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SMART Recovery: Addiction Recovery Without Abstinence

SMART Recovery is a form of self-help treatment for people with addiction issues. You can use SMART precepts to address addictions to substances (such as alcohol), and those same theories could help you combat a behavioral addiction (such as compulsive gambling).

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Like other self-help movements, SMART Recovery is designed to help you steer clear of the substance or behavior you’re addicted to. Abstinence is the goal. But SMART Recovery recognizes that some people need time to work up to abstinence, and relapse is part of addiction.

If you want to get better but aren’t ready for total abstinence quite yet, SMART Recovery could help to get you on the right path.

What Is SMART Recovery?

SMART is an acronym that stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. Founders of this approach believe they’ve created a method that helps people move past negative behaviors to positive self-image and a willingness to change.

A four-point program sits at the heart of SMART Recovery. People that join can learn to do the following:

  1. Enhance and maintain their motivation to abstain
  2. Cope with cravings and urges
  3. Manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  4. Find a balance between momentary pleasure and ensuring satisfaction

SMART Recovery was founded in 1994, but the organization got its start in the 1970s. People were looking for a secular way to get sober, and they wanted to empower people to find solutions buried deep inside.

Rational Recovery (RR) was the first organization to try this approach. Some people within RR split into a second group that became SMART Recovery.

How Does SMART Recovery Work?

People work with trained mental health counselors in a traditional addiction treatment program. SMART Recovery leans on self-help principles. You will learn from trained peers, but you’ll also learn from others struggling with addiction. In time, you’ll offer support to others too.

Most people participate in real-time SMART Recovery meetings held in churches, community centers, and schools. Online meetings are also available for those who can’t attend in-person groups. The organization has a meeting finder available online.

While every meeting is a little different, most involve the following:

  • Introductions: Everyone has a chance to share their name, and you can offer a little background on your motivation if you’d like to. You don’t have to share if you don’t feel up to it.
  • Discussions: A trained peer will often kick off the talk for that day. If you’re speaking, the peer can lead you through a list of questions to help you explore your addiction.
  • Working sessions: SMART Recovery offers pamphlets and workbooks to help people examine their motivation to change. You may work on a set assignment during your meeting.

Some people use SMART Recovery meetings exclusively, while others use 12-step approaches too. SMART Recovery is designed to support an individual’s path to sobriety, whatever it may look like, so you’re encouraged to use anything that works for you.

What Do You Learn From SMART Recovery?

Researchers can’t prove SMART Recovery’s effectiveness. Most studies focus on strict sobriety as a benchmark, and some people who use SMART aren’t ready to abstain from substances completely. The lessons you pick up in meetings could help you stay sober in time.

A deep dive into the four points of SMART Recovery could help you understand how the program helps people like you:

  1. Enhance and maintain motivation. Why do you need to change? How do your current habits support or hinder your life goals? Why are you attending meetings like this?
  2. Cope with your cravings. What makes you crave a drink, a hit, or an activity? What could you do instead of giving in to an urge? What could you avoid in the future to deal with dilemmas like this?
  3. Manage your thoughts and behaviors. Do you sometimes act without thinking? Do you sometimes use to avoid dealing with a difficult emotion? How can you handle things you can’t change?
  4. Find balance. What things bring you joy? What was your life like before the addiction started? What would you like your life to look like now? What could you do with the time you once spent on your addiction?

SMART Recovery attendees cite the power of the group’s handbooks. In sessions, people work through exercises and discuss their results. Sometimes, the things you write down on paper jump out with a power you didn’t realize before.

The more meetings you attend and the longer you stay affiliated with the group, the more likely you will be to stay abstinent. But SMART Recovery isn’t designed for lifelong affiliation.

You’re encouraged to trust yourself and your skills. When you’ve picked up core lessons, you’re ready to lean on your own strengths and the foundation you’ve built in recovery.

SMART Recovery vs. 12-Steps: What’s Different?

Both SMART Recovery and 12-step movements like Alcoholics Anonymous rely on peer support. You can learn from others who are very much like you, and together you can come up with solutions experts (like doctors) might not think of.

But SMART Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) differ in critical ways.

How Do You Define Yourself?

In AA meetings, you introduce yourself with the words, “I am an addict.” You’re encouraged to remember that your addiction defines who you are, the choices you make, and the opportunities ahead of you.

SMART Recovery doesn’t use labels. You are who you are regardless of your addiction status.

Who Helps You?

Moderators run AA meetings. They pick the topic, introduce speakers, and keep people on track. Seniority typically defines who is in charge of each session.

Trained people run SMART Recovery sessions. Typically, these people understand motivational interviewing techniques, so they ask open-ended questions, reflect your answers, and otherwise draw you deeper into each topic.

What Is Your Goal?

Both AA and SMART Recovery are designed to help people abstain from substance use. But if you join AA, you must promise to get sober on the first day of recovery. Stay sober, and you’ll get rewarded for your approach with chips and applause. If you slip, you start the process over again on day 1.

SMART Recovery acknowledges that abstinence is difficult, and many people need time to perfect their approach. Relapse is part of the process and is expected. You should abstain, but if you slip, that’s between you and your conscience, not your community.

Is SMART Recovery Right for You?

Researchers say SMART users are less motivated to quit when compared to AA users. In fact, people like this might use SMART Recovery to help them get the motivation they need to truly abstain from substance use.

You might also appreciate the secular approach of SMART Recovery. You won’t need to find or define a higher power. Many people don’t like this aspect of AA, so SMART Recovery offers a nice alternative that is free from a spiritual affiliation.

Using SMART Recovery in Addiction Care

SMART Recovery can help you feel prepared and motivated to abstain from substances for a lifetime. But it may not be all you need to really stay sober. You may also need medication management, professional therapy, and more to help you truly change your life.

Consider what you need to support your recovery. Use what works for you and leave what doesn’t. The key is to find an addiction treatment approach that helps you to stay sober and to feel good in your recovery.

For some people, SMART Recovery offers a solid start in recovery that isn’t married to the idea of total abstinence initially. Talk to your addiction treatment providers about how this type of approach would influence your recovery. They can help you develop a comprehensive support system that works for you.

Updated May 1, 2023
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