When first exploring treatment options, many find themselves overwhelmed by terms they do not understand. A number of common recovery terms seem intuitive to those of us who already know them; however, those outside of the recovery community will not find the vernacular so accessible. These may include terms relating to the specifics of substance use disorder or the details of working a recovery program. Many important common recovery terms, such as those describing various levels of treatment, may also prove initially confusing.
To help the newcomer develop a better understanding of recovery and what it means, we have compiled a list of common recovery terms below. We have further divided this list into several sections. These include addiction-related terms and phrases, common recovery programs and family programs, and treatment-specific terminology. We also include a list of common recovery terms not necessarily specific to one particular section. This should help you to more easily navigate the page to find the common recovery terms for which you require a definition.
For more information on common recovery terms or the specifics of our treatment programs, you may contact us any time. In the meantime, we hope this list proves helpful to those who need it.
Substance use disorder – Dependence on mind-altering substances. The term “substance use disorder” attempts to define the condition typically known as addiction or alcoholism without provoking the stigma often associated with these terms.
Polydrug user – A person who suffers from substance dependency but does not have only one drug of choice.
Functional alcoholic/addict – Someone who deals with chemical dependency but hides it well enough that many fail to recognize the signs of their condition.
Withdrawal – Period of discomfort suffered when a chronic substance user begins to sober up after a heavy period of use.
Delirium tremens – Often known as the DTs, delirium tremens is a side effect of alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms often include confusion, sweating, irregular heart rate, high body temperature, shaking or even seizures.
Co-occurring disorder – Emotional or mental disorder suffered by a person who also suffers from substance use disorder.
Self-medicating – When substance users who suffer from chronic pain or mental disorders use their drug of choice to lessen the symptoms associated with such conditions.
Codependency – A dysfunctional relationship in which one person relies on another to an unhealthy extent. Often leads to enabling when the other party suffers from substance use disorder.
Enabling – Making it easier for a chemical dependent to use their substance of use, whether through direct means or indirectly by lessening the consequences of their using.
Relapse – Recurrence of addictive behavior after a period of sobriety.
Slip – A one-time occurrence of substance use after a period of sobriety. Still considered a relapse, but sometimes differentiated when the slip does not result in full onset of the addictive cycle.
Behavioral addiction – Overdependence on the thrill received from an activity such as shopping, gambling, eating or sex. Sometimes treated as a co-occurring disorder of substance dependency.
AA – Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the longest-running recovery programs in existence. Members follow an action-based program based around the 12 Steps, a series of suggestions that take members on a journey of self-discovery and redemption.
NA – Narcotics Anonymous uses its own literature, but follows roughly the same 12-Step model as AA. The fellowship refers to themselves as addicts rather than alcoholics; however, users of all substances may seek membership in either program.
SMART Recovery – A secular program using principles inspired by cognitive behavioral program. Unlike AA or NA, SMART Recovery relies on scientific inquiry rather than tradition. The program may therefore adapt over time to reflect ongoing discoveries in the field of addiction science.
Refuge Recovery – Buddhist-inspired program of recovery. Refuge meetings are split between meditation, reading on the principles of Buddhism, and sharing about personal experiences.
Celebrate Recovery – Faith-based program for recovering Christians. Uses a step-based model that incorporates scriptural teachings.
Al-Anon – Program that uses the same 12 Steps as AA, but applies them to codependent and enabling behaviors. Members learn to reclaim their
Nar-Anon – Uses the same 12 Steps as Al-Anon. Focuses primarily on the family members of those who struggle with substances other than alcohol.
ACA – Program for adult children of alcoholics. Also uses the 12 Steps. While Al-Anon was made for spouses and caters to all family members, ACA exists primarily for those who grew up with a substance using parent.
CoDA – Codependents Anonymous uses the 12 Steps to help those who struggle with codependency. The members of CoDA do not necessarily love substance users, but still struggle with many of the same codependent behaviors exhibited by family members in the above programs.
Detox – Clients enter detox to receive medical treatment for withdrawal symptoms. Often the first phase of a longer continuum of care.
Residential – Phase of treatment involving continuous on-site supervision.
PHP – Partial hospitalization program. A very intensive level of care, although clients may attend off-site meetings to supplement in-house services.
IOP/OP – Intensive outpatient or outpatient program. Clients live off-site, often in a sober living home, while attending groups and receiving individual therapy. Intensive outpatient entails more services than regular outpatient. Many clients do both programs, allowing them to ease their way out of treatment.
Dual diagnosis – Program offering services to overcome substance use disorder as well as any other co-occurring disorders the client may suffer.
Cognitive behavioral therapy – A goal-oriented form of therapy that helps the client to change unhealthy behaviors and thought processes. Among the more common forms of therapy utilized in treatment for substance use and other mental health disorders.
Holistic care – Term that describes numerous forms of therapy that treat the client as a whole person. Holistic forms of treatment help clients to overcome physical, psychological and spiritual issues simultaneously.
Faith-based program – Often used to describe Christian-based programs; however, this term could technically refer to any program that embraces a religious or spiritual approach to recovery.
Aftercare – Broad term referring to the period after a client leaves treatment. Generally refers to services provided to alumni of a treatment program. Also refers to an aftercare plan that a client follows when taking charge of their own recovery after treatment. Assists in relapse prevention.
Sober living – A home or other community dedicated to individuals in recovery. Commonly used in reference to halfway houses.
AMA – Against medical advice. Sometimes used as a verb, meaning that the client is leaving before their treatment is finished.
Other Recovery Terms
Sponsor – Someone with recovery experience who helps another person work through the 12 Steps. Also provides emotional and spiritual support. Many programs include some form of sponsorship or mentorship, including some programs that do not use the 12 Steps.
Disease model – Approach to recovery that defines substance use disorder as a disease affecting both body and mind.
Trigger – Something that causes cravings to use. Highly personal, triggers may vary from person to person. May take the form of a person, place, experience, feeling, etc.
Character defects – Shortcomings either arising from or exacerbating our substance use. Many view recovery as a journey to overcome our character defects, rather than simply the cessation of substance use.
HALT – Acronym for “hungry, angry, lonely and tired.” Refers to four feelings often regarded as strong triggers.
Geographical cure – The generally discredited belief that a change in location will relieve cravings. May work to an extent, but rarely produces long-term results.
War stories – Tales that glorify our substance use. Usually told for the purposes of humor, boasting or nostalgia. Strongly discouraged, especially in meetings or when among those in early recovery.
Thirteenth Step – Slang for the practice of attempting sexual seduction at meetings. Not a real step. Traditionally frowned upon, especially when the “Thirteenth Stepper” targets newcomers.
Harm reduction – Alternative to abstinence-based programs. Attempts to cut down on substance use, or only cease the use of a particularly troubling substance. For instance, a harm reductionist may stop using heroin but continue to drink. Not widely embraced by the treatment community.
Spiritual awakening – Change in outlook that relieves the desire to use. Some report sudden changes, while others awaken more gradually. Sometimes synonymous with a religious experience, although the spiritual awakening is more commonly akin to a simple yet profound change in perspective.