4 MIN READ | Psychotherapy

Ellen Diamond

Can SMART Recovery Replace AA?

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Ellen Diamond, (2021, November 26). Can SMART Recovery Replace AA?. Psychreg on Psychotherapy. https://www.psychreg.org/can-smart-recovery-replace-aa/
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Going straight to the point: yes, the SMART Recovery treatment model can be more effective than the one endorsed by Alcoholics Anonymous — but only for some people. 

SMART Recovery is America’s leading alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and is notable for its claims of being evidence-based, in direct contrast to the latter’s use of faith and spirituality. While AA has, over time, become more and more controversial thanks to its sticking with a traditional approach, SMART Recovery itself has not been free of controversy. 

Here, we’ll explain SMART Recovery and explain the circumstances where it might be better than traditional 12-Step methodologies. If you’re in New England, check out these resources for drug rehabs in Boston.

What is SMART Recovery?

SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It is an addiction rehabilitation model endorsed by SMART Recovery, an international non-religious non-profit that was launched in 1994, with roots in other similar non-profits stretching back to the early 1980s.

It has a fundamentally different approach from AA and other similar 12-Step groups in several respects. 

First, it controversially does not endorse the ‘disease model of addiction’, framing addiction/substance use disorder as a dysfunctional habit created by ‘deep learning’. It is also secular and does not submit to the idea of giving oneself up to a ‘higher power’. Additionally, SMART methodologies allow for far more flexibility in treatment and goal-setting, notably allowing individuals to aim for a reduction in substance use rather than total abstinence. Lastly, SMART Recovery claims it could be used in parallel with other approaches, including AA.

SMART Recovery services are typically free. However, many principles of SMART are applied in paid treatment and rehab programs as well.

Why Is SMART Recovery becoming more popular?

The recent rise of interest in SMART Recovery can be attributed to a few major reasons:

America is becoming less religious

Though the US remains among the most religious countries in the Western world, Americans today are not as religious as they used to be

Alcoholics Anonymous and its offshoot, Narcotics Anonymous have an approach that explicitly includes mentions of a ‘higher power’, which is almost invariably meant to mean the Judeo-Christian God, despite its neutral wording.

This is not necessarily a problem for some non-religious Americans. Programs based on NA, AA, and other faith-based rehabilitation approaches are likely to welcome non-religious individuals. However, many non-religious individuals might find the reality of attending AA meetings alienating, with many feeling isolated or unable to belong. These feelings of isolation may reduce one’s motivation for recovery and lead to relapse. 

With a growing number of non-religious in America, it’s not surprising that non-faith-based approaches are increasing in popularity. SMART Recovery and other similar secular programs can, thus, offer a way to help these people belong and keep them on track to recovery. 

SMART Recovery claims to be evidence-based

SMART Recovery programs lean heavily on cognitive-behavioural therapy, motivational interviewing, and other recovery strategies that have been shown in recent scientific studies to have high success rates. AA does not ascribe to many modern developments in psychiatry or neuroscience, focusing on promoting abstinence.

Additionally, SMART Recovery’s methods have changed over the years to reflect changes in the scientific understanding of substance use disorders. In contrast, AA and NA are pretty much the same as they always had been for decades. This has led to a perception that SMART Recovery might be more effective than AA or other similar 12-Step programs. 

As a result, even people who claim some kind of spirituality may also prefer to go with SMART Recovery programs as part of post-treatment care, either as a complement to traditional 12-Step programmes or as a replacement to them.

SMART Recovery offers more flexibility

Some recovering individuals, particularly those with alcohol and cannabis use disorder, may want to reduce their intake rather than quit wholesale. 

This type of goal is not compatible with most traditional rehab models, but this is something that SMART Recovery will allow individuals to do. This means that SMART Recovery might be a good choice for people who, for one reason or another, may not be comfortable with complete abstinence.

Additionally, 12-Step programmes tend to be more rigid, with recovering individuals needing to go through each step before progressing. Relapses can be seen in these traditional models as failures of the recovery process, regardless of context. 

In contrast, SMART Recovery Programs generally do not have ‘steps’ as rigid as you would find in AA, allowing individuals to better set the pace of their recovery. Relapses are also seen as a natural part of recovering from addiction and other mental health issues, and may not necessarily “set back” someone as they would in other programmes.

Are SMART Recovery programmes superior to AA?

A study published by the National Institutes of Health shows that the success of addiction treatment programmes is highly dependent on the beliefs of participants going in. 

Christians with traditional values that are ‘typically American’ are likely to find better success in AA or NA compared to SMART Recovery and similar secular programs. Nonreligious people and those who tend to defer to evidence-based ideologies may prefer SMART Recovery. However, neither case is necessarily universal by any means. 

It’s worth noting that SMART Recovery allows participants to set goals other than abstinence. This makes it difficult to make direct comparisons between it and traditional 12-Step equivalents.

Should I try SMART Recovery?

Recovery from mental health issues like alcohol and drug misuse is often a prolonged process that involves trying out a number of different strategies. No single set of recovery strategies is likely to work for every individual, making it important to consider switching programmes or trying something new, should one plateau in their progress. 

If you’re interested in trying or leaving a SMART Recovery programme, get in touch with a mental health professional first. They may be able to help you specific areas that you may need help with, allowing you to find a better programme for your continuing care needs.


Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.


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