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SMART Recovery: A Free Science-Based Alternative to the 12 Steps

In addiction recovery, people who get involved with community self help programs tend to have better outcomes than those who go it alone.

AA and NA are two of the best known community self help groups, but not everyone feels comfortable with the 12-step program and its spiritual underpinnings or disease model philosophy.

Fortunately, you have other options and many pathways can lead to lasting recovery.  If the 12 Steps don’t feel right, SMART Recovery is another support group to consider.

What Is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery is a free, community, science-based mutual self help program for people seeking abstinence from drugs, alcohol or non substance addictions.

So as an alternative to heading to a free AA meeting, you might consider trying a free SMART Recovery meeting.

SMART Recovery Quick Facts

  • SMART Recovery is designed to help people struggling with alcohol use disorders, drug use disorders and compulsive gambling, sex, eating, shopping, self harm and others.
  • SMART Recovery promotes abstinence and the program is designed for people who are considering or choosing abstinence.
  • The recovery program is based on scientific principles and evolves as scientific understanding evolves. Many of the exercises are based on motivational interviewing techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • There is no formal religious or spiritual component to SMART Recovery, though many group members will hold private beliefs.
  • The SMART system teaches recovery tools for behavior change. In support meetings you discuss and practice these tools and skills.
  • SMART Recovery is a non-profit entity and meetings are free.
  • You can find meetings online and in many urban areas.
  • Anyone willing to become a meeting facilitator can start their own SMART Recovery meetings.

SMART Program Foundations

SMART Recovery is based on a 4 point program:

  1. Building and maintaining motivation
  2. Coping with urges – learning skills to overcome urges and cravings
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors  - becoming a better problem solver and more rational thinker
  4. Living a balanced life – learning skills to help you find a balance between short and long-term goals and pleasures1

To improve yourself across these 4 domains, you learn new skills and ways of thinking about yourself and the world. You learn skills at meetings and workshops and you improve on them through homework and daily practice exercises.

Read on below for an example of a SMART Recovery tool you’d learn with the program - the ABCs.

The ABCs and the ABCDEs

Proponents of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (a forerunner of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) believe that we can change our behaviors by changing the way we think – and we can do this first by learning our ABCs!

The ABCs:

  • A = Activating event (something happens)
  • B = Belief (what we think or believe about the activating event)
  • C = Consequences (how we respond)

Although we may think that activating events lead to consequences, for example:

  • A - "My co-worker took the credit for my work."

Leads to:

  • C"I got so angry. I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of wine."

A doesn’t actually cause C, A only causes B – and it’s B which causes C… which is a good thing, because though you can't change how the world treats you, you can change how you think about the world!


  • A - "She took credit for my work"

Actually leads to:

  • B – Belief oriented thoughts like: "I can’t believe that she would do that to me. I’ll never get promoted now. I can’t stand getting treated like this. I need a drink and after the way I was treated today I know I deserve it."

It’s B - what you think about A (the activating event) that actually leads to C - you getting angry and drunk.

This is where D and E come into play.

  • D = Disputing your beliefs
  • E = Find more Effective beliefs to replace irrational ones

So given the example above D =

  • "It is only one small project. Though it is unfortunate that I did not get the credit I deserve it probably won’t affect my chances in the long run."
  • "I am really disappointed right now, I don't like getting treated like this but I can stand it."
  • "I don’t need a drink, I just really want one."

And E =

  • "I am upset now but I will feel better tomorrow."
  • "I do not want to drink, even though I feel like it right now, because I am trying to remain abstinent."
  • "If I drink now I’ll feel better temporarily but I’ll feel much worse tomorrow."

By practicing the ABCDEs in everyday life you gain a powerful weapon against irrational and counterproductive behaviors.2

How Does SMART Recovery Differ from AA?

As a free, community-based self help program, SMART Recovery falls into the same support category as AA, NA and other 12-step programs.

But though similarities exist, SMART Recovery is a substantially different program than those based on the 12 Steps.

Some primary differences between SMART Recovery and 12-step programs include:3

  • SMART Recovery focuses more on a scientific understanding of recovery while 12-step programs are more centered around spirituality.
  • 12-step programs teach powerlessness against addiction and the need for a higher power. SMART Recovery provides tools that empower a person to make behavioral changes.
  • 12-step meetings frown on crosstalk. SMART Recovery meetings are based on crosstalk.
  • SMART Recovery isn’t designed to be a lifetime program – it’s designed to be used as a learning program that takes months to a few years to complete. 12-step programs are life-long programs of support.
  • You will not get a sponsor in SMART Recovery.
  • There is no labeling (alcoholic, for example) in SMART Recovery.

(Learn what to expect from an AA or NA meeting.)

What Do the Experts Say?

SMART is recognized as a valid recovery choice by a number of leading addiction treatment and healthcare organizations, such as:

Finding a Meeting

You can use the SMART Recovery Meeting Finder to find a meeting in your area. If no meeting yet exists in your locale, you can become a meeting facilitator and start your own.

Alternatively, you can also register at SMART Recovery (it’s free) and get access to online forums, online daily meetings and other resources,

Finding a Program That Works for You

Community mutual self help programs offer tremendous support and education and they make good sense for almost anybody striving for addiction recovery.


  • People who get involved with mutual self help groups tend to have better outcomes.4
  • There is no "single right way to recover" – just a "right-for-you way". According to SAMHSA’s guiding principles of recovery: "There are many pathways to recovery. Recovery is self-directed and empowering. Recovery is supported by peers and allies. Recovery happens when you recognize the need for change."5
  • If the 12 steps don’t feel right, keep trying other self-help programs, like SMART Recovery, HAMS (A harm reduction program) or Moderation Management, until you find a program you’re comfortable with.
  • SMART Recovery is a valid choice that is free and endorsed by major addiction treatment and medical groups.

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