If it only takes 21 days to break a habit, then you would think kicking your drug or alcohol habit would be easier. In truth, the whole “kick your habit in 21 days” mantra is actually very misleading and when you apply it to substance use disorders, it can do more harm than good.
How Long Does it Take to Form New Habits?
In this day and age, self-improvement is all the rage and the frequently touted idea that a bad habit can be broken in just 21 days is an encouraging thought for many people. Reversing a habit in such a short amount of time (just three weeks!) makes any feat seem possible. You could start working out regularly, stick to a plant-based diet, or even kick that tobacco habit you picked up years ago. However, researchers recently found that it actually takes much longer to break a habit than we originally thought.
The concept that a new habit can be formed in about 21 days originated from Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s self-help book Psycho-Cybernetics, which was first published in 1960.1 Dr. Maltz (a plastic surgeon) observed that it generally took his patients about 21 days to adjust to their new physical features. He then began to observe his own personal adjustments and wrote in his book that it generally required a minimum of 21 days to fully adjust to a major life change such as functioning with an amputated limb or adopting a new diet or a healthier habit.
Unfortunately, things aren’t so cut and dry. In a more recent study, which was published in 2009, researchers from University College London found that the average time it takes for a new habit to stick is 66 days, which is about three times as long as Dr. Maltz reported in his observations. It’s also important to note that the study also found wide variations from person to person, and adopting a new habit often took anywhere from 18 to 254 days.2
If you’re trying to break a bad habit, this news may be a bit of a downer, but in truth, the key to breaking any bad habit is having the right mix of motivation, support, behavioral changes, and circumstances.
How Many Days Does it Take to Break an Addiction?
Addiction is a very complex and individualized medical disorder but research indicates that most people need at least 90 days in treatment to experience significant and lasting outcomes.3 Medical detox, which is often the first phase of addiction treatment, only breaks a person’s physical addiction to a substance but it does not address psychological addiction, behavioral issues, and mental health problems. The detox process can take anywhere from five to seven days, but it’s impossible to say exactly how long it will take because the severity and duration of withdrawal vary greatly from person to person.
The amount of time it takes to break an addiction is highly dependent on the person, his or her specific substance abuse problems, and his or her treatment needs. People also progress through recovery programs at varying speeds so it is impossible to determine a specific duration of time in treatment that will work for everyone.
Addiction Recovery: More Than Just Breaking Bad Habits
Although your alcohol or drug abuse may seem like it’s just a bad habit, overcoming a substance use disorder is much more than just breaking a bad habit. While it’s true that part of the recovery process involves developing new, healthier habits and behaviors, addiction is a chronic disease that requires more thorough treatment.4
Addiction is an illness that affects the body, mind, soul. It often affects a person’s livelihood too. Generally, it is intertwined with other issues like mental illness, low self-esteem, financial problems, homelessness, criminal behavior, broken relationships, and more. As a result, addiction recovery is a complex process that can’t be oversimplified into a magical 66-day treatment program. In short, there is no easy fix or simple cure for addiction.
Instead, a thorough and comprehensive treatment approach is necessary to overcome any substance use disorder. This often includes some or all of the following treatment components:5
- Adequate intake, processing, and assessment
- A fluid treatment plan
- Behavioral therapy and counseling
- Substance use monitoring
- Pharmacotherapy medications
- Clinical and case management
- Self-help/peer support groups
- Continuing care
The following services may also help individuals overcome addiction and re-integrate back into society after treatment:5
- Mental health services
- Medical services
- Vocational services
- Housing/transportation services
- Family services and childcare
- Financial services
- Legal services
- AIDS/HIV services
- Educational services
Sobriety Tools for a Successful Recovery
Relapse is sometimes a part of the recovery process but it’s important to view it as a temporary setback instead of complete failure. Similarly, if you’re trying to make healthier eating choices, just because you caved and had a piece of chocolate cake doesn’t mean you can’t continue to improve by making more health-conscious choices at your next meal. Instead of giving up entirely, you can use the experience as an opportunity to re-evaluate your lifestyle, behaviors, and triggers, and make changes that will help you succeed.
If you happen to relapse after detox, there are recovery tools, support, and aftercare treatment programs available that can help you get back on track. Examples include:
- Inpatient or outpatient rehab: After detox, rehab is an important next step that will help you reach your sobriety goals by teaching you how to implement healthier habits and behaviors.
- Sober living: A sober living program provides safe, substance-free housing and peer accountability to help you adjust to a sober life outside of a structured rehab program. It also offers additional recovery services like employment assistance, educational planning, and volunteer placement.
- Peer monitoring: A peer monitoring program pairs you with a sober mentor and partner who offers support and guidance as you navigate the ups and downs of early sobriety. He or she will also help you learn how to recognize triggers and warning signs of relapse before it occurs and take action.
- Community recovery groups: 12-Step fellowships and other community groups are extremely beneficial for people in recovery because they provide ongoing support, social connection, and opportunities to give back in all stages of recovery.
Achieving a full recovery from addiction is much more than just breaking a bad habit. Although correcting harmful habits and lifestyles is an important aspect of addiction recovery, medical detox is just the beginning of the recovery process that requires ongoing commitment and maintenance.