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12-Step Recovery Programs and Support Groups

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12-Step recovery programs have become an integral part of maintaining sobriety post-addiction.1 They usually operate on the basis of abstinence while creating a community of people who are living a sober life.1 A 12-Step program helps establish routine, offers support and resources, and can be an effective addition to a person’s treatment plan.1

Follow along to learn more about what a 12-Step program is, how they work, what the 12 steps are, and the different types of 12-Step programs available.

What Is a 12-Step Program?

12-Step programs were developed as a mutual aid effort to provide community-based resources to people who are recovering from addiction.2 Most 12-Step programs operate on an abstinence-only approach.2 One of the key components of the program’s structure relates to members accepting that their addiction is a disease.2 This ideal helps members reduce any shame and stigma associated with their past substance use.2

12-Step programs utilize a peer support system.3 Peer support programs are facilitated by and consist of people who have experienced addiction themselves.3 For those struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), peer support groups can provide advice on coping skills, treatment, and understanding that someone who’s never had addiction may not be able to provide.3 Peer support can provide participants with increased self-esteem, self-confidence, and coping skills.3

There are 3 key ideas that 12-Step programs use to help promote recovery.2 These include:2

  • Acceptance: A person accepts that substances have caused addiction and hold power over their life.
  • Surrender: Surrendering to the process and the person’s faith.
  • Active involvement: Going to meetings, getting involved with the community, participating in meetings, and more.

Most 12-Step programs are modeled after the very first one, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).4 Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 in Akron, Ohio.4 The founding members were struggling with alcohol addiction and sought spiritual advice from clergymen in their community.4

Alcoholics Anonymous is predominantly based on the belief of a higher power, often referred to as God.5 There is no specific religious or spiritual requirement to abide by, rather just a belief in something greater than yourself.5 Some individuals misinterpret this aspect of AA since many of the meeting locations are in churches.5

The Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy centers around community with others.5 The surrender to a higher power can be as simple as believing in a “God of understanding.”5 Many members maintain atheism and work the steps, viewing their higher power as a way to get back in touch with themselves.5

How Does a 12-Step Program Work?

The first and most difficult aspect of a 12-Step program is admitting that you have a problem.6 Being honest with yourself about the fact that a substance has gained control of your life is essential to be successful in the process.6 Once an individual has dedicated themselves to the process, they will begin working the 12-Step philosophy to maintain sobriety.6

Some programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, have 2 sets of guidelines or philosophies they can utilize.7 Members will use the 12 steps for themselves, but there are also the 12 traditions used in the group setting.7 The 12 traditions apply to the community as a whole and help members of the program stay unified.7

Those participating in a 12-Step program are typically expected to attend weekly meetings.8 Meetings usually last 60–90 minutes and can be attended through various formats, such as in-person or through video conferencing.8 Members share their personal stories or struggles as they work through the 12 steps and traditions.8 People looking to attend meetings can find them by searching online. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous post their meeting dates and locations on their website.

Meetings can be attended in a “closed” or “open” format. Open meetings are available for anyone who’s interested in the program to attend.9 This means that people who aren’t struggling with substance use are able to attend and observe the meeting process.9 Closed meetings are for members only, meaning only people who are struggling with substance misuse are welcome.9 Both meeting types are facilitated and led by program members.9

The 12 Steps of Recovery Programs

The 12 steps of recovery in most 12-Step programs are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous’s principles. The 12 steps, according to the Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous, include the following:6

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Admitting that your substance use is a problem is imperative to being receptive to treatment.

Step Two: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Emphasizes the importance of community and spirituality in the process. You can’t always do things by yourself, and this step is acknowledging that.

Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”

Making a choice to take the steps needed to take back control of your life and highlights the fact that recovery is possible.

Step Four: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

This step is about facing the things you might have done that you feel guilty or shameful about since being dependent on substances. A lot of trauma work may be involved in this step, so a therapist can be helpful.

Step Five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

This highlights the need for community. Utilizing a sponsor (another person in the 12-Step program who acts as a mentor) or a personal mentor can be helpful here.

Step Six: “We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Making actionable steps to change the habits or behaviors that you struggle with.

Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

This step can be beneficial in implementing coping skills. Importance is placed on getting back in touch with your intuition and creating daily habits that work toward your overarching goals.

Step Eight: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”

This step involves confronting past hurts or mistakes you may have made when using substances. This could include acknowledging those you’ve hurt, damages you may have caused, or financial liabilities that could have accumulated during substance misuse.

Step Nine: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

This step involves taking the list you made in step 8 and taking action to address them all, unless direct contact with someone would cause them more harm than good.

Step Ten: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

This step is all about taking accountability. A lot of thought reframing and behavioral changes happen here.

Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

This step could involve reintegrating your mind, body, and spirit together. Reconnecting with spirituality is common with this step.

Step Twelve: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

In this step, you pay it forward. You help the community that helped you.

Types of Recovery Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are the 2 most well-known 12-Step recovery groups.2 Much of their philosophy is the same, but one focuses on substance misuse with alcohol while the other focuses on misuse with narcotics.2

Other recovery groups include:10

  • Celebrate Recovery: 12-Step program centered around Christ and Christianity.
  • Cocaine Anonymous: Recovery program targeted towards people struggling with cocaine misuse.
  • Crystal Meth Anonymous: Recovery program targeted towards people struggling with crystal meth misuse.
  • Heroin Anonymous: Recovery program targeted towards people struggling with heroin misuse.
  • SMART Recovery: A self-help program for people struggling with substance misuse.

Other Alternatives

There are many alternative programs to the traditional 12-Step model for those who do not want the religious or spiritual aspect involved. Some of these groups include:

  • LifeRing: An abstinence-based recovery program that promotes sobriety, secularity, and self-help.11
  • Women for Sobriety: An organization that assists women in their recovery from substances.10
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS): A non-profit network of addiction recovery groups; mutual aid is available to help participants.12

Other treatments for substance use disorder can include:

Another option to consider is group therapy. Group therapy can provide the fellowship that makes 12-Step programs desirable without the 12 steps themselves.16 Group therapy is also conducted by either peer support specialists or licensed mental health workers.16

What Are the Benefits of a 12-Step Program?

In terms of treating alcohol use disorder (AUD), 12-step programs have shown to be highly effective.1 And while research on their usefulness for other substance use disorders is still underway, 12-step programs appear to be promising in helping those with SUDs remain in recovery.1

Some of the general benefits of 12-Step programs include goal-oriented thinking, developing new coping skills, and socialization.2 Recovery groups can provide people with a sense of community and support, which are essential components to the process of overcoming addiction. Working a 12-Step program can also give a person’s life the needed structure to help them avoid the temptation of alcohol and drugs.

Where Can I Find a Recovery Group?

Support groups can be found in almost every community in the United States, with larger cities offering numerous opportunities to participate at various places and multiple times in any given day.

  • To find an AA meeting, go to the program website, aa.org.
  • Information on NA meetings can be found at na.org.
  • SMART recovery information is available at smartrecovery.org.
  • Local newspapers also feature local support group listings. Meetings are often held in churches and community centers.

AA and NA are free. The requirements are simple and straightforward. The only requirement to participate is a desire to stop using drugs and alcohol.

Find Meetings Near You

Do I have to do a 12-Step program?

No. There are other groups, such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety, Rational Recovery, and SMART Recovery, which are programs that are not based on the 12-Step model.

Do I have to be religious to participate?

Some individuals seeking support for recovery are resistant to joining 12-Step groups because they emphasize spirituality and a belief in a Higher Power as an integral part of the process. The idea of a Higher Power meets with resistance for some people who do not believe in the concept of “God” and who want to approach recovery from a more secular standpoint.

It is important to understand that “Higher Power” is left open to individual interpretation and does not need to align with anyone else’s beliefs. However, for those still uncomfortable with the spiritual aspect, other groups, such as SMART and Rational Recovery, have been established.

What is a sponsor? Do I have to have one?

People who are seeking recovery sometimes wonder about sponsors, as the term is often heard in the 12-Step context. Essentially, a sponsor is someone who has been abstinent for some time and is willing and able to support another member as they begin to participate in the recovery process. It is an integral part of the 12-Step model. You should take your time to decide who you want to ask to sponsor you, to ensure that you have the right sponsor.

It is not mandatory that you pick a sponsor, but it can be difficult to work the 12-Step model without having a sponsor or advocate on your side. Not all recovery groups involve sponsors, such as SOS and the SMART model.

Can people come with me to meetings?

Often, people have fears about walking into meetings alone and want to know if bringing someone along for support is acceptable. As long as a meeting is “open,” meaning that anyone can attend, it is fine to bring someone with you.

Do I have to speak at meetings?

Most people have seen enough portrayals of a 12-Step recovery group to know that sharing is a focus of these meetings. Some potential group participants may worry that they have to speak at meetings or will be called upon to talk. Members are encouraged to talk about their struggles, but it is not required for anyone to ever speak at a meeting, and no one is ever placed on the spot and called upon to speak.

Are there support groups for family members and friends?

Oftentimes people seek information about rehab programs and support groups for their friends and family. In this process of seeking help for a loved one, they may feel a desire to reach out to other people who are going through the same experience of coping with someone else’s drug and alcohol issues.

There are numerous support groups for friends and family members of persons who are struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Al-Anon and Alateen are the two best known of these groups. They provide a supportive environment to help the non-using family member or friend to understand what to expect and how to cope during the time of active addiction, as well as in the process of recovery. Additional information can be found at www.al-anon.alateen.org.

Do I have to go every week?

There is no requirement or set number of meetings, and it is up to the individual. However, more frequent attendance does help an individual maintain sobriety more consistently than infrequently attending meetings. 

Find 12-Step Programs and Rehabs Near Me

If you’re struggling with addiction, know there’s treatment available to you. 12-Step programs may provide the support and resources that are right for you. You may also benefit from inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, or therapy.

You can locate a rehab center using the drugabuse.com directory. Contact the admissions navigators at American Addiction Centers to verify your insurance and learn what treatment options are available to you. Call .

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Jennifer Fifield is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for drugabuse.com and recovery.org. She holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism and a master’s degree in Health Promotion Management. Jennifer has served as a content editor on numerous articles, web pages, and blog posts within the medical, dental, and vision industry. She has 15+ years of experience in higher education including writing/editing, administrative, and teaching positions within the health/wellness, accreditation, and health communications areas.
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