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5 Alternatives to 12-Step Programs

5 minute read

Peer support groups are an important part of long-term addiction recovery. They are free groups where people recovering from addictions get support from others in recovery. Attending these groups can provide a sense of community as well as accountability in refraining from substance use. Research shows peer support groups are most effective when combined with formal addiction treatment.

Until the 1970s, 12-step groups were the only option of its kind for people in recovery, but today there are several alternatives to 12-step programs for those who don’t relate to their focus on a higher power. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the first 12-step program, and has been the inspiration for other 12 steps like:

  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA) for people with drug addictions.
  • Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) for people struggling with unhealthy relationship patterns.
  • Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) for people with bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders.
  • Gambling Anonymous (GA) for people with gambling addictions.
  • Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) for poeple with sex addictions.

Recent decades have given rise to a number of alternatives for Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. They function in similar ways as the 12 Steps, with local meetings run by members. Some offer both in-person and online meetings.

Here are five popular alternatives to the 12 Steps.

#1 SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery is a secular alternative to AA and other 12-step groups. Groups like AA encourage members to admit they are powerless over their alcohol addiction and embrace a Higher Power. SMART Recovery views substance abuse as a dysfunctional habit that people can have personal control over. The approach integrates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based approaches to behavior change. SMART Recovery stands for self-management and recovery training. It is based on their “4-Point Program.”

  1. Building and maintaining the motivation to change.
  2. Coping with urges to use.
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an effective way without addictive behaviors.
  4. Living a balanced, positive, and healthy life.

#2 Refuge Recovery

Refuge Recovery draws on Buddhist philosophy to help people who are coping with urges and other difficulties in sobriety. Much of the teachings in Refuge Recovery are based on the Buddhist philosophy that the root cause of suffering is people’s desire to push away pain while seeking to fill an unquenchable thirst for pleasure. Participants learn how drinking alcohol and using drugs keeps them stuck in suffering. Through mindfulness and other Buddhist practices they learn to have compassion for themselves and the pain they’ve experienced and acquire healthy ways to cope with difficult feelings and urges.

#3 Women for Sobriety

Sociologist Jean Kirkpatrick created Women for Sobriety (WFS) in 1976 for women with addictive behaviors. The alternative to AA and NA views drug and alcohol abuse in women as a symptom of common problems experienced in this population. This may include low self-esteem, trauma, depression, shame, guilt, and gender inequality. Alcohol and drug abuse becomes a way to cope with these situations. WFS groups encourage participants to work on the underlying reasons and faulty thinking that feed their drug or alcohol use disorder. Participants learn how to take care of their core needs and become aware and self-fulfilled.

This 12-step alternative focuses on behavior change through:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Group involvement
  • Taking care of the body
  • Cognitive approaches

#4 Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.)

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is a 12-step alternative for people struggling with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or food addiction. It’s based on the writings of its founder James Christopher who got sober in 1985 and decided to inspire a recovery program for non-religious substance abusers. SOS believes people can stay sober based on personal integrity, values, and beliefs. It does not adopt the 12-step concept that turning over your life to a Higher Power is the only road to recovery. The SOS sobriety approach is “sobriety priority.” This means that anyone can stay sober if they make sobriety their number one life priority.

SOS encourages participants to:

  • Acknowledge they are an alcoholic or addict.
  • Re-affirm and accept this daily.
  • Do whatever is needed to make sobriety a priority everyday because drinking or using drugs is not an option.
  • Refrain from drinking or using drugs no matter what difficulties arise and accept that life is uncertain but can also be very good.
  • Share with confidence as sober people.
  • Know that each person is responsible for their life and sobriety.

#5 LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery supports participants in being the leader of their recovery — knowing their triggers and knowing what they need to overcome them. It focuses on strengthening the “sober self” and weakening the “addicted self.” In meetings, members practice drawing on their sober self to connect with other people’s sober self. Participants are encouraged to share practical experiences that help them stay sober. LifeRing is an alternative to AA and NA that believes each individual should find what best supports their sobriety and use it to stay sober. It proposes that the “addicted self” is still there, and will always be there, so people in recovery must work hard everyday to lead with their sober self.

Looking For Help?

Support groups are a critical part of long-term recovery, but most people will also require a formal addiction treatment program. Footprints to Recovery offers both 12-step treatment approaches and alternatives to 12-step programs. We educate you on all of the options available, so you can find what best fits with your beliefs, needs, and preferences.

Footprints offers both inpatient rehab and outpatient treatment programs at our addiction treatment facilities. Alcohol and drug detox is also available. Our treatment providers use a combination of evidence-based addiction therapies and holistic approaches to help you address all aspects of substance abuse — physical, emotional, and spiritual. You’ll have an individual treatment plan tailored to your needs. Depending on the Footprints location, your recovery program may include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Co-occurring disorders treatment / dual diagnosis treatment
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • EMDR and other trauma therapies
  • Art therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Fitness and yoga therapy
  • Chiropractic services

If you’re struggling with drug abuse or alcohol abuse, give us a call. We’ve helped thousands of people take back their lives from addiction. We can help you too.


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