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      Sober Nation

      Putting Recovery On The Map

      08-21-13 | By

      The Emergence and Controversy of SMART Recovery

      For decades, twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have been the cornerstone for the recovery community as well as an essential tool in the toolkit of the recovering addict.  What people may or may not be aware of is there are a handful of alternative, non-twelve step programs in existence.  Some of these programs require abstinence from drugs and alcohol while others have a platform that features harm reduction or moderation.  Examples of these alternative groups include LifeRing and Moderation Management, among others.  The emergence of these alternative recovery groups have sparked controversy with the traditional step program community.

      Smart Recovery

      The focus of this article is on SMART Recovery, which has been called the leading non-step recovery support group.  It is estimated there are about 700 meetings worldwide and growing in popularity.  While there are tenets of the SMART Recovery philosophy that may be appealing to those who are hesitant in joining a step group like AA or NA, there are also controversies surrounding some of the core philosophies.

      What Is The Different Between SMART Recovery vs. 12 Step Groups

      The main difference seen between SMART Recovery and 12 Step groups is the core approach. Under the SMART Recovery lens,   12 Step groups focus on the powerlessness aspects of addiction while SMART recovery puts the onus more on empowering the addict to recover.  In psychological terms, the core philosophies boil down to what is termed the locus of control. For those with an internal locus of control, the future is seen as something that will be dictated on how one makes it out to be.  On the other hand, those with an external locus of control the future is expected to hinge of how outside forces shape events and situations.

      SMART Recovery focuses on the internal locus aspects.  For example, if people are having cravings and thoughts of using, the SMART philosophy would put emphasis on learning how to deal with those cravings.  There is work done on identifying the motivation behind the thoughts of using as well as what underlying personal issues one may be having.  From those foundations, strategies can be implemented so an individual can change their situations and hopefully achieve balance.

      In the eyes of the SMART Recovery community, implementing courage and promoting being proactive leads to self-empowerment.  This overall concept stands in contrast to the more traditional 12 step approach in which there needs to be understanding that one is powerless in the face of addiction and the acceptance of that fact.

      Structure of SMART Recovery

      SMART Recovery is based on four principles: 1) Building and maintaining motivation 2) Coping with urges 3) Problem solving and 4) Achieving a more balanced lifestyle.  The program’s foundation is based on techniques and methods based on the principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.  This philosophy of therapy, in layman’s terms, states that an individual can be taught to strive for emotional well-being and balance by changing negative and unhealthy thoughts into positive thoughts.

      SMART meetings are usually 60-90 in length and are led by a trained SMART facilitator. After a brief introduction, those in attendance can introduce themselves and have the option to let the group know how they have been doing and coping since their last meeting.  After the introduction the agenda for the meeting is laid out and based on tools and strategies based in SMART Recovery philosophy that help combat addictive behavior and thoughts.  At the conclusion, participants have the opportunity to openly discuss how the meeting went and what they found helpful.  Crosstalk and discussion are encouraged in SMART recovery.


      One of the main controversies concerning SMART Recovery is there can be a possibility that some alcoholics can reverse addictive patterns of using through moderation and not abstinence.  An often cited study used to bolster that statement is a summary from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol Related Conditions (NESARC).  From that summary, SMART proponents note that data finds that around half of the people who have had a diagnosis of alcohol dependence end of moderating successfully.

      Others, especially on recovery oriented threads and forums feel that SMART Recovery may be engaging in AA bashing which some feel is the modus operandi of the non-traditional recovery groups.  Upon closer inspection, SMART Recovery does not advocate moderation explicitly and in their literature and handbooks it does state that SMART Recovery is an abstinence based program.  With the emergence of recovery programs like SMART Recovery, it points to the fact that recovery is not a “one size fits all” paradigm.

      For some in recovery, a traditional twelve-step approach may not be the best fit in its entirety.  Other approaches, such as SMART Recovery tenets and philosophies, may be a much needed complementary piece to the recovery puzzle.


      Tim Powers – bald, tattooed, a business professional by day and rocker by night. Sober by the grace of God since the 8th of May in the year of our Lord 2003. Sharing my stories and myself in order to pay it forward. You can follow me on Twitter @tpowersbass42


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