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Alcohol and Health

Why Does Addiction Rehab Fail for Some People?

March 13, 2024
20 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 13, 2024
20 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
March 13, 2024
20 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
March 13, 2024
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
March 13, 2024
20 min read

There’s an old saying that goes, "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." Addiction is a term we’ve all heard and seen the effects of — if we haven’t struggled with it ourselves, most of us have known someone who has. It can be devastating to watch a loved one lose everything — their job, family, health, personality, and sometimes even their life — by doing something that might seem easily controllable to an outsider.

When someone is struggling with addiction, rehab might emerge as a potential solution. Many of us remember Amy Winehouse singing in her trademark husky voice, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘No, no, no.’” This is not an uncommon response — if you have ever faced the prospect of going to rehab or tried to convince a loved one to go, you know it can be a difficult step to take. 

Unfortunately, even if we do decide to attend rehab, it’s not guaranteed to work. Tragically, Winehouse herself died from alcohol poisoning in spite of several attempts at recovery. At the same time, you may have heard stories of miraculous recoveries and how life-changing rehab can be.

So why does addiction rehab seem so hit or miss? Why do people go to rehab in the first place? And what can you do if rehab doesn’t work for you? Let’s find out more.

Understanding Addiction

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Before we get into the details of rehab, let's quickly understand why someone might end up there in the first place. Scientifically, addiction is a complex condition marked by an overwhelming urge to use a substance in spite of its harmful consequences. At the neurological level, it arises in the reward system located in the primitive, subconscious part of the brain. This system evolved to motivate us to form patterns around behaviors that feel good and ensure our survival, such as eating and reproduction. 

Unfortunately, the same mechanism that evolved to keep us alive can get hijacked by unhealthy behaviors such as substance use, gambling, and other activities associated with the release of dopamine — the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that’s released in response to healthy and unhealthy pleasures alike.

When we feed our brain a constant supply of “free” dopamine, it develops a growing dependency on the substance or activity and starts adjusting to its “new normal.” This shift sets in motion a cycle that can be challenging to break. The hijacked brain’s dopamine-driven habit system drives us toward the perceived reward at any cost: it's disorienting, challenging, and can be very slippery since the subconscious brain doesn’t listen to reason. Often, even if we realize we’re trapped, it’s not a matter of “just stopping,” since continuing the habit literally feels like a matter of survival — even if it’s quickly driving us toward a metaphorical cliff.

Many people have found themselves at this challenging point: addiction is taking over their lives, families, careers, finances, and sense of self, and yet they don’t know how to stop. It’s a terrible trap to be stuck in. Fortunately, there are ways to break the cycle.

Where Did the Idea of Rehab Come From? 

Addiction goes way back, but a scientific approach to treatment is relatively new. Up until very recently, addiction was often seen as a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Treatments, if any, were crude and largely ineffective. As our understanding of psychology and neuroscience expanded, so did our approach to rehabilitation. Addiction is generally no longer viewed as a purely moral or social issue — we now understand it as a complex interplay of genetics, environment, and brain chemistry.

Today, there's a spectrum of treatment options available, from traditional 12-step programs and medication-assisted treatments to cognitive behavioral therapy and holistic approaches. We’re also finally seeing change when it comes to challenging the stereotypes and stigma around addiction and advocating for compassionate, evidence-based care. 

In recent years, technology has revolutionized the world of addiction recovery. In our own pocket, we can access information about alcohol and the way it affects us, tools to deal with cravings, and community support. (In fact, the Reframe app offers all of these!) These strategies can act as supplements or even alternatives to traditional rehab.

Where Rehab Comes In

Rehabilitation facilities can serve as a pivotal chapter in the story of overcoming addiction. Here's how rehab programs aim to address the insidious addiction trap:

  • Breaking the cycle. First and foremost, rehab serves to interrupt the addiction cycle. Whether through detoxification in a controlled environment or through structured therapy, it provides a much-needed break from the day-to-day patterns and triggers that fuel addiction.
  • Medical support. In the early stages, withdrawal can be physically challenging and even dangerous. Some facilities offer medical supervision and support to manage these symptoms safely, allowing the body to transition away from dependency as smoothly as possible.
  • Therapy and counseling. Addiction often has psychological components, and rehab provides various forms of therapy and counseling to help unpack them. Some popular approaches include individual therapy, group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and other techniques aimed at understanding and changing behaviors.
  • New perspective. Rehab can be a great place to learn about the science of addiction, the effects of alcohol on the body, and what strategies work for managing cravings and avoiding relapse. 
  • Building skills. It's one thing to stop using substances or engaging in addictive behaviors, but replacing these with healthy alternatives is a whole other story. Rehab often includes skill-building activities aimed at stress management, communication, problem solving, and other key life skills that support a sober lifestyle. This aspect of treatment can play a pivotal role in recovery, which isn’t just about avoiding certain substances or behaviors but about actively creating a life that feels meaningful and rewarding.
  • Supportive community. Rehabs foster a sense of community and mutual support. Sharing experiences with others who understand the struggle can make a huge difference. 
  • Relapse prevention. Rehab isn't meant to be a way to get through the day or the next month — instead, it’s all about rebuilding our life in a way that’s sustainable and free from addiction. It sets the stage for the future, which will inevitably include many challenges — ones that a relapse prevention plan can help address.
Types of Rehab

Types of Rehab: A Quick Tour

Today, there are more options than ever when it comes to rehab facilities, and it’s important to understand the differences between them. 

1. Detox Centers

Some people might need to go through a detoxification process before moving on to treatment that addresses the emotional and cognitive aspects of addiction. This is especially true for anyone who has developed alcohol dependence as quitting abruptly can be medically dangerous. 

Detox centers provide a safe environment to rid the body of addictive substances under medical supervision, clearing the way for further treatment. Usually, this means staying in a hospital-like setting with regular visits with doctors and daily activities to get started on other aspects of the recovery process. 

2. Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab involves staying at a residential treatment center, typically for 30-90 days. It's intensive and immersive, with medical and psychological care around the clock.

A stay at an inpatient facility is a full-package deal, kind of like an out-of-town work conference trip. No matter where the facility is physically located, patients usually stay on the grounds at all times as they undergo treatment that addresses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of their recovery.

3. Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Sitting somewhere between inpatient and outpatient, PHPs are for those who are looking for structured support but don’t need 24/7 monitoring.

PHPs are a bit like a rigorous day job. Participants arrive in the morning and spend several hours a day at the treatment center for therapy, medical care, skill-building, and meals, then go home in the evenings. 

4. Outpatient Rehab 

If inpatient rehab is an out-of-town conference, outpatient is more like a half-day company training. These programs are less disruptive to everyday life for those with fewer care needs and allow participants to work around jobs and family schedules. Outpatient rehab often serves as a step-down after a participant has “graduated” from inpatient treatment.

Participants live at home and continue with their daily lives but visit a treatment center for regular therapy and support sessions on an ongoing (though usually not daily) basis.

5. Sober-Living Homes

After an intensive rehab program, some people choose to live in sober- living homes — also known as halfway houses — to ease back into daily life in a supportive, substance-free environment. 

Living in a sober house is like having training wheels on our bike as we learn to ride again — the motions participants go through on a daily basis might look the same as regular home life, but there’s an extra layer of support as they rebuild healthy routines.

6. Alternative or Holistic Rehab 

Alternative or holistic programs might incorporate nontraditional treatment methods while focusing on treating the whole person, not just the addiction. The downside? They may not be covered by medical insurance, and some might not use science-backed approaches.

A holistic or alternative setting might be similar to a regular inpatient residential program but may have a more unique atmosphere and offer activities such as meditation, yoga, or acupuncture. (That said, the science-backed benefits of mindfulness-based activities are clear at this point, so it’s not uncommon to find them in traditional settings as well.)

Running Into Trouble: The Rehab Roller Coaster

Rehabs — just like the people they’re meant to help — come in many varieties and are not the same. It’s no wonder they yield different results! Some folks emerge feeling renewed, while others find themselves back where they started. It's not for lack of trying, though. It’s important to set ourselves up for success when it comes to recovery, so picking an option that’s likely to have us packing our bags to go home before we’re ready can sabotage our efforts.

Here's a look at why rehab might not stick for everyone:

  • One-size-fits-all approach. Many programs still subscribe to a standardized treatment plan, but when it comes to addiction recovery, personalization is key. For one thing, it needs to be practical. A single parent without a strong support network might not be able to stay in a residential facility for a month. The different program structures may not work for everyone, either. Some people do better with a certain amount of time — typically 30 days — in a structured environment, while others might be at a different stage of their journey and might not need this level of intensity. (Although there’s science behind the 30-day structure, it takes the brain about that long to build a new habit).
  • Philosophical differences. Just like a program structure that doesn’t meet our needs can set us up for failure, so too can a program that approaches recovery from a perspective that simply doesn’t align with our “addiction philosophy.” For logic-oriented people who value empirical strategies like CBT or DBT, a facility grounded in New Age spirituality is not the way to go. Likewise, someone who is motivated by spirituality or religion may not respond to a program that doesn’t nurture this part of them.
  • The dual-diagnosis dilemma. Unfortunately, mental health conditions often team up. For example, substance misuse can be accompanied by eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, or depression. It can be difficult to untangle this puzzle, and addressing these issues at the same time can be tricky but necessary. There’s also the potential for transfer addictions — when one addiction (for example, alcohol misuse) “evolves” into an addiction to a different dopamine-boosting drug or activity or an obsessive behavior like an eating disorder. While some dual-diagnosis facilities account for co-occurring disorders and transfer addictions, others do not.
  • Not being ready. This one is huge: being forced to go to rehab against our will or doing it for any reason other than wanting to get free from addiction can set us up for failure. While sometimes a “moment of clarity” can happen in spite of initial resistance, more often than not we need to be internally motivated in order to “deprogram” the subconscious wiring that’s driving our addictive behaviors.
  • Lack of aftercare. Rehab is just one part of recovery, and a lot of people make the mistake of seeing it as “finished” the moment they start the car ride back home. Recovery is a process! Without proper aftercare (such as having a support team lined up and resources to rely on), it's easy to fall back into old habits. While many facilities devote significant time and effort to planning for aftercare, this is not a given — and can become a dealbreaker. (Reframe can be a great support tool in your aftercare plan!)

What To Do If Rehab Doesn’t Work — Or If You Decide It’s Not for You

In spite of this, some might find that rehab is simply not the best solution for them — and that’s okay, too. There are other ways to address substance misuse (and alcohol misuse in particular). Although it can feel disheartening, don’t despair — it might just be a matter of creating a different roadmap to recovery. As we mentioned earlier, personalization is key when it comes to creating a plan that works, and chances are there are important pieces that need to be put into place. Let’s figure out what they are!

Here's what you can do if you find yourself at this crossroads, whether you’ve tried rehab and it hasn’t worked or you’re weighing it against other options:

  • Step back and reflect on what you need. First, take an honest look at the situation to understand what you’d like to change and what didn’t work in the approach you’ve tried so far (whatever it may have been). Was it the type of program? The environment? The treatment approach? Or maybe external factors, such as pressures from family or the need to leave early for financial reasons? Or were you simply not ready to change your relationship with alcohol quite yet? Understanding the "why" can help you plan the "what next?"
  • Talk to the pros (or revamp your team). Talk to the professionals who worked with you during rehab. Their insights can help you pinpoint specific areas that need tweaking. However, there’s also nothing wrong with switching things up and getting in touch with a new team of professionals to look at the situation from a different perspective. It’s your journey!
  • Build up your support network. While professionals are invaluable, so is the rest of your support team — friends and family members who are rooting for you and want you to get better. Recovery can be lonely and daunting at first, so having a strong network to rely on can provide the encouragement and accountability needed to continue. Online communities can also make an enormous difference — there’s a world of people traveling the same path you are and facing similar challenges who are ready to cheer you on.
  • Consider different treatment routes. Rehab is not one-size-fits-all. If one type of rehab didn't suit you, try a different one! For instance, you may find that switching from inpatient to outpatient (or vice versa) makes all the difference. Think about what you liked and disliked about your previous experience and go from there.
  • Mindfulness and stress management techniques. Fill your toolbox with techniques to manage stress and be present, such as breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Mindfulness isn't just trendy; it's a tool that can help you navigate cravings and triggers. Apps like Reframe can be great resources for making these techniques a daily practice that’s always available to you wherever you are!
  • Don't view relapse as failure. Finally, the most important point: if you find yourself slipping back into old habits, don’t see it as a failure or think that you have to “start from scratch” — it’s simply a detour. You started your recovery journey from the moment you decided to change your relationship with alcohol (or another substance or behavior), and there’s no such thing as “going back to square one.” Every attempt at recovery is a learning experience, contributing to a stronger, more informed effort next time.

“Not a Destination”

There’s another song that comes to mind when thinking about the journey of recovery — “Amazing” by Aerosmith. As the lyrics go, “Life’s a journey, not a destination — and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings.”

Recovery is, indeed, a journey, not a destination, and rehab is only one potential part of it. It might take several attempts to find what works for you. Remember, finding that rehab hasn't worked as hoped isn't the end — it’s a chapter in the long story of recovery. With the right adjustments, support, and mindset, you can continue to write a story of success. Keep believing in yourself and keep moving forward!

Summary FAQs

1. What exactly is addiction?

Addiction is a complex condition characterized by compulsive substance use or behaviors despite harmful consequences. It involves changes in the brain's reward and motivation systems.

2. How does rehab help with addiction recovery?

Rehab helps by interrupting the cycle of addiction, providing medical and psychological support, educating individuals about addiction, teaching new skills, offering peer support, and preparing a long-term relapse prevention plan.

3. How do different types of rehab address addiction?

There are several types of rehab, including inpatient, outpatient, and holistic approaches, each offering various therapies, support levels, and strategies tailored to individual needs and lifestyle.

4. Why do some people not succeed in rehab?

Success in rehab varies due to factors like the lack of personalized treatment, untreated co-occurring disorders, insufficient support networks, stigma, the perception of relapse as failure, and inadequate aftercare planning.

5. Can rehab be customized to individual needs?

Yes, effective rehab should be tailored to an individual's specific needs, preferences, and circumstances, including the type of addiction, personal history, co-occurring disorders, and lifestyle.

6. What should I do if rehab doesn't work for me?

Reflect on the experience, seek feedback, consider additional or alternative treatments, strengthen your support network, and develop a robust aftercare plan. Remember, relapse isn't failure; rather, it’s an opportunity to adjust your approach.

7. Is it normal to go to rehab more than once?

Yes, recovery is often a journey with setbacks and learning experiences. Going to rehab more than once can be a part of the process for many as they refine their strategies and understanding of their own needs and challenges.

Ready To Start a New Chapter in Your Life? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today! 

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