Learn / What Happens in Residential Rehab?

What Happens in Residential Rehab?

Hannah Friedman
 February 3rd, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

There are a lot of stereotypes about rehab—and a lot of misinformation. You can’t always trust what you read about celebrities or see on TV. So what actually happens during inpatient treatment?

The specifics depend on your exact rehab program. But in most centers, treatment includes several different types of therapy, group activities, and long-term recovery planning.

The Goals of Inpatient Rehab

Rehab isn’t just about getting sober. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your life and plan for a better future. In most residential programs, you’ll work toward a few key objectives during your stay.

Detox From Drug Use

Some people may have to medically detox before starting rehab. You might do this in a hospital setting, medical detox center, or sometimes at the rehab itself. Talk to your treatment team about which option is best for you.

Whether or not you have physical symptoms, detox can be difficult. But some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. Medical detox is especially important if you’re in recovery from opioid, alcohol, or benzodiazepine addiction. During this process you’ll stop taking the substance and let it exit your system, which usually causes withdrawal symptoms.

Detox usually lasts a few days.1 But some drugs, like opioids, can take up to 14 days to completely leave your system. And even then, you might still experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Manage Cravings

Cravings are a common part of recovery.2 And in early recovery, your cravings may be especially severe. An important part of rehab is learning how to manage these cravings to prevent relapse3 in the future.

Some rehabs may prescribe medications to reduce cravings, like methadone for opioids or naltrexone for alcohol. This can help you focus on recovery, with fewer intrusive thoughts. Many therapists will also teach you ways to manage your cravings, like breathing or meditation techniques.4

Address Underlying Issues

In most cases, addiction is a result of a larger issue5 in your life. Maybe you’ve been taking club drugs to release stress or reduce social anxiety. Or maybe drinking helps you ignore traumatic childhood memories. But in the long term, drug use makes these problems worse. Your addiction can even mask serious mental health issues.6 Residential treatment encourages you to address the root cause of your own behavior.

Learn New Coping Strategies

Life is never perfect, and addiction recovery won’t solve all your problems. But it can give you the tools you need to cope with stress effectively. You may find that a daily yoga practice keeps you calm, or that keeping a journal helps you work through triggers. In residential rehab, you’ll have time and space to find the strategies that work best for you.

Build a New Daily Routine

When you’re in rehab, recovery is your only responsibility. Depending on the program, you may spend time in 1:1 therapy, group sessions, and reflecting on your own. You can also take advantage of complementary treatments, like music therapy or exploring the great outdoors. If you find value in these activities, you can keep doing them even after rehab.

Most rehab programs last between 30-90 days.7 That gives you enough time to learn, practice, and internalize a routine that supports your health. And when you leave rehab, these helpful habits can support your ongoing recovery.

How Does Treatment Work in Residential Rehab?

To accomplish those goals, many rehabs have a core program that guides your recovery journey.


When you first arrive at rehab, you’ll likely meet with a few different staff members. In these meetings, you’ll talk about your reasons for starting treatment. You can also ask them questions about the healing process. Each member of your care team will evaluate your health from a slightly different perspective:

  • A therapist will perform a psychological assessment. They may ask about your drug use, trauma, and mental health symptoms.
  • A doctor or nurse will give you a physical exam, so they can address any health issues during treatment. This exam normally includes a drug test.
  • Other specialists may evaluate you using their expertise. For example, a nutritionist might perform a review of your dietary habits.

Planning Your Recovery

Using the information from your assessment, your team will design a plan of care. The details of your treatment plan depend on your exact symptoms and goals.

In some rehabs, every patient follows a similar program. This clearly defined structure can help you get your life back on track. Other clients benefit from a more personalized approach. In that case, you might choose a center that offers individualized care.

Follow the Treatment Program

In most rehabs, each patient follows the same treatment program. But your team will also account for your unique needs. For example, if you have a history of sexual trauma, you may meet with a sex therapist in addition to other therapy sessions.

While there are countless approaches to treatment, a few philosophies are especially common:

  • 12-Step rehabs broadly follow the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and usually have a more standardized daily routine.
  • Hybrid rehab programs follow a core, evidence-based program and add complementary therapies to round out your treatment experience. Programming may be personalized to varying degrees.
  • Faith-based centers use spiritual pillars to guide your recovery, through religious readings or group prayers.
  • Holistic rehabs use alternative therapies to help you heal physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Finding a program that aligns with your values, life experiences, and goals can make the day-to-day life of inpatient treatment easier.

An Average Day in Rehab

Your days in rehab will probably be full. Boredom can trigger relapse, so many programs keep patients busy with a wide range of therapies and other activities. But most treatment plans also incorporate breaks in between these sessions. You may have time to meditate, or reflect on your own. Or you might choose to join a group recreational activity, like a hike or jam session.

Your exact daily schedule depends on the center. For example, at a rehab like Serenity Vista in Panama, your day is divided into morning, afternoon, and evening programming:

  • Early morning: You’ll start most days with a neighborhood group walk.
  • Breakfast
  • Morning therapy: After breakfast, you’ll have a 2-hour individual therapy session, followed by a 12-Step meeting.
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon group: This could be a 2-hour therapy session or recreational activity.
  • Family-style dinner

Weekends work a little differently. On those days, you may go on a group outing and even eat dinner off-site.

At Serenity Knolls, a 12-Step rehab in California, each day of the week has its own specific schedule. But most of them follow a similar format:

  • Breakfast
  • Meditation
  • 12-Step meeting, sponsor meeting, or group activity
  • Lunch
  • Group therapy, complementary therapy, family therapy, or medical care
  • Free time or journaling
  • Dinner
  • Lecture, discussion group, or gender-specific programming
  • Lights out

This type of structure can serve as a scaffold for your healing process. But some patients prefer more flexibility during treatment. Looking at a rehab’s sample schedule can help you choose the program that’s best for you.

Sources of Support in Residential Treatment

Strong relationships are a crucial part of addiction treatment, especially during early recovery. And even in rehab, you’ll have several sources of support to lean on.

Qualified Staff Members

In residential treatment, a team of trained professionals will guide you through recovery. Each of these experts offers a unique perspective.

  • Your primary therapist will likely act as your main point of contact. They may also take the lead on designing your plan of care.
  • Psychotherapists lead individual and group therapy sessions.
  • Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals address physical health issues and manage any medications you’re taking.
  • Support staff accompany you on group outings and provide emotional support throughout your recovery.

Fellow Patients

In most rehabs, you’ll go through treatment alongside a group of other patients. And your peers can provide a unique kind of emotional support. They may be in rehab for similar reasons, or they might share some of your recovery goals. But unlike your therapist, these people can connect with you on equal footing. Hearing someone else’s story can be hugely inspiring. These relationships also invite you to work on your interpersonal skills. So even before you leave rehab, you can see what it’s like to socialize without substance use.

Loved Ones

Depending on the tech usage policy at your rehab, you may be able to keep in touch with loved ones throughout treatment. And if your loved ones want to be more directly involved in your recovery, look for a program with family or couples therapy. Some rehabs even invite family members to visit for in-person sessions.

What Happens After Rehab?

Recovery doesn’t end when you finish treatment. But you won’t be starting your life over from scratch. By the time you leave rehab, you’ll already have a clear aftercare plan. Your provider may help you find a sober living environment, outside therapist, or 12-Step meetings in your area. With these systems in place, you’ll be well prepared for the next phase of healing.

Many Roads Lead to Addiction Recovery

There are countless ways to approach healing. The important thing is to choose one that works for you and your personal recovery goals. Inpatient rehab can be a powerful place to start. These programs let you take a step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life, to reconsider what you really want and need.

Learn more about life at residential treatment centers, including their locations, pricing, and types of therapy.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. Diaper, Alison M., et al. “Pharmacological Strategies for Detoxification.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 77, no. 2, Feb. 2014, pp. 302–14. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1111/bcp.12245. []
  2. Tiffany, Stephen T., and Jennifer M. Wray. “The Clinical Significance of Drug Craving.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1248, Feb. 2012, pp. 1–17. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06298.x.
  3. The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction | Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/executive-summary/report/neurobiology-substance-use-misuse-and-addiction. Accessed 3 Feb. 2023. []
  4. Bahr-Robertson, Mary. Treatment of Cocaine Addiction With Integrative Meditation. Clinical trial registration, NCT01211418, clinicaltrials.gov, 24 Feb. 2022. clinicaltrials.gov, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01211418. []
  5. “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health. Accessed 3 Feb. 2023. []
  6. Administration (US), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, and Office of the Surgeon General (US). EARLY INTERVENTION, TREATMENT, AND MANAGEMENT OF SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS. US Department of Health and Human Services, 2016. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424859/. []
  7. Treatment, Center for Substance Abuse. Chapter 5—Specialized Substance Abuse Treatment Programs. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US), 1997. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64815/. []

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