AA Alternatives that Work: SMART Recovery vs. AA

Posted by Jackson Bentley on May 7, 2018 8:00:00 AM
Jackson Bentley
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SMART Recovery is a 4 point program for those seeking to break the chains of addiction and successfully lead a productive life free from drugs and alcohol. Any AA alternatives should work to match the individual’s needs, and SMART Recovery offers a broad array of methods that teach addicts to cope with urges, build motivation to keep working, and live a balanced, overall life of purpose. Much like AA, it is used by thousands across the world. Unlike AA, it is not a 12-step program based on faith in a higher power.


What is SMART Recovery


As stated above, SMART Recovery is a 4 point support program that teaches people the skills to manage their sobriety. SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. Through SMART Recovery, you can learn how to manage addictions by focusing on unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs, and gradually learn self-empowerment.

The four points of SMART Recovery are: 1) Building and Maintaining Motivation 2) Coping with Urges 3) Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors 4) Living a Balanced Life.


Point One - Building and Maintaining Motivation:

Motivation during sobriety comes and goes. It’s easier to manage life stressors when you feel inspired and focused. What happens when enthusiasm fades? You will learn how to STAY SOBER through individual therapy and group activities that reignite your “fire” to keep moving forward.

At this stage, participants are also tasked with making a list of priorities in their life and weighing the costs and benefits of sober life vs. substance dependence. Taking inventory is an important first step in laying the groundwork for a continued, successful recovery.


Point Two - Coping With Urges:

Cravings can be immensely difficult to deal with, and point two explores the triggers behind them. Going back to the concept of empowerment, once you are aware of stressors that cause the urge to relapse you will be better prepared to deal with cravings.

Along with learning to identify these stressors, you will also be learning coping methods to successfully combat cravings. This can be done through mindfulness practices and distraction techniques. Giving the mind and body something to focus on is vital.


Point Three - Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors:

The concept of irrational beliefs is explored, and individuals are taught how to recognize distorted thinking that leads to relapse. Examining why you think the way you do is important during this stage.

This can involve deep introspective sessions where in an individual or group therapy session you delve into the core reasons driving your addiction. Be prepared to go deep, but also understand that by identifying the root causes, you will learn self-acceptance and how to manage negative emotions.


Point Four - Living a Balanced Life:

Participants take an inventory of what’s important to them and use it to make a plan for the future. Coping skills, community resources and relapse prevention skills are introduced as tools that help you stay sober long-term.

The fourth point in the program is the rest of your life, and includes setting realistic short term as well as long term goals. The point of this step is to instill a sense of careful planning and rigorous scheduling to help maintain a structure for your recovery.

The SMART Recovery program centers around behavioral and cognitive methods that enable YOU to take ownership of your addiction, life, and recovery. Meetings are structured but the agenda is flexible, and every participant has the opportunity to speak about how their recovery is progressing.


SMART Recovery vs. AA

A young woman sitting, looking over the sunset, contemplating whether AA or SMART recovery is best for her treatment

We see different approaches fervently accepted or denied as useful in the treatment of drugs and alcohol. While Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been around for longer and has had millions of success stories, we also find numerous benefits in newer treatment models.

In comparing AA to SMART Recovery, one must be mindful that despite their differences, both approaches have immeasurable benefits for individuals struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. Both are valuable in their own right.

Contrary to AA, participants are not led to believe that they are powerless to their addiction, but instead are capable of overcoming obstacles to recovery through self-determination and dedication. Spirituality is neither endorsed or discouraged.

AA is also a support program for addicts, and participants follow a set of recovery steps to maintain abstinence from alcohol. Many people have a sponsor who provides additional support and coaching. The program has underpinnings in spirituality although it does not adhere to the belief of a specific God. Members acknowledge that a "Higher Power" is responsible for pulling them out of their addictions, and further believe that they are incapable of overcoming their struggles alone.

AA Uses the “Big Book” as the central text that explains the twelve steps to be implemented in one’s recovery. The twelve steps should be practiced as a way of life, and offers a peaceful, balanced life to those who are fully invested.



1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

11. 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

12. 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 comparison, there is an ongoing theme throughout the twelve steps of reaching out to a Higher Power or God for support, knowledge, and answers. SMART Recovery holds a different view that doesn’t necessarily include God, (but could based upon individual beliefs) and maintains that every addict is capable of managing sobriety through their own internal resolve.

In Summary, the SMART Recovery program centers around behavioral and cognitive methods that enable YOU to take ownership of your addiction, life, and recovery. AA’s method, requires “surrender” and the belief that spirituality is the driving force behind regaining your health and well-being. Which program is right?


They Both Are good

Smart Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous provide unique perspectives on living happily without drugs and alcohol, and many people incorporate aspects of both into their “recovery tool belts.” Explore as many resources as possible. Information that doesn’t sync with your beliefs or values can be forgotten. Knowledge that resonates deeply will be treasured for a lifetime!


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Topics: Smart Recovery

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