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According to recent statistics, 14.1 million Americans aged 18 and over suffer from alcohol use disorder, while 19.7 million struggle with substance use disorder. And unfortunate as these numbers might be, these problems are anything but new. That’s why through the years, there has been a growing number of groups offering to provide sufferers with support and guidance towards sobriety. One of these groups is SMART Recovery. An abbreviation for Self-Management and Recovery Training, this non-profit organization works similar to more popular movements like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, but adapts a secular standpoint and distinct concepts about addiction. But the best part about SMART is that it’s absolutely free.

The History of SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery’s original founders were mostly members of the Rational Recovery (RR) group. However, sometime in the 90’s, the RR group decided to change their structure altogether, going from non-profit to for-profit. This dissuaded many of the original heads who left the group and decided to form their own organization. Thus, SMART Recovery was established. Incorporated in 1992 under the name Alcohol and Drug Abuse Self-Help Network, they officially started operating as SMART Recovery two years after. Today, SMART Recovery maintains its status as a non-profit organization. Many of the people who work for the group are volunteers, including their board of directors. On the ground, they have volunteer facilitators who work hand in hand with volunteer advisors to manage local groups and meetings. What’s especially intriguing about SMART Recovery is that all of their meetings are conducted for free. That means participants aren’t required to pay anything to attend, and most of the time, they don’t even need to sign up. Their open, free-for-all format is what encourages their participants to just walk in, allowing a sense of welcoming warmth to anyone and everyone who might need support.

The Principles of SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery maintains itself as a secular, science-based organization that aims to provide individuals guidance and support through non-confrontational, motivational therapies. Their principles are unique from other support groups and twelve-step programs, approaching the issue of addiction using new angles. Some of their principles include:

  • Not Powerless Over Addiction – Some programs (notably the AA movement) require that participants admit to being powerless over their addiction, but SMART Recovery stands on different principles. The program encourages participants to experience empowerment and make proactive choices for their health as opposed to claiming that their addiction is at the driver’s seat.
  • Not a Disease – Even modern medicine asserts that addiction is a mental health condition and must thus be treated as a disease. However SMART Recovery stands on the idea that addiction is a dysfunctional habit rather than a disease. The program believes that addiction is a learned behavior that individuals engage in to address unresolved traumas, and is thus something of a defense mechanism. Their 4-Point Program aims to undo the habit so the participant can live a healthier, more fruitful life.
  • No Higher Power – It’s no secret that groups like the AA have their foundations in Christian principles. And while that might have worked for some people, SMART Recovery believes that real recovery can only be founded on the idea of self-reliance. As a secular group, SMART Recovery teaches participants that only they can change the course of their lives as opposed to relying on an external force or ‘higher power’ to help them through it.
  • Medications are Encouraged – SMART Recovery places particular emphasis on the use of prescribed medications to support the benefits of the process. That said, facilitators and advisors look more favorably on participants who are actively, routinely taking doctor prescribed medications like opioid agonists.
  • Alternative or Supplement – SMART Recovery has been said to be an effective stand-alone alternative to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but the program itself doesn’t assert itself as a stand-alone program. If anything, SMART Recovery recognizes itself as a supplementary program that works to help reinforce what other recovery programs teach.
  • Addiction Doesn’t Define You – Some programs assert that addictive tendencies will stay with the individual for the rest of their life, which is why it’s necessary that they adapt techniques that can help them resist urges for the long haul. But SMART Recovery believes that addiction is a habit, and much like any other habit, it can be broken. Once the participant achieves that, they no longer have to live life identifying themselves by way of their former addiction.

The SMART Recovery 4-Point Program

Unlike other programs that use a standard 12-steps, the SMART Recovery program condenses the process into four points. These points target all of the major aspects of recovery, leading towards a balanced, healthy lifestyle of sobriety. The four points are as follows:

  1. Building and Maintaining Motivation – A big chunk of the struggle is the shame and guilt that individuals experience as a result of their addiction. This first point works to reveal the roots of these feelings, helping participants resolve past issues that may be prompting them to resort to drugs and alcohol for relief.

This is also where facilitators encourage participants to find their reason to pursue sobriety, making them feel empowered and strengthened in their resolve to kick the habit for good.

  1. Coping with Urges – SMART Recovery recognizes that the long-term use of illicit substances and alcohol can make a person addicted and dependent. This step aims to provide tools and techniques that participants can use to combat the urges that they might experience throughout the recovery process.

The SMART Recovery program uses a SMART toolbox of therapy and counseling principles that they leverage to help individuals fully understand their situation. One of the tools for coping with urges is the ABCs of REBT for Urge Coping.

  1. Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors – Many of those struggling with addiction tend to develop negative thought patterns that place them in a vicious cycle of use and disappointment. Thus the program targets these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and helps individuals replace them with rational, positive ideas and self-concepts.

One of the tools they use to that end is the DISARM tool. An abbreviation for Destructive Images and Self-Talk Awareness and Refusal Method, this tool provides participants techniques that they can use to combat negative-self talk and refuse thoughts that place themselves in a bad light.

  1. Living a Balanced Life – Recovery is about more than just staying off the drug. True recovery encompasses the entire lifestyle. That means it isn’t enough for participants to stay clean; if there are areas of their lives that are unbalanced or unsatisfied, they might find reason to return to their old habits once they’re out of recovery.

The fourth point places emphasis on the importance of bringing sobriety into the entire being — from personal relationships, to occupation, to fitness, and every other aspect of a person’s lifestyle. Ensuring that this delicate balance is in place optimizes wellness and leaves no room for a person to feel as though they have an unmet need that they might resolve with drugs or alcohol.

How Effective is SMART Recovery?

According to studies, SMART Recovery has shown significant benefit in terms of encouraging abstinence in its participants. One research funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism assessed abstinence in 189 heavy drinkers who enrolled in the SMART Recovery program. After three months of participating in SMART Recovery, the respondents reported an increase of abstinence from 44% to 72%, significantly reducing the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. Compared with many other programs that aim to help with addiction and sobriety, these numbers show that SMART Recovery is definitely one of the forerunners when it comes to supporting and encouraging abstinence.


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