12-Step Programs: Types, Benefits & How They Work

12-step programs support those with an alcohol and/or substance addiction. The meetings provide people with an outlet where others understand the challenges they face every day. Learn more about the Twelve Steps here.
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Overview: 12-Step Programs

12-step programs are tools used by people to manage an addiction. The most popular 12 step program is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but programs are available for many different types of addiction. The 12 steps of recovery support those with an addiction and provide them with an outlet where people understand the challenges they face every day.

Addiction treatment experts and the global medical community accept 12 step programs as a viable treatment tool. The 12 step approach has been applied to addictions beyond alcoholism, including:

  • Drug use
  • Smoking
  • Sex addiction
  • Social anxiety
  • Overeating
  • Compulsive spending
  • Gambling

Members of 12 step programs attend in-person meetings at locations in their communities. They discuss their experience with addiction and offer peer support to one another to remain sober. Additionally, many programs have internet-based “chat” rooms and online meetings designed to supplement, but not replace in-person meetings. Groups also place a strong emphasis on service and helping other members get clean and remain sober.

To “join” a 12 step program, a member only needs to have a desire to stop drinking and/or using drugs or manage his or her addiction.

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What are the 12 Steps of AA?

12 step programs emphasize accepting that addiction is an incurable disease. They promote spiritual growth and individual maturity, as well as helping others who also have an addiction. Members work their way through 12 tasks designed to help them with recovery. The 12 steps include:

  1. Admitting powerlessness over the addiction
  2. Accepting that a higher power can restore sanity
  3. Turning will and life over to God
  4. Conducting a self-inventory
  5. Admitting wrong-doing to God and ourselves
  6. Asking God to remove defects of character
  7. Asking God to remove shortcomings
  8. Making a list of those harmed and being willing to make amends
  9. Making amends to those people when possible unless it caused further injury
  10. Continuing personal inventory and admitting ongoing mistakes
  11. Praying and meditating and asking for and accepting guidance provided
  12. Experiencing a spiritual awakening and then carrying that message to others to help them with their addiction

The goals of 12 step programs help a person overcome and manage addiction and help others do the same.

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Different Types of 12 Step Programs

Most 12 step programs are based on the same 12 steps developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Others are similar and have created their own interpretation of the steps.

You can find a 12 step program intended to support those with varying addictions and challenges, including:

  • Overeating and other eating disorders
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Drugs
  • Working too much
  • Kleptomania

There are also 12 step programs for those 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.

If there are no 12 steps of recovery to address a person’s specific addiction, he or she can still benefit from attendance at a similar 12 step program.

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Do 12 Step Programs Work?

In 2012, data from Alcoholics Anonymous showed there to be nearly 64,000 groups with 1.4 million members in the United States and Canada, and more than 114,000 groups and 2.1 million members around the world. But are participants getting what they need to manage their addiction from these programs?

There are varying opinions regarding the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs.

The three main 12 step programs conduct internal surveys of members to assess their success. The information collected deals with the demographics of members and length of sobriety.

Some external studies have shown that AA and NA participation tend to increase the likelihood of sobriety. These studies have also shown psychosocial and self-efficacy benefits. Members who began participating in their 12 step program while enrolled in another specialty treatment program had the greatest success.

There is also evidence that people who begin treatment early and attend meetings consistently fare better than those who manage only sporadic treatment or who are in the advanced stages of addiction. Medical professionals believe this is because participation in a 12 step program after formal treatment provides support and continued care that reduces the risk for relapse.

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Benefits of 12 Step Programs

12 step programs are widely accepted as a source of treatment for those with addiction. Whether it’s used as long-term support after formal treatment or the primary treatment, 12 step programs are an important and readily available resource.

One of the primary benefits of participation in a 12 step program is the fellowship the programs provide. Membership often means a change in a person’s social circle to include more, if not only, people who support abstinence and sobriety. Essentially, members are no longer spending time with people who drink or use drugs.

This also brings a change in social activities, so members face fewer temptations to indulge in their addiction because they aren’t exposed to the opportunity as often. They can build fulfilling relationships with like-minded sober individuals who find alternative ways to spend their time.

Additionally, members of 12 step programs have an opportunity to design their schedules around meetings, providing them with a more structured environment. They gain access to sober role models and learn more effective coping skills to help them manage their addictions.

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Criticisms of 12 Step Programs

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 helpful and others raise concerns about the religious overtones of the 12 steps of AA.

Some note the high rate of people dropping out of 12 step programs after just a month or two. Some studies show more than 80 percent of first-time attendees stop going after just one month and only 10 percent attend for more than 90 days.

Most agree that despite the pitfalls, the effectiveness of 12 step programs are helpful to some people and can serve as a supplemental and long-term support option for those who are managing addiction.

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“Alcoholics Anonymous : Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Www.Aa.Org, www.aa.org/pages/en_US/twelve-steps-and-twelve-traditions.

Donovan, Dennis M., et al. “12-Step Interventions and Mutual Support Programs for Substance Use Disorders: An Overview.” Social Work in Public Health, vol. 28, no. 3–4, May 2013, pp. 313–332, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3753023/, 10.1080/19371918.2013.774663. Accessed 25 Nov. 2019.

Flanagin, Jake. “The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps.” The Atlantic, 25 Mar. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-failures-of-12-steps/284616/. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

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Updated on: June 24, 2020
Alyssa Hill
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Medically Reviewed: April 4, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
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