SMART Recovery: An Overview


Sober Recovery Expert Author

Despite the fact that Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups are currently the leading approach to addiction recovery in the U.S., there are several alternative approaches that many have attributed to their recovery success. SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery is one of the biggest players in the non-step recovery field and has marketed itself as an alternative to AA since 1994.

Unlike AA, SMART Recovery is a secular organization that is focused more on science rather than spirituality. Using an adaptation of a number of therapies, including Cognitive Therapy (CBT), Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) and Rational Emotive Therapy (REBT), the program’s core principle is that both addiction and recovery are a choice. This principle gives the individual full control over their actions and they can decide for themselves if they have a problem with any form of compulsive behavior.

SMART Recovery is a secular alternative for those looking for assistance in managing their addictive behavior. Learn more about one of the biggest non-step recovery programs available.

SMART Recovery is a support group and has now grown into an internationally recognized organization with more than 800 meetings worldwide. It emphasizes self-determination and finds labels such as “alcoholics” or “addicts” as detrimental.

The 4-Point Program

The main structure of the SMART program is based on the following four principles:

  1. Building and maintaining motivation: Enhancing and maintaining motivation to abstain from addictive behavior.
  2. Coping with urges: Learning how to cope with urges and cravings.
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors: Using rational ways to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
  4. Living a balanced life: Balancing short-term and long-term pleasures and satisfactions in life.

Throughout SMART literature and meetings, these four principles are examined as participants are taught skills for dealing with each. Early in recovery, the first two principles are seen as most relevant. However, later, the program shifts more focus on the latter two.


SMART also incorporates several exercises as part of the program. These exercises or “tools,” as it’s often referred to in the program, use practical guidance as a way of assisting people in achieving their goal of abstinence. Usually, these tools are used through worksheets that facilitators give participants to take away and file. They are meant to help keep the individual on track when times are difficult outside of meetings.

The following are a few examples:

Cost Benefit Analysis worksheet: This worksheet prompts individuals to weigh the costs and benefits of staying the way they are (i.e. still drinking/using) as opposed to making changes (becoming abstinent). Pros and cons of each course of action are listed, and the usual outcome is that it is more beneficial in the long run to change self-defeating behaviors.

Looking at irrational beliefs (IB’s): An irrational belief may be something like “I am too weak to stop drinking.” SMART tools will enable the individual to begin challenging this belief, looking at examples of when they have been strong, and applying this to the idea that they are too weak in order to try to change the belief.

Looking at triggers: SMART helps individuals look at trigger situations and gives tools to help them manage these triggers. Tools may take the form of distraction techniques, disputing your addictive voice and coping statements.

In a SMART meeting, one tool is often selected for the group to discuss and complete. In this sense, the group is helping each other to manage their recovery. Each participant will use their worksheet to write down key points from the discussion and they will then be able to take this tool away to add to their file for later use.

The Stages of Change

Another major tool that SMART utilizes is the “Stages of Change” model based on Dr. James Prochaska’ s popular book Changing for Good. The idea is that people who are undergoing change move through the following progressive stages:

  • Pre-contemplation: At this point, the participant has not realized that he or she has a problem yet.
  • Contemplation: The participant starts to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their addiction.
  • Determination/Preparation: The participant decides to pursue personal change.
  • Action: The participant seeks out new ways of handling addiction, such as through support groups, professional guidance, etc.
  • Maintenance: After a few months, the participant’s behavior has been changed and now seeks to stay on the same path.
  • Relapse: Not inevitable, but if it occurs, it can be a learning experience.
  • Termination: After a sustained long of period of change, they may choose to move on with their lives and “graduate” from SMART.

Throughout the process, people may stay in any stage for some time, even years. For instance, people in the beginning of their recovery may be in the “contemplation” or “determination/preparation” or “action” stage for a while. Those who attend SMART meetings with any length of abstinence are usually viewed as in the “maintenance” stage, working to maintain their recovery.

SMART Recovery is a real alternative for those looking for assistance in managing their addictive behavior. As such, it is an important resource for anyone who is in recovery or looking for help to stop drinking or drugging. With rationality and self-empowerment as its leading force, the program presents many useful techniques and is able to bring people together in support of each other’s recovery journey.

If you or someone you know is seeking non-12 step help for addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.

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