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How Does SMART Recovery Work?

SMART, which stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training, is a group-based addiction recovery model led by volunteers designed to help people use the latest scientifically based treatments to overcome addiction. SMART Recovery welcomes people dealing with any type of addiction, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, overeating, sex addiction, or compulsive spending.1

History of SMART Recovery

smart recovery

For many years, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) were the main self-help groups available for people seeking recovery from addiction. However, not everyone was comfortable with the use of God and spiritual principles in those groups. To combat this, Rational Recovery was founded in 1985, which based self-empowerment on scientific principles and avoided the idea of a higher power or a spiritual focus.

Rational Recovery was incorporated as a U.S. non-pro?t organization in 1992 and was officially founded and renamed SMART Recovery in 1994.2,3 Currently, SMART Recovery is funded by three primary sources: advertising, publication sales, and donations.2

What is the 4-Point Program?

SMART Recovery has developed a 4-Point Program which breaks down the 4 phases of treatment and recovery from addiction. These 4 phases are:4 

  • Building and Maintaining Motivation: Having the resolve to remain sober.
  • Coping with Urges: Examining triggers and discovering the best ways to reduce them.
  • Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors: Learning ways to avoid relapse, finding self-acceptance and handling challenging emotions.
  • Living a Balanced Life: Setting realistic expectations about a sober life and making changes to promote an effective recovery journey.

Each of these phases is achieved through the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing behaviors related to addiction.

How is it Different from 12-Step Programs (e.g., AA, NA)?

While the SMART Recovery program is a group-based model with mutual self-help, the similarities are otherwise limited. One similarity between 12-step programs and SMART Recovery is that both programs promote abstinence from the use of substances.5


One key difference, on the other hand, is that SMART Recovery does not base its program on a 12-step model, spiritual principles, or a higher power. It instead focuses on evidence-based treatments which incorporate a wide range of interventions, such as CBT.2 In addition, it does not give participants labels, such as “addict” or “alcoholic” and incorporates online meetings, which are not found in NA or AA.1,2

Furthermore, AA and NA base recovery on the idea that alcoholism is a chronic disease that cannot be cured but is treatable. SMART Recovery does not see addiction as a disease, though members are free to refer to their addiction as such if they wish. Instead, SMART Recovery describes alcoholism as a behavioral issue which can be corrected and isn’t part of a person’s identity.6,7

Whichever method you choose, research studies indicate that SMART Recovery and 12-step models are equally effective.6,7

Maladaptive Behavior vs. Chronic Disease

SMART Recovery characterizes alcoholism and addiction as maladaptive behaviors which can be changed. Rather than conceptualize alcoholism and addiction as a chronic disease, SMART recovery encourages people struggling with addiction to not see themselves as powerless and at the mercy of a condition, but rather to see themselves as empowered to overcome the problematic behaviors.2

Therefore, programs such as AA and NA that characterize addiction as a chronic disease rather than a maladaptive behavior, understand the need for ongoing treatment throughout a person’s life, similar to other chronic conditions such as diabetes. Addiction is a progressive, relapsing disease that requires intensive treatments, continuing aftercare, and family or peer support to maintain sobriety over the course of a person’s lifetime.9 Within this type of view then, relapse is common and expected.

However, within the medical community, alcohol use disorder is considered a chronic relapsing brain disease.8,10 The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) characterizes AUD as “compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.” Addiction is caused by a combination of environmental, biological, and behavioral, and genetic factors.9

What are other non-12-Step Support Groups?

 SMART Recovery is not the only self-help group which avoids a spiritual basis or 12-step model. Other groups include:

  • Women for Sobriety is a self-help group dedicated to helping all who identify as female work on their recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
  • LifeRing approaches recovery from the perspective that you are the best authority on determining your approach to treatment. LifeRing offers mutual support but does not have sponsors, 12-steps, or spirituality as a focus.
  • Moderation Management approaches moderation as an approach to early stages of problem drinking, hoping to reach people who would avoid traditional 12-step groups which would label them as an addict or alcoholic.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety approaches recovery from an abstinence-based model and expresses openness to various pathways to recovery without a spiritual basis.

How to Find a SMART Recovery Meeting

SMART provides a treatment locator on their website, which can help you locate a SMART meeting in your area. Check for meetings near you here.

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