Learn / How Long Does It Take to Break an Addiction?
Addiction recovery takes time. And when you first quit drugs or alcohol, you might want to speed through the process. Many people wonder, “How long does it take to break an addiction?”
There’s no way to determine precisely how long recovery will take. That’s because this process looks different for everyone. And many factors—like your lifestyle, genetics, and physical health—affect how quickly you can break an addiction.
You may have heard it takes 21 days to form or change a habit.1 That just isn’t true. But where did this myth come from? It all started with a misunderstanding of Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s research.
Dr. Maltz, a writer and plastic surgeon, described this timeline in his 1960 book Psycho-Cybernetics. But he wasn’t talking about behavior at all. Instead, he made the point that it takes at least 21 days for self-image to change.
He explained that after about 21 days, his patients could let go of their mental images before surgery and accept their new look. Readers widely misinterpreted his work, perhaps out of wishful thinking. Today, this myth is so widespread that many people think it’s a fact.
Addiction is complex. There’s no simple answer to questions like “How many days does it take to break an addiction?” That number could go up if you have additional health problems and require medical care. On the other hand, it could go down if you attend a recovery program that meets your needs perfectly.
However, some experts believe there is a bare minimum: 90 days of treatment.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), attending treatment for at least 90 days yields the best outcomes.2
But 90 days isn’t always enough. Different substances have various treatment minimums ranging from months to years. For example, if you’re healing from opioid addiction, NIDA recommends at least 12 months of treatment.
Over time, excessive drug or alcohol use changes your neurochemistry.3 Substance use disorder impacts your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which governs decision-making and impulse control. So the more you take drugs, the less self-control you have. And the less self-control you have, the harder it becomes to quit.
In recovery, your brain can take a while to heal fully. You might continue to have cravings for a long time after detox. In rehab, you’ll learn how to manage those feelings while you keep moving toward your recovery goals.
Addiction recovery might start with quitting drugs and alcohol, but it doesn’t end there. You’ll also find new ways to fill your time while sober. You might develop coping skills, try new activities, or return to hobbies you love. With practice, you can learn to meet your emotional needs without abusing drugs.
Data suggests that it takes 66 days to build a new habit.4 For example, imagine that you start doing yoga every morning in rehab. According to research, it should take just over 2 months for that behavior to become automatic. Eventually, you’ll be able to get up and do yoga without even thinking about it, the same way you might drink coffee or brush your teeth.
This timeline doesn’t change how long it takes to break old habits. You might experience cravings long after your yoga practice becomes routine. And some people take a longer time to make these changes. For example, ADHD affects the way you form habits.5 If you have that diagnosis, you may need more time to solidify new coping skills.
Certain aspects of your lifestyle and health history impact how long it takes to break an addiction:
Some of these factors, like genetics, are outside your control. But you can have an impact on others. For example, your support network outside rehab might include people who encourage you to do drugs. Those relationships can interfere with your recovery. If that’s an issue for you, changing your environment can help you heal.
It’s also essential to find the right type of care. For example, intensive inpatient treatment might be the best option if you need a lot of structure. But many inpatient programs ask you to take a break from talking to friends and family members. If you have unavoidable commitments like childcare, this can be a barrier to treatment. People who need more flexibility might consider outpatient care programs instead.
Finding treatment can help you break the cycle of addiction. The first 90 days of recovery are crucial. During that time, a professional care team can give you the support you need.
Even after those 90 days, you might still experience cravings. You’ll also learn to recognize and work through triggers. These issues might never go away completely. Recovery means learning to live with them, not avoiding them altogether.
As you look for a rehab program, consider your unique recovery goals. Are you also healing from a co-occurring mental health issue? Do you want to practice relationship skills? How much medical care do you need during treatment? These questions and others like them can help you find the best program for you.
Browse rehab programs and get the help you need to break out of addiction.
Overcoming addiction is a unique journey, and the duration can vary based on the substance or behavior involved, your commitment to recovery, and various personal and environmental factors. While there’s no fixed timeline, many experts recommend at least 90 days of treatment for the best outcomes.
The belief that it takes 21 days to break an addiction is a common myth. This misconception originated from Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s research on self-image change, not addiction behavior. The process of overcoming addiction is complex and can take longer, involving factors like neurochemical changes in the brain, forming new habits, and addressing underlying issues.
Several factors contribute to the timeline of recovering from addiction, including your personal health history, substance or behavior of choice, duration of the addiction, co-occurring mental health conditions, available social support, and the quality of treatment you receive. Finding the right treatment program can significantly impact your recovery process.
Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation Myth | UCL ‘Health Chatter’: Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health Blog. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/bsh/2012/06/29/busting-the-21-days-habit-formation-myth/. Accessed 26 June 2023.
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
NIDA. 2022, March 22. Drugs and the Brain. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain on 2023, June 26
Arlinghaus KR, Johnston CA. The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2018 Dec 29;13(2):142-144. doi: 10.1177/1559827618818044. PMID: 30800018; PMCID: PMC6378489.
Gabay, Y., Shahbari-Khateb, E. & Mendelsohn, A. Feedback Timing Modulates Probabilistic Learning in Adults with ADHD. Sci Rep 8, 15524 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-33551-3
Lookatch SJ, Wimberly AS, McKay JR. Effects of Social Support and 12-Step Involvement on Recovery among People in Continuing Care for Cocaine Dependence. Subst Use Misuse. 2019;54(13):2144-2155. doi: 10.1080/10826084.2019.1638406. Epub 2019 Jul 19. PMID: 31322037; PMCID: PMC6803054.
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