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Finding a Non-12-Step Treatment Program

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According to a March 2018 report from Vox,12-step programs are responsible for the recovery of many people. This model is quite popular in treatment programs across the United States, and 12-step meetings have made recovery more attainable for countless people.

Although 12-step programs are an answer for many, they are not the only effective way to deal with addiction, and they don’t work for everyone. Many people do not like the spiritual aspect of 12-step programs, as they often require participants to believe in a higher power.

Alternatives to 12-step programs exist, such as SMART Recovery®, LifeRing, and Women for Sobriety. These are successful programs that help people who prefer to seek treatment outside of 12-step options.

The Popularity of 12-Step Programs

In September 2009, the Journal of Addictive Diseases published a study that looked at 12-step programs. The study described 12-step programs as places “where faith meets science.”

A January 2012 article on Vox says that 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous are based on certain principles.

Participants must:

  • Follow the 12 steps, guidelines that have a more spiritual point of view.
  • Look at addiction as if it is a disease.
  • Address defects in their character.
  • Submit to a higher power.
  • Make amends for past wrongdoings.

Vox spoke with a woman named Rae who said that following the 12-step structure worked for her. Rae said she did not understand precisely why the steps worked for her, but she works very hard to incorporate these steps into her daily routine to stay sober.

Not everyone reports success with 12-step programs. In 2018, Emily J. Sullivan wrote an article for The Fix explaining her journey with 12-step programs. Sullivan did not feel 12-step programs worked best for her.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous share many of the same ideals. People who participate in these programs can typically expect to go to meetings, have a sponsor, and celebrate their milestones. For Sullivan, 12-step meetings were social gatherings to look forward to.

At the same time, not all of the social aspects of 12-step meetings worked for Sullivan, so she looked for alternatives. The Journal of Addictive Diseases states there are common criticisms of AA and other programs based on their philosophies.

  • More rigorous studies are needed to evaluate AA’s success.
  • Critics argue that AA relies on God to initiate change.
  • No one treatment can help everyone.

Pros and Cons of 12-Step Programs

12 step programs

In 2017, HuffPost reported that support groups can be a great source of support for people who want to stay sober, but they are not a substitute for treatment.

The problem, according to Vox, is that many rehab facilities are based solely on the 12-step model, and this is often the only choice available to clients who want to recover.

These programs offer a network of support, and meetings are led by others who are struggling with addiction. Sponsors are most likely to understand the struggles of newcomers. People who are comfortable with the language of spirituality or religion are likely to do well in 12-step programs.

But there are also detractors. Vox also said that atheists may have a hard time with the concept of a higher power. In The Fix, Sullivan stated that the language of constantly identifying herself as an addict was off-putting.

Psychology Today says that 12-step programs often blame the individual if the program does not work.

The Big Book, a nickname for the book Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, was written in the 1930s. Some people may be more amenable to a more modern approach.

It is common to use the language of “powerlessness” and “submitting to a higher power” in 12-step programs. Non-12-step programs are often secular and may appeal to people who are not religious or spiritual. These alternatives still offer the benefits of a support network, and they provide a social outlet for people in recovery.  

Do Non-12-Step Programs Work?

Yes, non-12-Step programs often work just as well as 12-step programs. The key thing to remember is there is no single approach that works for everyone.

Below is a quick rundown of some alternatives to 12-step programs.

SMART Recovery®: Self-Management and Recovery Training consists of a 4-point program that helps people recover from addiction. The program is based on using common sense to recover. It is a secular program that is open to people from all backgrounds.SMART Recovery® relies on a theory called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It also focuses on identifying a person’s motives for misusing alcohol or drugs to change behavior, challenging beliefs, accepting your emotions, and changing your behaviors to recover from substance or alcohol misuse.

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Women for Sobriety (WFS): WFS is for and by women. The program focuses on abstinence while also attempting to ensure that women feel valued and can increase their confidence throughout recovery. This program believes that addiction often stems as a coping mechanism caused by stress, emotional issues, and frustration. WFS also has a New Life Program to help women grow personally as they recover.

LifeRing Secular Recovery: LifeRing is a secular alternative to 12-step programs and says its groups are self-directed. The goal of this program is to achieve abstinence and live a rewarding life in recovery.


(March 2018) Alcoholics Anonymous works for some people. A new study suggests the alternatives do too. Vox. Retrieved April 2019 from

(May 2018) When 12-Step Doesn't Work… The Fix. Retrieved April 2019 from

(January 2018) Why some people swear by Alcoholics Anonymous — and others despise it. Vox. Retrieved April 2019 from

(May 2010) How it doesn't work: The dogma of the 12 steps. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from

(September 2009) Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. Journal of Addictive Diseases. Retrieved April 2019 from

(March 2017) Non 12 Step Rehab vs. AA: What’s the Difference? Huffington Post. Retrieved April 2019 from

(August 2017) 10 Ways SMART Recovery Differs From 12-Step Programs. The Fix. Retrieved April 2019 from

(February 2018) Comparison of 12-step Groups to Mutual Help Alternatives for AUD in a Large, National Study: Differences in Membership Characteristics and Group Participation, Cohesion, and Satisfaction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Retrieved April 2019 from

(2018) About SMART Recovery. SMART Recovery. Retrieved April 2019 from

About US. LifeRing Secular Recovery. Retrieved April 2019 from

(2018) Mission Statement. Women for Recovery. Retrieved April 2019 from

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