SMART Recovery: What It Is, How It Works, and The Ways It Is Different from 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

Even though Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups are currently the leading approaches 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 several 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 SMART Recovery Structure: A 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 life satisfaction.

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 Recovery Tools

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) instead of 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 to change the belief.

Looking at triggers: SMART helps individuals look at trigger situations and gives tools to 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 Model

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

  • Pre-contemplation: At this point, the participant has not realized that they have 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 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 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 at 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 vs. AA: 8 Major Differences

Here are 8 areas of differences that distinctly separate the two programs from each other:

1. History: While AA was established in the 1930s with the “Big Book” being published in 1939, SMART is relatively new, only having been around since 1994.

2. Fundamental Belief: SMART is a secular organization, not based on spirituality. Instead of relying on a higher power like AA, the program is based on scientifically researched therapies and tried and tested therapeutic methods taken from other disciplines.

Since it’s based on scientific theory, SMART claims that it will develop as science develops. Contrarily, the AA big book has changed very little since it was first published.

3. Time Involvement: SMART is not open-ended, rather it anticipates that people will eventually leave the program when they are ready. Many choose to stay involved for a long period regardless, and there is no reason that you can’t return after a period of absence. However, there is no expectation that people will remain committed to lifelong involvement, which is expected in AA.

4. Sponsorship: Another major difference is that AA is based on the sponsorship model while there are no sponsors in SMART. Newer members in AA seek out a sponsor to guide and take them through the twelve steps and assist in their recovery, especially in the difficult early days, weeks, and months of sobriety.

5. Structure: AA members are expected to complete the twelve-step program and live according to the principles of the twelve steps. The final step advocates the dissemination of the twelve-step philosophy to others who are struggling with addiction. While SMART does have a recognized handbook and program to follow, it is not nearly as formal as the twelve-step program. Instead, its philosophy is likened to a “toolbox” for people to draw upon to assist in maintaining their abstinence.

6. Leadership: AA meetings are run by volunteers in attendance at the meeting while SMART meetings are run by trained volunteers, usually people who have carried out a course of training to become a recognized facilitator. Facilitators do not have to be in recovery, as they can be an alcohol counselor or other professional involved in addiction treatment.

7. Discussion: When sharing in an AA meeting, there is no discussion about the person’s experience and the meeting may move onto just another person sharing their difficulties. On the other hand, SMART encourages open discussion in its meetings and there’s even an agenda that focuses on one or more of the SMART tools before an open-ended discussion takes place.

8. Treatment Methods: Medication to treat addiction is often frowned upon as a treatment by people in AA. However, SMART advocates the use of appropriately prescribed medications and psychological treatments alongside SMART resources.

Similarities Between SMART and AA

Even though there are major differences between AA and SMART, there are also a number of similarities. Both, of course, are resources to assist people with their recovery. Neither organization requires payment (no dues or fees, as the AA preamble states) though voluntary donations are welcomed at both. A key similarity between the two programs is that they are both run on self-help principles and the idea of bringing people who are in the same situation together.

It is entirely down to the personal choice which resource you choose. Both AA and SMART have benefits and drawbacks but the important thing to remember is that they can both help you maintain your sobriety.

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 can bring people together to support 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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