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Alternatives to 12-Step Addiction Recovery Programs

Alternatives to AA 12 Step Programs

Anyone who is struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), whether it is mild, moderate or severe, is encouraged to seek help. The help comes in various forms – since no treatment is universally helpful for everybody.1  That is why it is important to have available and to try out different types of treatments, combine them if needed, and remain in treatment for as long as it is necessary.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is often the first association when it comes to AUD treatment. What exactly is Alcoholics Anonymous? AA represents self-help groups which normally include 12-step programs.2 Their impact on the person recovering can be crucial, but it is vital to note that AA programs are not the main type of treatment or a substitute for seeking professional help.2

Apart from AA and similar mutual-support groups for recovery intended to offer peer support, there are other methods for treatment led by professionals, such as:3

  • Behavioral treatments (individual, family or group counseling) aimed at building a social system, avoiding relapse and reaching small goals at a time.
  • Medications, which are non-addictive and taken for managing AUD.

Some additional alternatives to AA include:

  • SMART Recovery.
  • Women For Sobriety.
  • LifeRing.
  • Moderation Management.
  • SOS.
  • Celebrate Recovery.
  • Refuge Recovery.
  • Rational Recovery.

12-Step Vs. Non-12-Step Programs

The 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programs are self-help groups of those with AUD who are on the road to recovery. The accent is on the group and community which participates in the process, rather than some alternative approaches to AA which are more individual. The 12 steps are actually guidelines to stages of mutual recovery. They are based on:4

  • Acceptance – the realization that AUD is beyond one’s free will (e.g. the very first of the 12 steps reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable5).
  • Surrender – giving yourself over to the 12 steps of AA, a higher power and the social structure determined by the group.
  • Active involvement – it is considered necessary to take part in the AA activities, not only to observe them.

An important trait of the 12-step programs is their foundation on the higher power. The majority of steps mention a God, A Power or Him to whom a person owes their recovery.5 This is an approach that might not suit everyone, since some may wish to feel more in control during their recovery process.

Some alternatives to AA, such as the most common behavioral treatment, often take individual approaches, e.g. the cognitive-behavioral therapy.3 Motivational enhancement is another behavioral method which focuses on the individual abilities, skill development and staying in control of one’s recovery. There is also the possibility not to do everything on your own even in treatments alternative to AA: the marital and family counseling includes family members in the process, and this has even been proved to be an even more beneficial treatment.3

Pros Of Non-12-Step Programs

Non-12-step programs allow for more individuality and freedom when it comes to the course of recovery. The AA alternatives help the patient change their behavioral patterns which lead to excessive drinking. Some of the advantages include:3

  • The necessary skill development for controlling AUD.
  • Creating a strong support system.
  • Setting realistic goals.
  • Dealing with and preventing relapse.

New approaches, such as the SMART Recovery and LifeRing, both non-12-step methods, emphasize the “self” in the recovery process. This is probably the biggest difference and advantage that these programs have over classic AA groups. SMART points out the power an individual has in their recovery, and LifeRing relies on the strengthening of the “Sober Self”. 6,7 LifeRing also welcomes people of any religion, or none at all, but also underlines that their approach is secular – while they do approve of the 12-step programs, their methods include only human efforts, which can be considered a pro for many people.7

There is also an organization solely for women, which can be a comforting environment for some: Women for Sobriety. They offer group work, positive thinking and reinforcement.8    

Lastly, they are normally free of charge.6,7,8

Cons Of Non-12-Step Programs

For the most part, non 12-step programs have been an upgrade to the traditional 12-step AA ones: they introduced more individuality, professionalism and secularity. However, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, these changes may be disadvantages for some people.3 Some of these cons might include:

  • Lack of a fixed set of goals – the majority of non-12-step programs allow their members to set their own individual goals3, whereas the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have a predetermined, common goal.5 For some it may be easier to give themselves over to the group’s set goal, rather to seek it on their own.
  • Lack of unity – although the non-12-step programs do entail group work, the differences between the stages and aims of the members may lead to dissimilation, which some may find unproductive. Besides, research has proven the benefits of peer support in the recovery process in various areas: substance consumption, treatment engagement, self-efficiency, abstinence, and avoiding relapse.9 It is important to note that unity does exist in non-12-step programs, it just takes a different form.

What Are the Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous?

As we have discussed, some people will wish to seek options different to Alcoholics Anonymous. Luckily, today there are numerous, diverse and free options to look for. We will name some of them:

  • SMART Recovery.
  • Women For Sobriety.
  • LifeRing.
  • Moderation Management.
  • SOS.
  • Celebrate Recovery.
  • Refuge Recovery.
  • Rational Recovery.

SMART Recovery

The name is not accidental – it is an acronym for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It is a relatively new organization where volunteers, peers and professionals come together to combat addiction. It is rooted in belief in oneself, taking initiative and a secular approach, for people who are struggling with AUD but are willing to change.6 This is a self-empowering program which focuses on an individual, therefore allowing everyone to find their own path to “Life Beyond Addiction”.10 There is no stigma or judgment, and unlike AA, the use of the word “alcoholic” is discouraged. They also encourage medication and combining SMART with medical treatment.10 Their values are empowerment, equity, inclusion, integrity and accountability.11

Women For Sobriety

Women For Sobriety (WFS) takes a similar, individualistic approach, with the important difference that it is only for women, even the first of its kind.8 This can create a more comfortable environment for some women during recovery. Women work in groups to find themselves, and they focus on self-value, self-worth and self-efficacy. Their methods include:8 

  • Approval and encouragement.
  • Positive thinking.
  • Accompanying physical exercises.
  • Active group involvement.

They also follow steps called acceptance statements, but are of secular nature.8


LifeRing is another free organization for overcoming AUD. It offers creating one’s own program for recovery and is based on secularity. In fact, that is one of their 3 Ss: Secularity, Sobriety and Self-Help, by which they perfectly describe their program. They want you to “ strengthen the Sober Self and weaken the Addict Self”7. It is also abstinence-based, which means that they insist on avoiding relapses (this is not the case in all non AA programs). However, they acknowledge that sobriety is difficult to achieve, but they emphasize the belief in individual will – unlike standard AA programs.7

Moderation Management

Unlike the previous organizations, Moderation Management does not insist on complete sobriety. On the contrary, it seeks to transform one’s drinking habits, by taking smaller steps rather than quitting drinking altogether at once. Their methods include keeping a diary, making lists of drinking triggers, developing your own set of rules and trying abstinence for a short period of time in order to experience its benefits. Afterwards, the name “moderation” takes place – you are allowed, even advised, to start introducing small amounts of alcohol back into your life.12 Its biggest advantage and difference to all the other methods is in that it defines sober living differently.


SOS stands for Secular Organizations for Sobriety, indicating that, like other alternatives to AA, it relies on the belief that a person is able to overcome addiction with the strength of their own will and that no divine power is needed. The group meetings are anonymous and free of charge.13

Rational Recovery

Rational Recovery (RR) was founded as an alternative to AA meetings and the majority of first members had previously attended AA. However, RR is cognitively oriented and therefore a complete counterpart to AA. The results have shown that more than a half of attendees achieved abstinence.14

Refuge Recovery

These last 2 alternative programs to AA have a spiritual aspect to them. Refuge Recovery is based on some Buddhist teachings, however, it does not require a theistic approach, just the belief in the process. One of the main practices is meditation. The recovery process is led by the “4 truths”:15

  • Addiction creates suffering.
  • The cause of addiction is repetitive craving.
  • Recovery is possible.
  • The path to recovery is available.

Refuge Recovery is a great option for those to whom the spirituality appeals, and yet AA did not suit them.

Celebrate Recovery

Although different from AA, Celebrate Recovery is based on a religious approach. It is rooted in Christian teachings and utilizes the 12-step program. Many of its members are members of the Church, but nowadays groups are formed even in places outside it. This program is for anyone who wishes to combine spirituality with their recovery.16

Why are 12-step Alternatives Important?

AA alternatives are important because everyone’s journey to recovery is different, just like everyone’s addiction is different.1 AUD is complex and requires an individual approach, combining self-help groups, medications and/or behavioral therapy.1 If there was just one method, e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, it would not cater to everyone’s needs. That is why the aforementioned alternatives to AA are valuable, with everyone being able to find the option that suits them.

Why Should You Choose a 12-step Alternative?

To summarize, the main difference between 12-step AA and non-12-step programs is that AA requires giving oneself over spiritually to a higher power which leads a person to recovery.4 Meanwhile, non-12-step programs are mostly secular and insist on the strong will of an individual to change.6,7,8 Also, the programs differ in their method, since AA members follow the same structure of a meeting (the 12 steps)5, while the alternatives tend to make individual plans for each person.3

The benefits are clear: choosing an alternative to a 12-step AA program will give you more freedom and control over your recovery. If AA did not suit you, or you do not want to start with AA due to their established religious approach, finding an alternative is always an option and today there are many other programs to choose from. The only thing that matters is to seek help.

Finding Addiction Help at Non-12-Step Drug and Alcohol Recovery Programs

If you or your loved ones are struggling with AUD, there are many ways to seek help. The first step can be calling an AA or any other hotline. Some of the options are:

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-487-4889 – a free service available 24/7 and in both English and Spanish.17
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 1 (800) NCA-CALL (622-2255).18
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-888-628-9454 – calling this helpline may be life-saving. It is free and private.19

Calling any hotline will also give you the information on the nearest AA or other rehab centers where you could seek further help. The experienced navigator will also provide information about verifying your insurance, payment methods and answer any other questions you may have, so do not hesitate and make that call.

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