You made it through detox and a substance abuse treatment program. Now you’re ready to say goodbye to addiction and jump back into normal life, right? Not so fast.

Men and women who have successfully completed addiction treatment benefit from a continuing care program, also called aftercare. Continuing care is the phase of treatment that follows more intensive care, whether that is residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP) or an intensive outpatient program (IOP).

In continuing care, individuals in recovery participate in group and individual counseling, attend self-help meetings, receive ongoing psychiatric care for co-occurring mental illness, and possibly undergo drug and alcohol monitoring. Together, these elements help individuals in early recovery develop healthy routines, strengthen recovery skills, stay accountable and maintain their motivation to stay sober.

Studies indicate that the longer individuals participate in continuing care, the more likely they are to avoid relapse.

“Addiction is a chronic brain disease and we have to treat it as such,” explains Dr. William S. Jacobs, Bluff Plantation medical director and chief of addiction medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. “We can’t treat this like an acute illness. This is about having your brain hijacked by drugs. If we treat this like the chronic illness that it is, then patients are going to need to do maintenance therapy just like a diabetic does to maintain their blood sugar.”

Addiction treatment lays the foundation for recovery

Whether you’re seeking care in a residential substance abuse program, PHP or IOP, each program has a clear start and end date. Patients can make a significant progress in a month or two of intensive addiction rehab. A lot happens during that time. In Bluff Plantation’s residential addiction treatment program, patients begin by ridding the body of alcohol and drugs in detox, so that they can start to heal physically and mentally from the toxic substances.

Patients receive help with restoring normal sleep and eating habits. They participate in various forms of therapy in individual and group settings designed rebuild their sense of self, overcome shame and guilt associated with addiction, and learn to cope with cravings without resorting to drug or alcohol use. Patients are exposed to holistic and experiential therapies, such as yoga, animal-assisted therapy, exercise therapy, horticulture therapy and culinary arts therapy.

Patients are assessed by psychiatrists who can diagnosis and treat co-occurring disorders, adjust medications as needed and provide psychotherapy to help patients deal with symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Men and women can receive help in dealing with past trauma. They also learn, or re-learn, how to effectively communicate and connect with others when not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as well as identify pursuits and activities to enjoy in sobriety. In family therapy, patients and their loved ones begin the work of undoing the damage caused by the addiction and the selfish, reckless and destructive behavior associated with drug and alcohol addiction.

Sounds like a lot right? It is. Addiction goes deeper than just substance use. People often have many types of issues to work through, relationships with themselves and others to repair, co-occurring disorders to deal with, and insomnia and poor nutrition habits to overcome. They need to figure out who they are as sober individuals. The brain itself also takes time to return to normal functioning. The intensive treatment phase is just the start of recovery work. People need many months or years of support from a clinical team, their peers as well as family and friends – along with their own personal commitment to sobriety – to prevent relapse. That’s why continuing care is important.

“We want them to do well in treatment while they’re here with us, but we also want them to achieve lifelong recovery, which is possible with the right treatment and the right continuing care,” Jacobs said.

Let’s use the analogy of building a house: addiction treatment lays the foundation, but continuing care helps individuals build the structure they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, nurture healthy friendships and relationships with family members, and resist the temptation to use.

Benefits of aftercare in drug and alcohol rehab

When an individual leaves drug and alcohol treatment, he or she returns to the “real world.” Jobs, family responsibilities and just day-to-day-life can be stressful and frustrating. Drugs and alcohol may be readily accessible, making it all too easy to give in to a craving. For people in early recovery, those weeks and months after rehab can be treacherous. They have developed new skills and strategies to support sobriety during the intensive treatment phase, but they haven’t had a chance to test those skills in triggering situations.

An aftercare or continuing care program provides the support and structure to keep people on track, so that the good habits needed to maintain sobriety have the time and space to become a way of life.

Continuing care includes:

Recovery coaching: Recovery counselors, also called recovery coaches, at Bluff Plantation help patients set goals, develop the life skills necessary for healthy relationships and productive careers, and assist with overcoming barriers to recovery. Recovery counselors help people in recovery identify triggers, and come up with practical solutions for coping with or avoiding triggers. Recovery coaches also offer encouragement and inspiration from a place of deep understanding and compassion. They offer case management to monitor progress, help patients become involved with sources of community support and sober recreation, and arrange for additional treatment for co-occurring problems as needed. Learn more about Bluff Plantation’s recovery counselors.

Peer support: Individuals in early recovery benefit from fellowship with others who are also in recovery. Peer support also provides a group of caring individuals who men and women in recovery can turn to when they’re having a bad day, or when they’re celebrating a success and want others to share it with. Having friends or sponsors who are also in recovery can help people avoid the tendency to isolate, which can be a precursor to relapse.

Bluff Plantation’s alumni group provides an opportunity to connect with others who have walked a similar path, who know the struggles and who are rooting for your recovery. Mutual aids groups such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are also great ways to develop a network of sober peers. As part of aftercare at Bluff Plantation, we ensure patients have identified mutual aid groups in the community where they feel most comfortable. There are also many alternatives to AA and NA.

Clinical team continuity: It’s not easy for addicts to open up, express their emotions and allow others to help them. In treatment, many patients eventually let down their guard and develop strong, trusting relationships with their clinical team, including psychiatrists, therapists and counselors. As part of continuing care, former patients can continue to keep in touch with their clinical team. The clinical team will also collaborate with other psychiatrists, therapists and counselors who the patient may see going forward.

Accountability: Drug and alcohol testing after a person has ended addiction treatment has been shown to be an important element of continuing care. A big reason for ongoing substance use testing is that if a patient tests positive for alcohol or drugs, the clinical team can quickly intervene and guide the individual back into more intensive care. Stopping a relapse early on may help the individual avoid the dangerous and potentially deadly situations that result from using drugs and alcohol. Getting back into treatment after relapse can help the person quickly get their recovery back on track.

For these reasons and more, continuing care should be considered a crucial phase of any addiction treatment program. Continuing care provides the support that can help people stay sober during the transition out of treatment and into their newly sober lives, the opportunity to receive ongoing treatment for co-occurring conditions, as well as the opportunity to participate in ongoing group and individual therapy that helps patients thrive as sober individuals.