Motivational Interviewing Therapy for Substance Use Disorders

Recovery from substance use disorder depends on several factors, including creating new habits and developing the motivation to maintain them. Psychotherapy – a vital component of addiction treatment – can help individuals accomplish several recovery-related goals, including addressing past trauma, challenging old thinking patterns, and creating new ways of living. Common types of behavioral therapy used in the treatment of substance use disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), contingency management, family therapy, and motivational interviewing.1

This page will look specifically at what motivational interviewing is, how it works, and how it can help you support a life free from addiction.

What is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a form of evidence-based therapy that can help an individual become aware of their core values and desire for a healthy life.2 The overarching goal of MI is to help individuals resolve their ambivalence regarding behaviors that interfere with positive change and encourage commitment to make those changes.2

While originally developed in 1983 to help motivate those who struggled with substance misuse to reduce their drug and alcohol consumption, MI has also shown efficacy in supporting behavioral changes related to other medical and mental health conditions.3

How Does Motivational Interviewing Work?

Motivational interviewing involves the therapist and the patient establishing a healthy partnership that helps cultivate the patient’s internal motivation for change.2 The therapist utilizes empathy, acceptance, compassion, and evocation when conducting MI sessions, offering a supportive environment for the patient.4

Each session incorporates four processes – engaging, focusing, evoking, and planning – to help the patient resolve their ambivalence towards the behaviors they are attempting to change.2


The process of engaging builds the relationship foundation between the therapist and the patient.2 During this stage, the therapist will work with the patient to develop a mutually trusting and respectful relationship.4 For patients, knowing that their therapist accepts their thoughts and experiences is important. No one will force them to make changes; instead, their autonomy is honored.2


Focusing is where the therapist and patient collectively discuss and “set the agenda.” which includes specific goals,  targeting behavior to address and promote change.4 This is done through simple conversation between the therapist and the patient.4


Evoking, or eliciting the patient’s motivation for change, serves as the core of MI.4 During this stage, the therapist works to get the patient moving towards a specific change goal.4


The planning phase is focused on getting the patient to establish a plan of change that is “acceptable, accessible, and appropriate” to their change goal.4 The patient will drive the planning process based on what’s most important to them, while the therapist will help them ensure they are realistic and specific, ensuring the patient is creating action plans with steps that will enforce change.5

Motivational Interviewing for Addiction

Over 200 randomized clinical trials have shown the efficacy of MI in treating people with substance use disorders achieve better outcomes.4

This includes reducing alcohol and drug use, improving post-detox treatment retention, and greater engagement in HIV risk-reduction behavior.2

MI can be effective on its own for treating substance use disorders or conjunction with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).2 Some studies suggest that MI may help patients increase the odds of maintaining long-term positive behavior changes when applied alongside CBT.2

Finding Motivational Interviewing Therapy with American Addiction Centers

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance misuse or addiction, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Call us right now at and share with us what you are experiencing. We will be happy to guide you towards the care that will meet your needs.

Although we are not currently accepting new patients at our location in New Jersey, we are pleased to help you explore available programming options at any of our sister facilities. This includes our closest locations – AdCare Treatment Centers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts –  as well as several other facilities throughout the United States.

Do not let anything stand in your way of getting the care you or your loved one deserves. Call us right now to speak to a compassionate, experienced professional who can help you get started on the road to recovery.

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