Many types of psychotherapy have been shown to help people overcome addiction and make lasting changes in their behavior.

Substance use disorder — whether it involves alcohol, drugs, or both — can affect people from any walk of life. In the United States alone, more than 20 million people ages 12 and older dealt with substance use disorders in 2019 — with 8.3 million of these people dealing with illegal drug use disorders (not including alcohol).

Although drug addiction affects millions of people every year, only around one-fourth of individuals dealing with substance use disorder receive treatment, such as medication or therapy. However, psychotherapy has been shown to be an effective treatment option for people recovering from addiction — not just cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but other forms of therapy, as well.

Ahead, we’ll explore the role of psychotherapy in the treatment of substance use disorder, including how to access resources for treatment if you or a loved one has a drug use disorder.

What is psychotherapy vs. therapy?

Although the terms “psychotherapy” and “therapy” are very similar and often used interchangeably, there are some differences and overlap between the two.

Psychotherapy, sometimes just called “therapy,” refers to the long-term treatment of mental health issues by a qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Many professionals who specialize in psychotherapy use different approaches, such as CBT and dialectical behavioral therapy, over the course of months or years to help people manage their mental health.

Counseling, which is what most people mean when they say “therapy,” refers to the short-term management of more acute mental health issues and symptoms such as stress, grief, or even substance use. Although counseling also happens with a licensed mental health professional, it tends to be more of an acute, short-term approach with a shorter time investment.

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Psychotherapy comes in many forms, and the therapeutic approaches used during psychotherapy sessions are uniquely tailored toward the individual and what they’re going through.

According to research, there are multiple therapeutic approaches that can be helpful for people who are coping with drug dependency issues. Some of these approaches include contingency management, CBT, motivational interviewing, and family and couples therapy, which are all helpful in different ways.

For example, contingency management sessions might focus on discussing certain sobriety goals in exchange for an incentive, with frequent check-ins to check progress.

Or a CBT session with a therapist — whether it be done individually, with a group, or with family members — might focus on recognizing triggers for substance use and then learning how to avoid or handle those triggers.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychotherapy is an effective treatment option for people with addiction because it can help them:

  • recognize the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to their substance use
  • manage strong emotions, such as stress, that can trigger substance use
  • address other co-occurring mental health conditions that may be present
  • nurture and grow their self-esteem, self-worth, and independence

One of the most beneficial reasons for using psychotherapy for substance use disorders is the fact that statistics show roughly 7.7 million adults have co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders — and psychotherapy is effective for both.

Other benefits of psychotherapy for drug addiction include one-on-one and peer support, relapse prevention, and enhanced coping skills.

However, there are some barriers to access that people with substance use disorder might experience. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some of these barriers include:

Getting support for addiction

If you or someone you love is living with substance use disorder — whether it involves drugs, alcohol, or both — here are some resources that can help:

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Psychotherapy has been shown to be an effective approach for treating drug and other substance use disorders.

A 2018 review discusses how approaching drug use disorder as a mental health condition affects treatment. According to the researchers, multiple types of behavioral approaches, including CBT, can be effective for someone in recovery — both when used alone and when applied with other treatment approaches.

A similar review from 2020 explored the effectiveness of CBT and pharmacotherapy (medications) on adults with alcohol or drug use disorders. According to the research, when used with medications, CBT was found to be more effective at treating substance use disorders than “usual” approaches such as drug counseling and clinical management.

Another study from 2019 explored the role of mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy (MABT) for substance use disorder treatment in women with a history of trauma and emotional problems. According to the study results, when compared with the standard treatment, 8 weeks of MABT showed higher abstinence and better emotional regulation in study participants.

Finding the right therapist can take time, especially if you’re just starting your recovery journey. So, here are some tips to keep in mind when searching for the best psychotherapist for you.

Determine what level of help you need

Substance use disorder can affect anyone, and for some people with drug use disorder, there are other life circumstances that can make recovery more difficult. If you’re someone who also has other mental health conditions or unique circumstances, keep these in mind when you’re starting your search for a new therapist.

Depending on your needs, you may want to consider inpatient rehab, outpatient centers, or virtual rehab.

Check tools and directories for professionals

Many national organizations, such as the American Addiction Centers and SAMHSA, have online directories that feature substance use disorder specialists. You can use these search tools to narrow down specialists and treatment options near you.

Get a referral from a medical professional

If you’re having trouble taking the first step toward recovery on your own, it can be helpful to reach out to a trusted medical professional who can refer you to a specialist for treatment. A physician can also help make sure that any treatment you get is already covered under a health insurance plan.

Other treatment options for substance misuse or addiction

Treatment for substance misuse or substance use disorder is highly personalized and often depends entirely on where someone is in their recovery. However, common treatment approaches generally include:

  • hospitalization for medical detoxification
  • residential inpatient treatment
  • intensive outpatient treatment
  • medication management for symptoms
  • one-on-one therapy and peer-to-peer support groups
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While there are multiple approaches that can help someone recover from substance use disorder, psychotherapy has been shown to be one of the most effective treatment options for long-term recovery. Not only can psychotherapy teach you how to recognize and manage the feelings and behaviors related to your substance use, but it can be a great way to receive both individual and peer support on your journey.

If you or someone you love is dealing with a drug use disorder, reach out to a specialist near you who can help get you started on the journey to recovery.