What Are 12 Step Recovery Programs?

12-step programs offer a sense of community and support to their members. They can be a key player in a person’s recovery from substance use disorders by offering structure and a group of like-minded and similarly focused members.

Twelve-step programs are groups or organizations that meet to offer mutual support to their members as they recover from substance use disorders, behavioral addictions, or various compulsions.

They have their roots in Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship organization that began in the 1930s. Its goal was to help those who wished to stop drinking. “Work the steps” is a common refrain among active members. They study and practice the 12 steps at its core — admitting powerlessness over their addiction, seeking help from a higher power, and providing guidance to others facing the same struggles.

Today there are thousands of groups around the world, dedicated to helping people quit alcohol, cocaine, narcotics, overeating, gambling, and more. They’re not a treatment in themselves, but make a good complement to the recovery process. They accomplish that by helping members focus on achieving sobriety and by being composed of peers sharing the same or similar goals.

Benefits of 12-Step Programs

AA is estimated to have approximately 2 million members worldwide, meeting in nearly every nation on the globe. It’s hard to know for certain, though, since the program is anonymous, giving its members the opportunity to heal cloaked in privacy.

The program has flourished for nearly a century, but it also has evolved to suit modern needs. It offers a number of benefits, including:

  • Meetings (for AA and its many offshoots) are held daily all around the globe, both in-person and online. If a person needs a meeting, especially online, something can usually be found quickly.
  • Meetings are also frequently held at addiction rehab centers, often a key part of the recovery program. (Secular alternatives are often available, too.)
  • The steps are fairly universal, with slight tweaks made for more secular touches, or for a specific addiction.
  • The 12 steps can serve as stepping stones or guideposts of progress. For some individuals that can be both appealing and motivating.
  • Many people swear by the principles, which have helped many people move on to healthier, sober lives.
  • They offer a sense of community, with people sharing similar struggles and successes.
  • Meetings offer a bit of needed or desired structure.

Some downsides exist, however, but those are mostly due to personal preference. One meeting’s group dynamic may prove extremely motivational while another’s does nothing for the individual seeking help. It may take a few tries to find the right so-called chemistry.

Other issues include:

  • Some may prefer something less faith-based and more science-backed, and those options are available. (SMART Recovery is one such alternative.)
  • The volunteer aspect can make it easier for some to backslide. That can make it easier to skip a meeting on a bad or busy day.
  • Some may prefer more professional help as opposed to peer governance. (Neither way is wrong; it’s up to the individual and what works for them.)

There are 12-step options that don’t mention faith at all,  or ones that focus on specific groups, like women only, for the LGBTQ community, and many more.

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How Does It Help/Benefits?

A lot of treatment programs focus more on the first five steps, with the remaining seven addressed more in the aftercare stages.

Steps one through five typically are reinterpreted as follows:

  1. Admit one needs help
  2. There is hope if one accepts help
  3. Let others help you
  4. Take personal inventory
  5. Allow oneself to be loved/accepted by others

Steps four and five, reimagined somewhat, allow the patient to make some peace with the darker sides of their past.

The steps tend to focus on three key ideas, namely that:

  • Addiction is a disease and it’s made a person’s life veer out of control
  • Give oneself over to healing
  • Take an active part in healing, including therapies

The evidence isn’t all there on the effectiveness, namely due to anonymity, but it’s shown a lot of promise. It keeps people actively engaged. That can work wonders in recovery.

Alternatives

There are many alternatives to 12-step programs, too. Some people prefer one-on-one counseling. Others prefer secular groups, while someone else would prefer faith to take a front-seat to the healing process. Still, others prefer a science-based approach, period. A person with a history of trauma or abuse may like a group that addresses such issues, too. The same applies to mental illness; a person with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, for example, may feel better heard and more understood when the focus is more specific to their needs.

There is no one right way; rather it’s what works best for the patient for them to achieve sustainable and lasting recovery.

The Path to Recovery

Every person’s story is unique, and every person attempting to get sober has different needs. Someone seeking a rehab center should look at what options it has to offer. Evidence-based approaches and a customized treatment plan are two steps in the right direction. With the right support (both personal and professional) an individual should be better tooled in getting and staying sober.

Many facilities include 12-step meetings on their weekly calendars. The steps can be discussed in group sessions, one-on-one counseling, support group meetings, and they often make up a key component of a person’s aftercare program.

Medical disclaimer:

Lincoln Recovery strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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