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Using Therapy To Treat Alcohol Addiction

When someone is addicted to alcohol or dependent on the substance, they may choose to go to therapy for alcohol addiction treatment. Therapy is used throughout the recovery process, in many different stages.

In the beginning, it’s used to help addicts realize that they may have a problem. After detox, it’s used to reinforce healthy coping mechanisms and help ensure that addicts have a tool kit at their disposal. Many of those struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) continue using therapy as a resource far into their recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous and other group therapies are a good example of this.


Psychotherapy is one of the most common types of therapies used for treating an AUD. Oftentimes referred to as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy is used to help people get their feelings out in the open. Therapists will help their patients learn to manage any unhealthy relationships (including those with alcohol or drugs) and deal with any trauma or tragedy they’ve had to deal with.

In psychotherapy sessions, therapists and patients usually spend their time talking about past trauma and events. This delving into the past can help many people realize why certain things are happening in the present day.

Psychotherapy is also great for helping people to sleep better, resolve current conflicts, and cope with any major life changes. While psychotherapy is a great way for addicts to talk out their feelings, it’s not as effective as cognitive behavior therapy or other goal-based therapies.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that’s based on several core principles, such as:

  • Psychological problems are based in faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking or on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  • People who are suffering from psychological issues are capable of learning better ways to cope.
  • By learning new coping methods, people can relieve their symptoms and become more effective in their daily lives.

CBT is used to change one’s thinking pattern in order to stop the flow of negative thoughts through one’s sub-conscious. Many people spend their days beating themselves up or telling themselves that they’re not good enough. CBT combats that notion, helping people to learn healthier ways of talking to themselves.

For those with an AUD, CBT can help create strategy while teaching them how to be their own therapists. By learning these new, healthy coping mechanisms, they may turn to alcohol less as an escape.

One study found that 60% of patients using CBT provided a clean toxicology screen at their 52-week follow up. That means that one year later, over half of people in CBT were still clean.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a modified version of CBT, with a main goal of helping patients live in the moment. To do this, DBT teaches healthy coping mechanisms and helps patients find better ways to regulate their emotions and improve their relationships with family and friends.

DBT was originally created to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD) but has been adapted to treat many other mental health conditions throughout the years. DBT focuses on the development of mindfulness skills to avoid negative thought patterns and impulsivity.

DBT also teaches distress tolerance and emotion regulation, which can help patients accept themselves and their current situation, allowing them to be more open to help and change.

Contingency Management

Contingency management (CM) is a type of therapy that’s wildly popular in the addiction community. It’s often used in group settings to incentivize addicts. By offering incentive-based interventions, there’s an increase in treatment retention and abstinence.

CM gives patients a tangible reward to reinforce their positive behaviors, such as staying clean. In many groups, each negative ethanol test or session attended gives a patient one prize entry. If the patient fails an ethanol test or misses a session, they lose all their entries.

Offering prize entries each week to patients encourages them to continue staying sober so they have a higher chance of winning the cash (or other) prize. Studies not only found that this method was successful in group settings, but also that it didn’t promote gambling behavior.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

Motivational enhancement therapy (MET) is often the therapy type used when patients are apprehensive about receiving treatment for their addiction. MET helps to reduce those nerves and promote the benefits of engaging in a treatment program.

With an initial assessment and 2 to 4 follow up sessions, MET counselors are able to strengthen motivation and build a plan for their patients. These plans often involve developing strategies and coping mechanisms for triggering situations. Throughout these sessions, the counselor will monitor progress and continue to encourage the patient to commit to their treatment program.

MET has a history of success with alcoholics, with a track record of improving their engagement in treatment programs while reducing their drinking problem.

Family Behavior Therapy

Family behavior therapy (FBT) is a great way to include family and friends in one’s recovery journey. FBT is often used for young alcoholics or alcoholics who have children. The sessions attended together aim to teach behavioral strategies that can be applied at home.

Patients are also encouraged to develop behavior goals to work on throughout the program. Parents should set goals that are rooted in effective parenting. For example, attending more of their child’s events, or being on time to pick them up from school.

When these goals are accomplished, rewards are provided by the family member or friend who attended the sessions with them. Much like contingency management, this act of rewarding good behavior has shown to be very effective in the addition community.

12-Step Facilitation Therapy

Many alcoholics are apprehensive about joining a 12-step program or other type of group therapy. 12-step facilitation therapy is a method used to encourage alcoholics to engage in further treatment programs after leaving inpatient or outpatient treatment.

There are 3 steps involved in 12-step facilitation therapy:

  1. Acceptance
  2. Surrender
  3. Active involvement

By accepting that they have a problem, surrendering themselves to the higher power or giving themselves over to recovery, and actively involving themselves in the program, they can achieve success.

Group Therapy And Continuing Recovery

Studies have found that Alcoholics Anonymous, a popular 12-step program is more effective than regular psychotherapy in achieving long-term sobriety. Studies also showed that participating in Alcoholics Anonymous reduced health care costs in addicts.

It’s easy to see why group therapy is effective, but Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences says it best, “If you want to change your behavior, find some other people who are trying to make the same change.”

The emotional support and practical tips that are shared within these groups are often enough to encourage one another to quit drinking for good, allowing many members to find success in recovery and reduce their risk of relapsing.

Finding A Therapist

The most important fact to know is that everyone is different when it comes to recovery. While some types of therapy will be highly successful for some, they may not work for others.

For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Megan Prevost | Last Updated: June 30, 2022

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    Megan Prevost

    Megan Prevost earned a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment from Full Sail University. Her work has appeared in many different publications, and she’s held columns and guest spots on LGBTQ+ and entertainment websites. Previously, she’s written copy and content for both law firms and healthcare clinics. She is proud to be able to use her writing ability to help the addiction and mental health communities.

  • Medical Reviewer: Deborah Montross Nagel

  • Sources