12-Step Programs: Types, Benefits, and How They Work
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For generations, 12-step programs have been the gold standard of addiction recovery therapy. Countless millions of people have gone through one or more Twelve Step programs to learn how to conquer their addictions and move on with their lives.
But what is a 12-step program, and what do they do? How do they work, and how can they effectively help you overcome substance abuse issues?
This blog post explores these questions in detail. It also provides an informative look at the benefits that 12-step programs offer those struggling with addiction problems.
What Are 12-Step Programs?
12-step programs are personal recovery tools that people use to manage their addiction. The most popular 12-step program was popularized by the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). However, other programs are available for many different types of addiction.
Addiction treatment experts and the global medical community accept 12-step programs as a viable treatment tool. They apply the 12-step approach to addictions beyond alcohol abuse, including:
- Drug use and misuse
- Sex addiction
- Social anxiety
- Compulsive spending
The 12 steps of recovery address all these defects by recognizing them as curable illnesses. They do this primarily by providing an outlet to understand the challenges of daily life.
How Do 12-Step Programs Work?
Members of 12-step programs attend in-person meetings at locations in their communities. They openly discuss the exact nature of their experiences and offer peer support to one another to remain sober.
Many programs have internet-based “chat” rooms and online meetings that supplement but don’t replace in-person meetings. These support groups also strongly emphasize service and helping other members get clean and remain sober.
To join a 12-step program, they only require you to want to stop drinking or using drugs to manage your addiction. You don’t need to pass any certification or pay a fee.
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What Are The 12 Steps of AA?
12-step programs promote spiritual growth and maturity to overcome addiction. Support groups like AA emphasize accepting that addiction is a curable disease. They also help you overcome and manage addiction and aid others to reach the same goal.
AA Members work their way through 12 tasks to help them with recovery. These steps include:
- Admitting powerlessness over the addiction
- Accepting that a higher power can restore sanity
- Turning will and life over to God
- Conducting a self-inventory
- Admitting wrong-doing to God and ourselves
- Asking God to remove defects of character
- Asking God to remove shortcomings
- Making a list of those harmed and being willing to make amends
- Making direct amends to those people when possible unless it causes further injury
- Continuing personal inventory and admitting ongoing mistakes
- Praying and meditating and asking for and accepting guidance provided
- Experiencing a spiritual awakening and then carrying that message to others to help them with their addiction
The Role of Spirituality in 12-Step Programs
You don’t need to be religious or spiritual to benefit from a 12-step program. The idea is that each person must decide what constitutes a higher power and undertake a fearless moral inventory as part of their healing process.
The 12 steps rely heavily on spirituality. Its requirements draw upon the spiritual principles of many religions to help those struggling with addiction connect to and submit their will to a higher power.
You can refer to family members, friends, or any other support system you have as a higher power if that works best for you. No matter how you define spirituality, the idea is to find a way to discover strength and courage from outside yourself.
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What Are The Types of 12-Step Programs?
Many 12-step programs originated from the 12 steps that AA formulated. While other organizations have developed their interpretations, their programs adhere to similar principles.
There are 12-step programs for people who don’t have an addiction but are close to someone who is. The most popular 12-step programs for loved ones of an addicted person include Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Alateen.
Besides dealing with drug abuse, there are also 12-step programs that address vices such as gambling, smoking, porn addiction, and more.
If no 12 steps of recovery pertain to your specific addiction, you still benefit from attending a similar 12-step program. You can attend meetings and find fellowship with others going through a similar experience.
Are There 12-Step Programs for Mental Health?
Emotions Anonymous (EA) is an excellent example of a 12-step program for mental health. It helps those struggling with various emotional issues, such as depression, anxiety, fear, and anger.
The group also provides a supportive community for people looking to overcome their emotional challenges. Like the 12 steps for addiction, EA’s principles emphasize acceptance, connecting with a higher power, taking responsibility for your actions, and making direct amends from past actions.
Do 12-Step Programs Work?
12-step programs can be a powerful addiction treatment tool. Numerous studies show that people’s participation in 12-step groups reduces the risk of relapse and improves their overall quality of life.
People who attend regular meetings gain peer support and develop better coping strategies for managing cravings and triggers. Involvement in 12-step programs also helps people stay engaged in their recovery program and remain sober.
As of 2021, there are an estimated 1,967,613 active individual AA memberships and 120,455 groups worldwide. This number is likely higher since AA doesn’t maintain formal membership lists.
The Benefits of Consistent Participation
AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) conduct internal surveys to measure their success. These surveys provide information about the members' backgrounds and the length of time they remain sober.
External studies also show that consistent participation increases the likelihood of long-term sobriety. Furthermore, those who join a 12-step program while receiving specialized treatment have the highest success rates.
The Long-Term Impact and Medical Perspective
Research reveals that early intervention and consistent meeting attendance lead to better outcomes. This is better than sporadic treatment or late-stage addiction intervention.
Medical professionals believe that participating in a 12-step program after formal treatment provides continuous support and care, reducing the risk of relapse.
With their proven benefits regarding psychosocial well-being and self-efficacy, 12-step programs from support groups play a crucial role in the recovery process.
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What Are The Benefits of 12-Step Programs?
12-step programs are highly regarded as an effective treatment option for those struggling with addiction. They serve as a valuable resource, whether as ongoing support following formal treatment or as the primary form of therapy.
Here are the other advantages of joining one:
- Sense of community: Being a member widens your social circle to include people prioritizing abstinence and sobriety. That means no longer spending time with people who may trigger you into harmful behavior like drug use.
- Lesser exposure to triggers: Joining 12-step programs adjusts your social routines, so you face fewer temptations because you aren’t exposed to them as often. You can build fulfilling relationships with like-minded sober people who find alternative ways to spend their time.
- A structured environment: Members of 12-step programs design their schedules around meetings, providing a more structured environment. You learn about sober role models and learn more effective coping skills to help manage your addictions.
- Personal accountability: Participating in 12-step programs creates an environment of accountability. This can help better manage addictive behaviors and triggers and monitor recovery progress.
- Strong support: 12-step meetings provide a community for members to discuss their trials and successes with addiction. This gives them support from people who have gone through the same struggles.
- Education: Many 12-step programs offer educational materials and classes that help foster a better understanding of the issues related to addiction.
- Improved relationships: The 12 steps can help repair broken family and interpersonal relationships.
- Better mental health: Participating in a 12-step program can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, leading to an overall improvement in mental health.
- Life lessons: 12-step programs teach members to live without resorting to addictive behaviors. This includes learning to manage stress, handle difficult emotions, and make healthy choices in all areas of their lives.
What Are the Benefits of 12-Step Programs for Families?
12-step programs can benefit entire families who have someone struggling with an addiction. Family members learn how to best interact with loved ones, uncover communication issues, and create healthy boundaries.
Family members of recovering persons develop coping mechanisms to react to difficult situations. They can also help them break the enabling cycle and learn how not to rescue or cover up for a loved one’s addiction.
12-step programs can teach family members how to show support so their loved ones don't feel isolated in their struggles with addiction.
Are 12-Step Programs Worth It?
Despite the benefits 12-step programs provide for many, not all medical experts believe these programs are as beneficial as they claim to be. Some believe a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t sufficient to cure people of addiction.
Others raise concerns about the religious overtones of the 12 steps of AA. Critics also note the high rate of people dropping out of 12-step programs after just a month or two.
Some studies also show that over 80% of first-time attendees stop going after just one month. Additionally, only 10% of members attend for over 90 days. According to this and other sources of formal research, joining 12-step programs alone may not be enough to overcome addiction.
12-step programs were initially developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and have been around for decades, offering support to those struggling with addictions. Many consider them an effective form of treatment due to their beneficial effects on psychosocial well-being and self-efficacy.
Despite criticisms about these programs, many people benefit from long-term participation in 12-step programs. Family members can learn about their loved one’s situation to develop healthier boundaries.
If you enroll in a 12-step program with traditional forms of treatment (e.g., Medication-Assisted Treatment, inpatient treatment, behavioral therapy, etc.), it can be effective in helping you achieve sobriety. Speak to a medical professional for a personalized treatment plan for your needs.
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- Donovan et al. “12-Step Interventions and Mutual Support Programs for Substance Use Disorders: An Overview.” Social Work in Public Health, 2019.
- Flanagin, J. “The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps.” The Atlantic, 2014.
- “ESTIMATED WORLDWIDE A.A. INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP MEMBERSHIP.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 2021.
- “Emotions Anonymous.” Mental Health America.
- Mokhtari et al. “Comparison of the effectiveness of a 12 step substance use recovery program on quality of life.” Nursing & Health Sciences, 2019.
- Zemore et al. “Comparison of 12-step Groups to Mutual Help Alternatives for AUD in a Large, National Study: Differences in Membership Characteristics and Group Participation, Cohesion, and Satisfaction.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2016.