SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is SMART Recovery?

You have likely heard of the 12-steps method to alcohol recovery. You may have also heard of experienced Alcoholics Anonymous and its model of treatment. While those two methods are very popular and well-known, there is an alternative to them, SMART Recovery.

SMART Recovery stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. It was formed when a group of individuals involved with Alcoholics Anonymous split off from the group due to some of the beliefs and methods used by the organization. Since its creation in 1992, it has become a popular group providing treatment to individuals suffering from substance misuse1

SMART Recovery: How does it work?

SMART Recovery uses some of the same ideas Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do, but differ in some ways. It is a group-based addiction treatment model led by volunteers. The recovery program is designed to help individuals by using the latest scientifically-based treatments to end alcohol and/or drug addiction.

SMART Recovery works with people suffering from multiple types of addiction, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex addiction, overeating, or compulsive money spending/shopping. The treatment method helps people learn to move forward in life following rehabilitation. Individuals learn a number of tools and techniques while attending SMART Recovery group meetings.

These scientifically-based tools and techniques enable individuals to make wiser, healthier life choices. SMART Recovery offers meetings and programs in a number cities around the world. It also has treatment centers and online groups people can attend.

What is the history of SMART Recovery?

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were the keystones in the self-help group sector. For many years, the two groups were the only ones available for people aiming for recovery from alcohol or drug addiction2

Due to the focus on God and the spiritual aspects of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, a group of individuals split off to form SMART Recovery. In 1985, Rational Recovery was founded. It was based on self-empowerment using scientific principles. It wanted to avoid the idea of God and the spiritual focus.

In 1992, Rational Recovery officially became a non-profit and was renamed SMART Recovery two years later. Since the late 2000s, SMART Recovery has experienced a large increase in interests. The United States, United Kingdom, and Australia are three countries in which SMART Recovery has experienced growth.

SMART Recovery Four-Point Program

SMART Recovery offers clients a Four-Point Program for healing. The group’s four phases of treatment and recovery from addiction are broken down nicely for clients to follow. The four phases are:

  • Building and Maintaining Motivation: Having the resolve to remain sober.
  • Coping with Urges: Examining triggers and discovering the best ways to reduce them.
  • Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors: Learning ways to avoid relapse, finding self-acceptance and handling challenging emotions.
  • Living a Balanced Life: Setting realistic expectations about a sober life and making changes to promote an effective recovery journey.

Clients can achieve each phase through the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by focusing on changing the behaviors related to addiction.

The overall key of SMART Recovery is self-empowerment. The group’s meetings and tools provide you with information to stay motivated after leaving rehab. The aim is to also prevent cravings while living a well-balanced lifestyle.

The SMART Recovery program covers topics including:

  • Showing self-responsibility, self-motivation and self-discipline during recovery
  • Replacing self-destructive thoughts and ideas with healthy, rational beliefs
  • Setting attainable goals and milestones during recovery
  • Understanding impulses as part of the recovery process and recognizing when they happen
  • Learning how to resist cravings to drink or act upon a negative thought
  • Being patient with recovery
  • Applying SMART Recovery lessons and resources to everyday challenges

A relapse is not viewed as a weakness or failure at Recovery meetings. They are seen as a chance to start over on the path to recovery. A relapse is an opportunity for individuals to speak about what happened, how it happened, and the ways to get back on track towards recovery. SMART Recovery sees a relapse as a simple mistake rather than failing the program. This ideology increases a person’s opportunity to return to alcohol or drug abstinence.

What are the SMART Recovery ABC’s?

SMART Recovery has some ABC’s that it bases treatment on. These ABC’s include:

A: Activating Experience

Each trigger begins with a specific circumstance that has taken place. The first step is to understand the event that made you drink or fall back on old habits.

B: Beliefs

When you think about or dwell on that particular event, how do you see or feel it? You need to take into consideration how you are thinking and feeling about it. Beliefs may come in many forms as they can be rational, reality-based, logical, irrational, wishful-based thinking, illogical, and self-defeating.

C: Consequences

Each thought and action has a consequence. A consequence is a result of the activating event and your beliefs.

D: Disputes

You should take the negative beliefs that you may possess and transform them into a series of questions and answers. Doing this will help you look deeper into why the event made you feel a specific way.

E: Effects

Effects occur when irrational thoughts are replaced with logical and rational beliefs. Practice will allow you to begin seeing new behavior patterns form and the decrease of your urges.

What is the difference between SMART Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous?

Perhaps the most significant difference between SMART Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous is that the former is not based on a 12-step model, spiritual principles, or God (higher power). SMART Recovery is instead focused on evidence-based treatments. These treatments incorporate a number of interventions and tools such as CBT. SMART Recovery does not label individuals as “addict” or “alcoholic” and provides online meetings to clients.

In addition, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous base their programs on alcoholism being a chronic disease that is incurable but can be treated. Addiction is not a disease in the eyes of SMART. Clients can refer to their addiction as they wish to.

There are SMART Recovery programs and meetings around the world. Individuals can locate a SMART Recovery meeting and begin their treatment path today.

Citations: SMART Recovery

  1. AIHW 2014. National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report: 2013. Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat. no. PHE 183 Canberra: AIHW; (accessed 4 Aug 2021). []
  2. Whiteford HA, Degenhardt L, Rehm J et al. . Global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet 2013;382:1575–86. 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61611-6[]
  3. Sussman S, Lisha N, Griffiths M. Prevalence of the addictions: a problem of the majority or the minority? Eval Health Prof 2011;34:3–56. 10.1177/0163278710380124[PMC free article] 
  4. Sheedy CK, Whitter M. Guiding principles and elements of recovery-oriented systems of care: What do we know from SMART Recovery? HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4439 Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2009. (accessed 15 Aug 2021). []
  5. NICE Quality standard for drug use disorders. NICE quality standards QS23. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence; SMART Recovery. (accessed 15 Aug 2021). []
  6. Australian Psychological Society. Evidence-based psychological interventions in the treatment of mental disorders: a literature review. 3rd edn Melbourne: The Australian Psychological Society, 2010. []
  7. Boissel JP, Cucherat M, Li W et al. . The problem of therapeutic efficacy indices. 3. Comparison of the indices and their use. Therapie 1999;54:405–11. []
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