What Are 12-Step Programs?

Recovery from substance use disorders has long been a process of finding the right approach for each person. Historically, medical treatments for substance use disorders were minimal, as addiction was often seen as a moral failure instead of the medical one it is known as today. The idea that addiction was a personal failure has cultivated decades of harmful stigma, which made finding help a difficult task, eventually resulting in the creation of peer support groups. Some of these groups grew into large international programs that have support meetings every hour of every day on just about every corner of the globe.

Peer support groups are made up of individuals who struggle or have struggled with a substance use disorder. Some of the most famous examples of these groups include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

These programs created what is now known as the 12 principles and 12 steps, which were derived from their literature called the big book and the basic text, respectively. The steps and principles outlined in 12-step programs are geared toward ending substance use through a series of actions that are both reflective and action-based while working with a more senior member of the group, called a sponsor. The undertone of these peer support groups is focused on the concept of using a higher power, such as God in the Christian religion, to help in releasing control.

Though AA and NA have helped millions of individuals achieve recovery, not every process or program works for everyone. Sometimes, individuals do not connect with traditional 12-step programs and need a different option for their recovery.

Fortunately, other peer support programs have been developed to be secular and even utilize more scientific strategies for recovering from substance use. These programs are just as effective and engaging as traditional 12-step groups and encourage the benefit of attending multiple peer support programs as an additional measure to maintain abstinence in recovery.

Alternatives To 12-Step Programs

Addiction to drugs and alcohol affects everyone in different ways. What may work for one person may not work for another. That’s why it’s important to have a wide array of options when it comes to 12-step alternatives. Below are some of the most common non 12-step programs for people with substance use disorders.

SMART Recovery™ 

Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART™) recovery may be one of the most well-known non-spiritual peer support programs for recovery.

SMART Recovery™ was started in 1994, building on previous programs that started the concept of secular-based recovery, like Rational Recovery. They have a large group presence similar to traditional 12-step programs, with many free-to-attend meetings across the United States and even some abroad.

SMART Recovery™ was developed by a combination of individuals in recovery and professionals in the addiction treatment space, resulting in what they called a “4-Point Self-Empowerment Program.”

  1. Build & Maintain Motivation
  2. Cope with Urges
  3. Manage Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors
  4. Lead a Balanced Life

These 4 pillars of the program are designed to use scientific tools and strategies to develop skill-building in individuals in early recovery while also providing a safe location to process their recovery journey. It also encourages the use of goal setting and tracking progress to help build upon the motivation to continue the recovery process while also demonstrating improvement through their engagement with the program.

SMART Recovery™ is a useful choice for individuals who are not spiritual or prefer more scientific approaches to their recovery. Many of the tools and strategies used in Smart Recovery™ incorporate concepts and therapeutic principles from cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and addiction science.

The program is also available for family members who have a loved one struggling with substance use disorders and even special population groups such as veterans, first responders, and teenagers.

SMART Recovery™ has in-person and digital meetings across the country, as well as a very active online forum and chat generally open 24/7. There are online resources, publications, and many different worksheets & assignments that are easily accessible to continue working on recovery.

Explore Centers Offering Non-12-Step Treatment

Women For Sobriety

Women For Sobriety was one of the first secular non-12-step programs, created in 1975 by Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick. This group was designed initially to connect women who struggled with an alcohol use disorder. Dr. Kirkpatrick developed the program after finding that programs like AA did not meet her needs and found that the specific needs of women struggling with alcohol were not being met.

Women For Sobriety was founded on a “6 Levels of Recovery” model that incorporates 13 core positive affirmations that are used daily called “Acceptance Statements.”

  1. Acceptance of having a substance use disorder and requires cessation of the substance use
  2. Discarding negative thoughts, putting guilt behind, and practicing new ways of viewing & solving problems
  3. Creating and practicing a new self-image
  4. Using new attitudes to enforce a new behavior pattern
  5. Improving relationships as a result of our new feelings about self
  6. Recognizing life’s priorities: emotional and spiritual growth, self-responsibility

By incorporating the 13 acceptance statements into the 6 Levels of Recovery, the peer support program helps to build upon healthy thinking patterns leading to healthy decision patterns. The program has found success on many levels and has continued to grow at an international level.

Women For Sobriety has in-person and digital meetings across the country, as well as a very active online forum full of support. The program does not utilize spirituality and is welcoming of all women who are interested in finding additional support in their recovery journey.

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LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery is a 12-step alternative support program that emphasizes positive practical living strategies to maintain recovery.

LifeRing believes everyone is responsible for their own recovery and strives to ensure there is a responsive community with like-minded individuals who can assist in that recovery journey, which they refer to as a “personal recovery program.”

This program includes understanding individual triggers and issues that need to be effectively managed, as well as believing that the best person to develop a way to manage it is the individual themselves.

In order to help individuals on their personal recovery program, LifeRing created what they refer to as the “3-S Philosophy”, which stands for Sobriety, Secularity, and Self Help.

  1. Sobriety: LifeRing believes total abstinence to be sobriety and is the basic requirement to join this peer support program.
  2. Secularity: Everyone of all faiths is welcomed; however, they are encouraged to remain private within the program. LifeRing fully supports methods that “rely on human efforts rather than on divine intervention.”
  3. Self-Help: There are no sponsors, steps, or spirituality involved in this practice. LifeRing prefers to be a place for support and some guidance but strongly believes the individual must do their own work for it to be successful.

LifeRing has in-person and digital meetings across the country, as well as a very active online forum full of support for individuals seeking an alternative to 12-step recovery. There are online resources, publications, and even workbooks for those interested in building their recovery through engaging literature.

Dharma Recovery

A more recent 12-step alternative, created in 2019, is Dharma Recovery, which utilizes a non-religious practice focused on Buddhist teachings. This peer support program has grown rapidly since its start and has become known globally as a helpful resource for addiction treatment.

Dharma Recovery looks at the recovery process as an internal journey to seek wisdom. At the heart of the program is the idea that recovery means empowerment and support for those seeking sobriety through their own path.

Dharma, incorporating Buddhist principles into their recovery journey, has identified the “Four Noble Truths” as important understandings of the recovery process.

  1. There is suffering: Understanding there is suffering in this world
  2. There is a cause of suffering: Understanding that substance craving leads to suffering
  3. There is an end to suffering: Understanding and experiencing that less craving leads to less suffering
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering: Commuting to finding or creating this path

With these 4 truths, individuals work together with like-minded people to make important changes for their recovery. Individuals can attend meetings to grow their understanding as well as engage in meditation to explore how their understanding has grown.

Dharma Recovery has in-person and digital meetings across the country, including meditation meetings. Various forms of resources range from books, recorded meditations, and workbooks, as well as online forums for individuals actively engaging in recovery-oriented principles.

Finding Help

Peer support programs are some of the more powerful approaches to maintaining recovery from a substance use disorder. They do not replace the need for a treatment program, but they are also indispensable for individuals in early recovery who need sober support in their life.

If you are looking for treatment for a loved one or yourself, it is important to know that reaching out is often the hardest step in the recovery journey. If you believe that it is time to take the next step in that journey, please contact a treatment provider today to learn about options to move forward.