How Does Rehab Work?

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The opioid epidemic has captured the public’s attention with its frightening death toll. Yet, opioid addiction represents a comparatively small amount of total drug addiction in the US. Of the approximately 20 million Americans who struggle with substance abuse, opioid abuse accounts for around 10 percent.

When someone struggling with substance abuse or their loved ones look into treatment options, they’ll typically find lots of references to rehab. Of course, saying someone should enter rehab to get help for their addiction isn’t particularly enlightening.

You might ask questions like:

“What happens in rehab? What are the treatments? Is vocational rehab something different?”

If these sound like questions you’ve asked yourself, keep reading for an overview of how rehab works.


Detox is often one of the more confusing aspects of the rehab process for anyone new to substance abuse treatment. Part of the confusion stems from where detox happens and part of it stems from its relationship to rehab overall.

Let’s start with what the detox process actually accomplishes. Detox is, in a nutshell, a preliminary process where a person purges a drug or alcohol from their system while under medical supervision.

You can safely, if very uncomfortably, detox from some drugs by yourself. In the case of alcohol or benzodiazepines, for example, the withdrawal symptoms can prove medically dangerous. That’s why it’s almost always best to enter a detox program rather than try to detox on your own.

Now let’s clear up the confusion about location. Some rehab centers offer on-site detox and some facilities serve as standalone detox centers. Both options provide the same services.

Rehab centers that provide detox often do so in order to better integrate detox with their rehab programs. For example, they can start laying a little groundwork for future treatments. They’re also up to speed on any medications prescribed to you during detox.

What remains consistent is that most rehab programs required that you go through a detox program before you enter.

Residential Rehab

For anyone with a long-term addiction or addiction to more potent drugs, the primary treatment recommendation is an inpatient or residential rehab program.

During a residential program, you stay at the rehab center full-time. In most cases, you share a room with another patient but some high-end programs offer individual rooms for a fee.

As a general rule, rehab programs keep you on a strict schedule for most of the day. In part, this helps keep your mind engaged and off of drinking or taking drugs. It’s also a way for the center to maximize the value of the time you reside there.

Rehab centers all make use of evidence-based treatments, such as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
  • Individual Counseling
  • Group Therapy
  • Family Therapy
  • Relapse Prevention

Some rehab centers also provide alternative or holistic therapies. A few you might see include art therapy, mindfulness, yoga, and nutrition therapies. It’s also common for rehab centers to introduce patients to peer support or self-help programs, which we’ll cover in more depth below.

Most residential rehab programs last for about one month. It’s not unusual, however, for rehab centers to offer programs that last three or even six months. It’s not an absolute truth, but people who spend longer in a residential program tend to do better over time.

Vocational Rehab

Vocational rehab is typically a sub-program found in residential rehab programs. Stress is a very common reason that people relapse and not having a job is very stressful.

Vocational rehab programs help those in rehab and early recovery re-enter the workforce. This can involve helping people revise or write resumes or find training programs they can enter. It cane ven mean helping them enter into GED program so they have a core educational stumbling block cleared from their path.

Each patient brings a different educational background and set of skills to the table. That means vocational rehab must prove adaptable and customizable to succeed.

Outpatient Rehab

Outpatient rehab falls into two main categories: intensive and non-intensive outpatient rehab.

Intensive outpatient rehab or IOP functions in a very similar way to residential rehab. The primary difference is that you treat rehab like your full-time job instead of your entire life. You spend evenings and nights at home, but you spend your days attending therapy and group sessions just like you would in a residential program.

Your non-intensive or standard outpatient program functions more like a second job. While your days remain free for you to return to work, you go back to the rehab center on weekends and in the evening.

Many rehab patients step down from residential to IOP to standard outpatient rehab on their road to sobriety. It provides continuity of support while granting you increasing freedom to pick up your life without drugs or alcohol.

Peer Support Groups and Self-Help Programs

While it’s not always explicitly stated, peer support groups and self-help programs often play a key role in the rehab process. Research suggests that 12-step programs and other peer support programs provide benefits, such as:

  • improved self-efficacy
  • higher rates of drug or alcohol abstinence
  • reductions in cravings

Some people find the religious implications built into 12-step programs unappealing. Other self-help programs, such as SMART Recovery, offer similar peer support options like group meetings. They also typically provide more individual-centered guidance, like worksheets, reading lists, and self-assessments.

The true value of these peer support programs is that they provide you with a group of people who understand your struggles from the inside.

Parting Thoughts on How Rehab Works

Rehab is a multi-stage process that touches on almost every part of your life.

Detox helps you manage the physical pains of withdrawal. Residential and vocational rehab touch on your motivations, family, and even job prospects. Peer support touches your ongoing capacity to steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

Addiction Treatment Services helps connect you with the right treatment centers. If you find yourself or a loved one mired in substance abuse, contact us today and let us help you find the assistance you need.