Should You Step Away From 12-Step Programs?

12-step programs,
Alcoholics Anonymous,
Evidence-based treatment,
support programs

For anyone who’s lost stability because of drug or alcohol addiction, establishing structure in their lives is key to their recovery. A common wellness tool at most inpatient rehabilitation centers, including Willingway, is some form of a 12-Step program for recovery—usually Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), but there are others. Does everyone respond to these initiatives? Not all the time. Let’s take a closer look. 

Remember, 12-Step Programs Aren’t Treatment
Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. founded AA in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, because they were, as Step 1 states, “powerless over our addiction.” They knew they weren’t the only ones suffering, so they believed forming a fellowship would introduce a level of accountability between members. 

But AA isn’t treatment, and since addiction wasn’t recognized then as a brain disease like it is today, many people struggled for decades to maintain sobriety, even with the support they found within local AA groups. This is often the greatest criticism of 12-Steps programs: because they don’t “treat” addiction, they don’t work. 

It’s true that evidence-based addiction treatment continues to be the most effective method to help an individual recognize the underlying causes of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD). Those in recovery must acknowledge their addictive behaviors, understand the rationale for them, and work avidly to break maladaptive patterns to manage AUD and SUD effectively. To date, the most successful applications for whole-person treatment include a multifaceted approach of various forms of therapy, education, and relapse prevention techniques. 

So where does this leave 12-step programs? For many, they are a critical resource to call upon after treatment ends.  

When Might 12-Steps Be Helpful?
Most 12-Step programs provide a continual point of contact to work on sobriety. People can attend various free meetings in person or online anytime they like—sometimes two a day, if necessary. As recovery education and reinforcement tools, 12-Step programs offer grounding and support whenever a person feels cravings coming on or is overwhelmed by particular triggers.

Many people also appreciate having a literal path to follow—the proverbial “one step at a time”—as they learn more about their addiction, examine their behaviors, and try to move forward in life. So working the steps allows a person a compass by which to navigate their sobriety with purpose.  

Also, circle back to the important aspect of fellowship. In 2020, after analyzing dozens of studies featuring thousands of participants, researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine discovered something rather surprising about AA: “[it] was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence.” Study lead author Keith Humphreys added that “counseling can be designed to facilitate engagement with AA…an extended, warm handoff into the fellowship.” 

Study leaders further indicated that AA works for many people because of bonds formed by social interaction: “Members give one another emotional support as well as practical tips to refrain from drinking…If you want to change your behavior, find some other people who are trying to make the same change.” Although other 12-Step programs weren’t part of this review, the current theory is they, too, rate highly for helping people avoid relapse because of the support they receive in mutual aid/peer-driven groups. 

What If I Don’t Like the 12-Steps?
There are many criticisms of the 12-Step process, and that’s okay. Just as not one type of treatment helps everyone, not all recovery support programs resonate with each person. What matters most is that you rely on a relapse prevention process that aligns with your beliefs and intentions, offers an essential social network, and encourages accountability to your sobriety goals. Here are some examples.

AA Agnostica

Some of the tenets of AA refer to God or a higher power. While this approach works for some people, it might not for others who don’t identify with religion. So members of the group AA Agnostica formed an organization “where secular AA people were invited to share their experience, strength, and hope. For nonbelievers in recovery the website has been, and continues to be, a comfort and an inspiration. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.”

Buddhist Recovery Network

Some people might want more of a spiritually centered support program to reduce compulsive behavior. Through meditation and mindfulness practices, “the Buddhist Recovery Network promotes the use of Buddhist teachings and practices to help people recover from the suffering caused by addictive behaviors and is open to people of all backgrounds, and respectful of all recovery paths.” 

Celebrate Recovery

People in recovery who are Christian may want more biblical teachings to reinforce the foundation of their sobriety. Celebrate Recovery is a “Christ-centered program for anyone struggling with hurt, pain, or addiction of any kind.” 

SMART Recovery

Designed by mental health experts in 1994 and based on principles from cognitive-behavioral therapy, SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. “SMART Recovery doesn’t encourage participants to admit powerlessness over addiction. Instead, it shifts what’s known as the ‘locus of control’ and enables them to believe they have power over their choices.” Many people use the practices from SMART Recovery and a 12-Step program at the same time. 

Recovery Support From Willingway
The board-certified professionals at Willingway introduce many progressive ideas as part of each client’s relapse prevention plan, based on their unique needs. To learn more about 12-Step and other recovery support programs, attend one of our continuing care community groups throughout the Southeast.