Differences between SMART Recovery and AA

This post was written by Tanji Wolfert, Chateau Recovery’s Substance Use Disorder Counselor and our most recent SMART Recovery facilitator. She discusses the difference between SMART Recovery and AA.

SMART is an acronym that stands for “Self Management and Recovery Training”. They are a nonprofit organization that strives to offer free support groups for those who are trying to abstain from a behavior or substance addiction. The program is a kind of alternative to Alcohol Anonymous-type groups or other twelve step support groups, but can be a valuable tool in addition to twelve step groups as well.

SMART uses science-based information to help people address behavioral problems and make changes in their thinking that can feed addiction. This science-based approach is helpful because some people who struggle with addiction do not like twelve step type support groups. There are usually two reasons for this: One reason is the “higher power” or spirituality issue. Some people really struggle with this approach because they may be atheistic, or just more science-minded. Others that feel this way grew up in an environment where religion was based on shame and punishment—it may not be the particular religion itself, but perhaps in the way they were taught the religion, or maybe just in the way they interpreted it—but nonetheless they have an aversion to the concept of spirituality. The other reason people seem to shy away from twelve step groups is that they do not like some of the cultural things that can typically go along with these meetings. For example some people do not like the smoking and swearing that can accompany many of these meetings. Some prefer not to label themselves, out loud at every meeting, as an “addict”. Others are negatively affected by the way they keep track of sobriety, to the day, and end up experiencing significant shame if they relapse and have to go back to “day one”. Whatever the reason, these individuals still greatly need a network of support, and effective tools, to aid them in their sobriety. SMART Recovery is an amazing way to do that.

Having said all of the above about how some people feel about twelve-step groups, I have to be sure I am not misrepresenting my view and my professional opinion about twelve-step in general. There are millions of people that use twelve-step meetings, love them, and transform their life through a twelve-step program. In my experience the majority of people wanting to become sober are willing to embrace the twelve-step approach to some degree or another. Through my substance abuse disorder schooling I learned that these groups are the only type that began working to heal individuals with addiction in the first place, over 80 years ago (thanks Bill and Bob), and the only program to be proven to work over the long term. This is a reason it has been around for so long. I love the twelve step programs for many, many reasons. I believe it works miracles in countless people’s lives. On the other hand, it is ideal to have either options to, or strategies in addition to, these groups. This can only help more people, and as I have already expressed, SMART Recovery is an exceptional way to do that.

Now for a little bit about what SMART teaches. They use a “4-Point Program”. These four areas are what they call the “heart of SMART”. They are (1) building and maintaining motivation (2) coping with urges (3) managing thoughts and feelings (4) living a balanced life. They are quick to point out that these are not steps, although for some people it does work to use them in order.

The program uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which was originally Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), for their tools and techniques. Because people will sometimes negatively filter and/or exaggerate their thoughts about what is going on in their life, their feelings are greatly impacted by these amplified (and usually negative and inaccurate) thoughts. These painful emotions and unhelpful thinking errors can greatly aid to drive the urge to use substances in order to cope or cover up. The methods that SMART teaches help individuals to dispute these beliefs in simple, effective ways. When used properly and consistently these CBT strategies can lead them to change their perspective on them self, their life, and its many unavoidable challenges. It can give them a more mature and effective way at looking at the world and how to cope with everyday stresses, relationship difficulties, disappointments, and the like.