may be group or one-on-one depending on the intensity of your personal issues.

You will also receive nutrition classes, exercise classes, and any other programs that your personal treatment program suggests for your recovery. These may be held daily, or spread out throughout the week depending on your treatment center.

Family Therapy

Depending on the day of the week and the rehabilitation center, you may receive family therapy with friends. Here, you will resolve issues, address emotions and hurts with family, and listen to them doing the same. Family therapy is often crucial to rebuilding relationships so that you can function as part of a family unit after being discharged.

Group Therapy

After some time off, you will likely attend another group therapy session with another theme.


You will likely be free for several hours to relax, entertain yourself, and visit the facility’s amenities. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and journaling are all encouraged to help you recover.


You will attend a meeting with other patients, where you will be given a discussion theme, allowed to talk, and discuss issues. These meetings may follow a 12-step format.


Most rehabilitation programs follow the adage of “early to bed and early to rise”. You will likely be encouraged to go to bed at a reasonable hour to build healthy habits.


You will be served a healthy dinner.

Intensive Outpatient Program

An intensive outpatient program is significantly more relaxed and less structured than an inpatient program because it is designed to allow you to attend to work and other responsibilities throughout the program.

You live in your own home or a sober living home, set your own hours, go to work, take care of family, or otherwise handle responsibilities. In most intensive programs, you can expect to attend therapy and group sessions for 3-6 hours per day, during which you will experience therapy, skills training, group therapy, and sometimes complementary therapies. Educational sessions are typically 1-2 hours each, family therapy is about the same, and CBT or DBT is typically 1.5-3 hours in length.

Morning Sessions

In some cases, you may be able to attend morning therapy sessions.

Evening Sessions

Evening sessions are typically held after 6 PM, sometimes after 8PM, allowing you to leave your workplace and drive to rehab.

Decreasing Intensity

Many intensive outpatient programs begin with daily meetings of 3-6 hours, but decrease in intensity after the first 30-90 days.

Understanding what happens in rehab, how it works, and what to expect can help you to make the best decision, choose a treatment model that works for you, and even help you to come to terms with the decision to go. Hopefully this information is enough to guide you towards a decision.

If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, it is crucial that you get help. A rehabilitation center can help you to detox and build the tools you need to stay clean or sober so that you get your life back.