Recovery Support Groups: SMART Versus AA

There are lots of great options to support finding and maintaining addiction recovery. One popular option is participating in recovery support groups. Some of these include groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.

Group meetings are some of the most popular and effective tools for people in recovery. But there are so many different meetings to choose from. It can be hard to understand the difference between the multiple formats and settings of recovery support groups.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between 12-step and SMART Recovery, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions asked when people start looking for recovery supports group to join.

So, let’s talk about both of these recovery support groups and try to answer the questions you might have.

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What is 12-Step Recovery?

12-step programs — like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous — are faith-based, mutual-aid recovery support groups. These groups follow a 12-step program to help each other overcome addiction.

AA was the first 12-step recovery program. It was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith in Akron, Ohio. They set out to help alcoholics overcome addiction.

And they encourage recovery maintenance by passing the message to others.

There are some key concepts to a 12-step program, including the steps and core guidelines. These things aren’t essential for attending a meeting. However, to really benefit from these recovery support groups, you should participate in the core activities of the program.

Those core activities include:

  • Working the 12-step program: This means going through the 12 Steps with a sponsor.
  • Being of service to others: That might mean sponsoring others when you have completed the steps. It can also mean helping to set up and maintain a meeting. Or it could be volunteering for a meeting, like being the coffee person.
  • Attending regular meetings: It is usually expected that new members attend 90 meetings in 90 days. And then two to three meetings a week after that.

The core activities of a 12-step program are working the 12-step program, being of service to others, and attending regular meetings.

What are the 12 Steps?

The 12 Steps are a set process that helps you overcome addiction. The key parts of each step are:

  1. Admitting powerlessness and unmanageability over addiction.
  2. Coming to believe in a higher power to overcome their problem.
  3. Making a decision to turn to God for direction.
  4. Writing a moral inventory of fears, resentments, and harms.
  5. Sharing the inventory with a sponsor for feedback.
  6. Making a list of defects of character that arose through the inventory process.
  7. Asking God to remove those defects.
  8. Creating a list of those we’ve harmed.
  9. Taking step to right those wrongs.
  10. Continuing to take a mini inventory daily.
  11. Seeking God through prayer and meditation.
  12. Being of service to others by carrying the message and practicing the program.

Most people attending 12-step recovery support groups believe in a higher power. Believing in God, however, is not essential to attending a meeting.

Most people attending 12-step recovery support groups believe in a higher power. Believing in God, however, is not essential if you want to attend a meeting. In other words, your higher power could be spiritual or religious in nature, but doesn’t have to be.

How Effective Are the 12 Steps?

The most recent study — the Cochrane report — is the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of AA and 12-step facilitation. It found that AA and 12-step facilitation produce rates of alcohol abstinence and alcohol use comparable to clinical interventions.

The Cochrane report found that AA and 12-step facilitation produce rates of alcohol abstinence and alcohol use comparable to clinical interventions.

12-step facilitation is a type of recovery support group typically used in rehab facilities. This simply means that a trained 12-step facilitator guides someone through the 12-step process.

How Do People Feel about 12-Step Recovery?

Many people attend 12-step recovery support groups in rehab. They then go on to attend for the rest of their lives. They believe that AA saved their lives.

You might even say that it forms an integral part of their day-to-day life.

Others attend AA for the first year or so and then go on to find other sources of recovery. This could include finding different recovery support groups or attending individual therapy.

Take Liv, for example:

“I attended AA for the first five years of my recovery because in the northwest of England that’s all that was available. However, when I moved to the US, I saw so many other options available to me,” she says.

Liv decided to try another route of recovery because she had some unresolved issues around trauma.


The steps only took me so far. I decided that I needed to work with a therapist on some deeper issues.

~ Liv, former AA member

“The steps only took me so far. I decided that I needed to work with a therapist on some deeper issues. I discovered that I had PTSD, ADHD, and a lot of issues sustaining relationships that all related to childhood trauma.” Liv was fortunate to get the help she needed and left AA.

“Therapy was life-saving for my recovery. While I’ll be forever grateful for what I learned in AA, it is a myth that people relapse when they leave. I know over 1,000 people on Facebook who have left and lead fulfilling lives. By no means am I suggesting that you leave, but I do want to normalize that folks do.”

What is the Difference between AA and SMART Recovery?

The “smart” in SMART Recovery is an acronym. It stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. This recovery system is grounded in science.

AA, as you may recall, is a faith-based program.

Like 12-step recovery support groups, it can help members overcome substance addiction. SMART Recovery can also help members overcome a host of other addictive behaviors like gambling and sex addiction.

SMART Recovery can also help members overcome a host of other addictive behaviors like gambling and sex addiction.

Similar to 12-step recovery support groups, SMART has a program too. SMART’s four-step program includes:

  • Building and maintaining motivation
  • Coping with urges
  • Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Living a balanced life.

A trained SMART facilitator leads each session. Their goal is to help individuals maintain abstinence. The facilitators teach how to change self-defeating behaviors, work towards long-term satisfaction, and improve your quality of life.

SMART recovery support groups encourage members to gain self-empowerment and self-reliance. SMART has a focus on giving attendees the tools for self-directed change. Unlike 12-step meetings, SMART meetings are educational as well as open discussions.

SMART also supports the use of medication and psychological treatments where necessary.

While AA is still the same program it was back in the 1940s, SMART Recovery evolves as the scientific knowledge of addiction recovery evolves.

One of the other major differences between AA and SMART Recovery is that you do not have to attend meetings indefinitely. SMART is a program that you complete.

One of the other major differences between AA and SMART Recovery is that you do not have to attend meetings indefinitely. SMART is a program that you complete.

SMART Recovery‘s tools include include:

  • Stages of change
  • Decision-making worksheets
  • How to cope with urges

Just like AA, there is also a sister program designed to support loved ones and family members of those struggling with addiction.

SMART Family and Friends provides resources and support using the SMART program and CRAFT Therapy (Community Reinforcement & Family Training).

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How Effective is SMART Recovery?

Studies show that SMART Recovery is just as effective as other 12-step recovery support groups.

So, whether you prefer a science-based or faith-based approach to recovery support groups, there’s a place for you.

Ready to talk to a treatment specialist? Contact us today at 800-926-8143Who Answers? to learn about our flexible treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.

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