If you’re looking into going to rehab, you’ve probably been given the choice of either attending a traditional “28 day” recovery program or attending “long-term rehab”. Here, long-term rehab can extend anywhere from 60 days to upwards of 6 months. It might include a long-term stay in a residential treatment program. It might also include a shorter stay in a recovery facility followed up by long-term outpatient care and treatment.
No matter how long-term rehab takes shape, it’s actually based on real science. There are plenty of medical reasons why you might want to attend rehab and treatment for the longer term. And, while it’s obviously not the right solution for everyone, especially with financial and career concerns to think about, it can have real benefits for your life and your long-term recovery.
The original 28-day rehab was based on the faulty idea that it takes 21 days to change a habit. We know that’s not true. Today, we know that behavioral problems can take 3-6 months or more to change. In fact, a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that people take 18-254 days to form new habits. It’s nowhere near as cut and dried as people make it out to be.
So, if habits take longer than 21 days to form, it’s obviously beneficial to keep getting support for longer than that during recovery. That also aligns with what we know about how the brain works. For example, in most people, the grey matter in the brain don’t return to normal after an addiction for 3 months. At 3 months, most people are as physically recovered from substance use addiction as they will be for several years. So, it makes sense to extend touchpoints or ongoing support for at least that period. That’s especially true if you’re also getting nutritional and physical support and therapy during that period. For example, you can pull out of a significant number of nutritional disorders in a 90-day span, giving you space to feel physically good when you do leave recovery.
The News in Health website run by the U.S. government suggests that the best way to change a habit is to enlist long-term support. Getting consistent feedback, small rewards, positive feedback, and reminders to avoid tempting situations can help you to do much of the legwork of breaking old habits. Why? Habits are often built on routine. You drive past a liquor store on the way home from work, you used to stop there and buy a bottle every night. Now that you’re sober, you might still find yourself pulling into the parking lot on occasion, simply because habit drives you. You might not even particularly feel any cravings when you do. But, once you do, it’s easy to follow into the next steps of getting out of your car, buying a bottle, and drinking it. Taking time to have constant touchpoints and reminders not to follow that habit is just as important as changing the habit and, say, taking another route home from work.
Everyone has heard of terms like the dry drunk, a person who has physically recovered from alcohol use disorder but who still acts like an addict. Why does that happen? Often because that person is not mentally ready to recover and is still incapable of building new habits. Long-term alcohol and drug rehab give people the time they need to recover at their own pace, whether that’s 30, 60, 90, or 120 days. Different programs approach this in vastly varying ways, but it always ensures you have support for as long as you need it.
Modern substance use disorder treatment has a strong focus on aftercare and long-term recovery. Long-term rehab highlights that focus even more, because rather than getting weekly or monthly calls and meetings, you can keep getting daily calls, daily meetings, or even continue to live with your peers for as long as you need. Sometimes that also involves moving to a halfway house or sober house after your 3-6 months stay in rehab.
Having that support can also make a massive difference to your recovery. After all, many people leave rehab and immediately relapse without the structure and support of the clinic in place. That can result in going back to rehab, it can result in people quitting again immediately, and it can result in a full relapse. Having longer-term and ongoing support and structure means you get to build good habits before having to live without structure – giving you a much better chance at recovery.
For that reason, long-term drug rehab typically has a much higher focus on physical and mental recovery – using sports, nutrition, skills training, and other tactics to help you build the tools to live a healthy life. That won’t hold true with every program, but it does for many. Therefore, you can go into rehab and come out with habits for exercise, eating well, preparing food for yourself, taking care of your home and space, and regularly engaging in social activities with friends.
Another benefit of long-term rehab is that it gives your therapists and doctors a significantly better way to get to know you. They can see how you adapt and respond to treatment, not just in the first few weeks after detox, but as you move on to physical and mental health and recovery. That can allow them to offer significant personalization to your treatment program, moving you into specific treatment plans based on how you respond. That can have a significant impact on your total treatment, and it wouldn’t be possible in a shorter-term program. Of course, that does depend on the specific plan you choose.
Eventually, data directly correlates the length of treatment to the likelihood of success in recovery. The longer you get help and treatment, the more likely you are to be able to stay clean and sober when you graduate from the program. That remains true whether you’re staying in a clinic for the full duration, staying in a clinic and following up with outpatient treatment, or only getting outpatient treatment. A longer duration of care means you have more support and a better basis on which to build ongoing recovery on your own.