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7 Popular Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

By Nina Bradshaw is a professionally qualified social worker and therapist in the UK. She earned a Master's Degree in Personality Disorder Studies, a Master's Degree in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and a Master's Degree in Sociology/Social Policy/Social Work.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

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Many people believe that the only way to manage long-term sobriety is by entering a 12-step program and attending regular meetings for the rest of their lives. For thousands of people, the Alcoholics Anonymous program is an unbeatable formula proven very successful. At the same time, a significant number of people do not find AA to be a good fit. It could be that they don’t agree with the 12-Step philosophy or find the idea of handing over their will to a “Higher Power” off-putting. Or, perhaps they prefer a more evidence-based, scientific approach to recovery.

Whatever the case may be, if AA is not a fit for you, don’t feel like you have to go without a support resource. Several other alternatives can support you in your journey in recovery just as well. Take a look at any of these non-12-step approaches to start.

Whatever the case may be, if AA is not a fit for you, don’t feel like you have to go without a support resource.

1. SMART Recovery

SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is a mental health, and educational program focused on changing human behavior. It draws on psychologist Albert Ellis, who in the 1950s developed a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Using REBT, an individual is taught how to manage the beliefs and emotions that lead him or her to drink or use and through self-empowerment, be able to quit and abstain. It also draws on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).

SMART uses worksheets and group discussions to assist people in recognizing and curtailing their self-destructive behaviors and maintaining their abstinence. It’s one of the most well-known alternatives to a 12-Step program.

Who it appeals to: Individuals who are looking for an evidence-based, scientific approach to recovery.

2. LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing was established in 2001 and is a peer-to-peer organization focusing on positive advice and living in the present. Unlike the powerless philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, LifeRing believes that everyone has to power to overcome their addiction.

The main goal of LifeRing is to help the sober person living inside every person who has an addiction and who is perpetually fighting to get free. The emphasis is on individuals developing their own recovery tools and approaches that suit them, recognizing each person’s individuality and strength. Also, by connecting with other addicts, each person can learn from the other and gain strength for themselves. LifeRing offers in-person meetings in the United States, Canada, and other selected countries and online meetings for members worldwide.

Who it appeals to: Individuals who believe in their own personal power to overcome their addiction and/or would rather attend a non-religious based meeting for mutual support.

3. Women for Sobriety

Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick, founder of Women for Sobriety (WFS), started the organization in 1976, soon after she realized that she felt uncomfortable with 12-Step’s premise of being “powerless” over her addiction. The organization helps empower women to recover from alcoholism and other addictions by using affirmations and positive statements toward personal responsibility, thereby reinforcing the idea that every woman can manage their own addiction.

Who it appeals to: Women, especially those who would feel less comfortable in attending mixed-gender recovery groups.

4. Rational Recovery

Rational Recovery uses the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT), a method for addicted individuals to recognize thoughts that lead to substance abuse objectively. According to Jack Trimpey, founder of Rational Recovery, the “addictive voice” is the beast that is the sole reason an addict continues down the self-destructive path of addiction. Therefore, the ability to recognize this voice makes it easier for the individual to say “no.” Rational Recovery does not offer support groups but instead offers a variety of learning materials on practicing AVRT.

Who it appeals to: Individuals who would like efficient skills for overcoming their addiction, would rather not attend support groups, and/or may prefer to keep their recovery a very individual and self-directed approach.

5. Secular Organization for Sobriety

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) was started by James Christopher in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago. Christopher, now a sober alcoholic, founded this 12-Step alternative for those who were uneasy with AA's spiritual dependence. SOS gives the credit for achieving sobriety to the individual rather than to a Higher Power. The organization holds meetings in the U.S. and various other countries around the world.

SOS describes itself as empowering the individual to find their own tools to maintain their recovery. It recognizes that substance use disorders thrive on isolation, so group support assists people in their recovery.

Who it appeals to: Individuals who emphasize rational decision-making and/or are not religious or spiritual.

6. Refuge Recovery

Refuge Recovery is an abstinence-based path and philosophy that uses mindfulness and Buddhist principles as key features of its recovery approach. It utilizes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism's core teachings and emphasizes knowledge and empathy as the path to recovery. The Refuge Recovery system does not require previous experience or knowledge of Buddhism or meditation.

Who it appeals to: Individuals interested in a non-theistic approach to recovery, have an interest in Eastern Spiritual Practices, and/or who are already following a Buddhist path.

7. Celebrate Recovery

Celebrate Recovery describes itself as a “biblical and balanced program that helps us overcome our hurts, hang-ups, and habits.” Launched 25 years ago at Saddleback Church, California, the program is based on AA’s 12-steps but incorporates eight additional principles based on the actual words of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. Celebrate Recovery is an international organization and is based in 29,000 churches worldwide.

Who it appeals to: Individuals who subscribe to the Christian faith and/or struggle with the vagueness of AA’s “Higher Power” or “God of your understanding.”

Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t for everyone, but that’s no reason to navigate recovery on your own. There are plenty of other groups that have helped many to move forward, and they could be just the right option for you.

* Editor's Note: A previous version of this article did not include Refuge Recovery and Celebrate Recovery. The article has been amended to include suggestions from the SoberRecovery community and the most up-to-date information.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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