Many people who have had a personal or indirect experience with addiction are familiar with the concept of a 12-step program for recovery, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Within these programs, people can find peer support for maintaining their sobriety and follow structured pathways toward building back their lives.
However, in recent years, an alternative type of long-term support group for addiction recovery has become popular in the form of SMART Recovery groups. These groups provide another way for people with a history of substance use disorders or other behavioral addictions to manage their abstinence.
Read on to learn more about SMART Recovery, including how it came to be, what it entails, and how it can benefit a person recovering from a substance use disorder or behavioral addiction.
Defining SMART Recovery
SMART Recovery stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It is a peer-led mutual support group that meets both in-person and online. Led by volunteers, it gets dedicated to using scientifically rooted methods to help people overcome their addictions.
The Origins of the SMART Recovery Program
SMART Recovery got its start in the United States in 1992, when its founding organization, the Rational Recovery Self-Help Network, was officially recognized as a non-profit organization. Two years later, in 1994, disagreements among its leadership led to a split and a name change; since then, it has continued as the SMART Recovery program. SMART Recovery is relatively new to the scene when it comes to peer-led support groups for addiction recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, was founded nearly 60 years earlier, in 1935.
The Basic Philosophies That Get Embraced in the SMART Recovery Program
SMART Recovery distinguishes itself from 12-step programs because (1) it is not rooted in a belief in God as a higher power, and (2) it does not incorporate spiritual principles into its recovery pathways. While 12-step programs have successfully helped many people with substance use disorders, their spiritual aspect has turned others away. SMART Recovery has addressed this missing population. Instead of calling on faith, SMART Recovery grounds itself in evidence-backed scientific concepts, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing.
One of the other distinguishing characteristics of SMART Recovery is how it categorizes substance use disorders. In more longstanding 12-step recovery groups, substance abuse gets thought of as a chronic, lifelong disease. One of the central tenants of maintaining abstinence in 12-step groups is incorporating one’s disorder into one’s identity. The result, for example, is the highly-quoted introduction at the beginning of each AA meeting: “Hello, I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic”). Instead of accepting a person’s substance use disorder as an integral feature of their identity, SMART Recovery groups recategorize addiction as a behavioral problem that can get overcome through behavioral therapy principles.
How the SMART Recovery Program Works to Help People Stay Addiction Free
Any person struggling with a substance use disorder or who has previously struggled with one is eligible to participate in a SMART Recovery group. All in-person SMART Recovery groups are free to participants, and online discussion boards are also free of charge.
The SMART Recovery program has distilled its framework into four guiding principles. The functions of the SMART Recovery program, according to its website, are:
- It teaches a person how to enhance and maintain their motivation to abstain from substances or addictive behaviors. Augmenting a person’s resolve to stay sober can help make people less vulnerable to relapse.
- It teaches a person how to cope with their urges to use a substance or engage in a behavior. It does this by showing a person how to examine and analyze their triggers to successfully avoid (or at least reduce) them in the future.
- It teaches a person how to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By learning how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, a person can better handle life’s ebb and flow of feelings and become less vulnerable to reengaging with their addictive habits.
- It teaches a person how to balance their momentary and enduring satisfactions. This tactic helps people stay rooted in reality and clearly define their expectations out of life, particularly when it comes to maintaining their sobriety.
This program has been dubbed the 4-Point Program. According to its website, SMART Recovery’s scientific foundation uses these four principles to help people increase their self-reliance and ability to function independently in the world. Once these skills are learned and solidified (which may take months or years), a person may not need to continue in it.
What Kind of Problems Can SMART Recovery Help a Person Recover From?
SMART Recovery uses rational thinking to help people overcome a variety of alcohol, substance, and behavioral addictions. SMART Recovery qualifies addiction as a learned behavior, meaning behaviors can be classified as addictions and, therefore, improved through the SMART Recovery program.
SMART Recovery can be successfully applied to many behaviors—such as gambling, overeating, compulsive shopping, or sexual addiction—as well as to more traditional substance-related conditions. In addition, SMART Recovery can provide support for families and friends of individuals who are struggling with substance-related conditions. SMART Recovery hosts an online forum created explicitly for concerned significant others (CSOs), and program advocates encourage people who are indirectly involved in addictive behaviors to attend SMART Recovery meetings so they can unlearn some of their enabling behaviors.
The Effectiveness of SMART Recovery
Scientists in the clinical research world have studied the SMART program to learn more about its effectiveness. In particular, a clinical trial evaluated the impact of the SMART Recovery program—and a web application known as Overcoming Addictions (OA) that gets based on SMART Recovery principles—on helping people who were heavy problem drinkers. In the trial, researchers evaluated people who solely attended SMART alcohol meetings, exclusively used the OA app, and people who used both resources and found that in all conditions, people were able to greatly increase their reported days of abstinence from alcohol when compared to a control group.
The clinical trial also found that engaging with the SMART Recovery program helped people decrease the average amount of drinks that they consumed on the days that they did drink and reduce the number of alcohol-related consequences that came about due to their drinking. There were also no significant differences in the different study groups. The people who solely attended SMART Recovery meetings experienced as many positive effects as people who solely participated in online SMART Recovery methods through the web app. For people with a history of substance use disorders who struggle with making time to attend in-person meetings and prefer a more self-directed approach, this is particularly encouraging news.
The SMART Recovery program also appears to have a lasting effect, with clinical trial participants largely maintaining the changes they made at a six-month follow-up.
Comparing SMART Recovery With Other Peer-Led Support Groups
SMART Recovery often gets compared to other peer-led support groups, such as AA and NA. However, SMART Recovery differentiates itself through its lack of focus on a spiritual higher power, its science-backed four-pillar approach, and its availability through an online setting in addition to in-person groups. Compared to other more traditional peer-led models, SMART Recovery offers a powerful alternative for people recovering from substance use disorders who feel a philosophical mismatch between their beliefs and the spiritual belief system heavily relied upon in 12-step programs. By focusing on self-empowerment and self-efficacy, people recovering from addictive behaviors can overcome their challenges using a reason-based and scientific approach.
How to Find a SMART Recovery Group
SMART Recovery groups and subgroups such as SMART alcohol meetings occur all over the country and across the globe. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the SMART Recovery program has been especially pivotal in helping people maintain abstinence from their substance use disorders and other addictive behaviors. The mutual support groups have all occurred in an online, socially distanced setting, with no risk of viral transmission.
People searching for their local group can use the meeting locator tool available on the SMART Recovery website.
How to Learn More About Peer Support and Treatment for Addiction
SMART Recovery and other mutual peer-led support groups can be highly beneficial in helping people stay sober over the long haul. However, a more intensive and structured process is typically needed when a person starts to get sober.
At The Haven New England, our clinical providers remain highly experienced at helping clients undergo treatment for substance use disorders. Like SMART Recovery, we root our treatments in the latest scientific evidence, which allows our clients to experience the most efficient, comfortable, and safest pathways to recovery.
After we help our clients successfully reach sobriety, a program like SMART Recovery can take the reins. To learn more, contact us today.