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SMART Recovery 101: The Alternative or Supplemental Resource to 12-Step Programming

5 minute read

SMART Recovery ( has been an asset in the addiction recovery community for many years. In recent years, it has gained popularity as a valid resource for those seeking an alternative or a supplement to the 12-step model. SMART’s model is inclusive, involving community and peer resources in the recovery process.

What Is SMART Recovery?

A sober support system is critical for long-term recovery. At Footprints we highly recommend patients seek outside community, and we understand that traditional AA, 12 steps is not a fit for everyone. Some say the opposite of addiction is connection, and our goal is for you to develop your own sober support community as you transition to lower levels of care in treatment. SMART is one of many supplemental programs you can use in your recovery journey.

SMART Recovery began in 1994 as an alternative to the 12 Steps and other spiritually based programs. The 12 Steps are centered on the participant’s surrender to a higher power that serves as an unwavering support throughout specific steps to recovery. Some people don’t relate to the concept of a higher power, which can deter them from 12-step groups. SMART Recovery offers an alternative to the 12-steps. SMART doesn’t focus on a higher power, but is instead a scientific approach based on behavioral change.

The SMART Recovery model spread throughout the United States and the UK in the late 1990s and began growing exponentially in the early 2000s. SMART Recovery offers individuals who struggle with addiction a model that looks beyond substance abuse and instead focuses on changing addictive behaviors that cause imbalance in your life.

SMART Recovery programs are available around the world for people struggling with addiction, eating disorders, gambling addiction, sex addiction, and other compulsive behaviors. It can help with cross addictions as well. A cross addiction is when you replace one destructive behavior for another. For example, you stop using drugs or alcohol, but you begin gambling compulsively.

Today there are over 2,000 SMART Recovery meetings worldwide and this number is growing daily. SMART Recovery offers support through local community meetings; therapeutic programs; and online meetings, chat rooms, and message boards. Their website includes resources like suggestions for a “recovery toolbox” ( and recommended books (

SMART is based on a four-point system:

  • Building and maintaining motivation
  • Coping with urges
  • Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Living a balanced life

The SMART Recovery treatment program provides materials that correspond to each of these four points. These materials will help you learn how to manage addictive behaviors and live a more balanced lifestyle. In addition to the four-point system, SMART integrates behavior-centered therapies, including:

All these therapies are rooted in the theory that, by challenging the way you think in the present, you can stop destructive behaviors before they start. These are evidence-based practices that have been shown to be h effective in the treatment of addiction, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

A SMART treatment program also integrates tools such as:

  • Cost/benefit analysis
  • The Change Plan Worksheet
  • Hierarchy of values
  • ABCs of rational emotive behavior therapy (for both coping with urges and emotional upsets)
  • DISARM (Destructive imagery and self-talk awareness and refusal method)
  • Brainstorming
  • Role-playing/rehearsing

All these tools assist you in putting your addictive behaviors into perspective. Once you understand that your problematic behavior is causing destruction and negative outcomes, you can reduce or discontinue the behavior.

Foundation for SMART Recovery: Stages of Change

The SMART Recovery process can be broken down into five stages. People don’t necessarily move through these stages in one smooth progression. You might move up or down many times along the path to recovery. But, in general, this describes a common relationship dynamic with the recovery process:

  1. Precontemplation Stage – If you’re in this stage, you may feel pressured by others in your life to seek help for your substance use. You may blame others for your problems, including people, society, your environment, or your genes. You may feel hopeless about the future.
  2. Contemplation Stage – This is the first step toward change! When you’re in this stage, you’re beginning to desire a different outcome. You may still feel stuck, but you acknowledge that you have a problem and can imagine solving it. You might have indefinite plans to address the problem “soon.”
  3. Preparation Stage – If you’re in this stage, you have an action plan, though you’re not yet 100% committed to it. It’s common to hold onto feelings of ambivalence at this stage and possibly need encouragement from others.
  4. Action Stage – This is where you make real change. You modify behaviors and make use of the tools you’re offered along your recovery journey.
  5. Maintenance Stage – It takes work to maintain change. In maintenance, many people relapse to earlier stages (which is normal) and then learn just how much energy maintaining change requires over time.

What Can You Expect at a SMART Meeting?

SMART is an abstinence-based program, which means you’ll be expected to stop taking drugs or drinking altogether. Meetings have an open format, during which SMART Recovery facilitators encourage people to share their personal experiences and any tools they have found helpful. Meetings often include open discussions, which is different than the highly structured format of the 12-Step program.

Discover the Power of Choice

SMART Recovery is based on the concept that every person has the Power of Choice. Through tools that teach self-management and behavioral changes, the program empowers you with the choice to abstain from addictive substances or activities. The goal of SMART Recovery is to help you gain independence from your addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, etc. The SMART Recovery program can be a great addition to an addiction recovery plan. It can be used together with a 12-step approach (like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous) or on its own. SMART Recovery can also be combined with a meditation or mindfulness practice, yoga, martial arts, or any other method or tool that brings balance and harmony into your life.

How Can You Get Started with SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery tools can be utilized in both inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment settings. SMART supports the use of medically assisted withdrawal when appropriate and can be integrated into every stage of your recovery. Once you’ve reached enough stability to live

independently, SMART can continue to help you during the outpatient recovery stage and even during a relapse. You can build meetings into your aftercare plan.

We Can Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we can help. Our professional addiction specialists will help you find a model of recovery that works for you. We offer both 12-step and SMART Recovery approaches and personalized treatment plans to address your individual needs, beliefs, and preferences. To talk to one of the treatment professionals at Footprints to Recovery, contact us today.


Laurie Woodard
Medically Reviewed by Laurie Woodard, MA, LAC, LPC
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