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SMART Recovery

Secular Alternative to AA


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SMART Recovery is a good group alternative if you’re looking for a more science-based approach to addiction recovery. It was founded in 1994 as a small nonprofit but has evolved into a large organization with thousands of SMART Recovery meetings worldwide. Learn more about what SMART Recovery is in this helpful guide.

What Is SMART Recovery?

SMART is a leading self-empowering peer support recovery group. It is a popular alternative to traditional 12-step groups. SMART Recovery helps people break free from addictions like opioids, alcohol, or other addictive substances. It also helps with problematic activities such as excessive gambling, eating, and sex.

SMART is recognized and endorsed by leading governments and medical institutions worldwide, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse and The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What Does SMART Stand For?

SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. The approach is science-based and uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI).

SMART helps people develop the power within themselves to lead fulfilling and balanced lives through its 4-Point Program.


Before SMART Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) were the most popular self-help groups available to people seeking recovery from addiction. However, not every person finds healing with a higher being. Rational Recovery was founded in 1985 to help those looking for a more science-based approach to their problems. The organization was officially renamed SMART Recovery in 1994. Today, it is funded by three primary sources: advertising, publication sales, and donations.

Values and Goals

SMART recovery guides participants into identifying their most important values that are the driving force behind their actions. The goal is for the person to understand what they truly value in life and let their values steer them in the right direction. Some common values include being loved, taking care of others, having a close family, being independent, living ethically, and more.

The next step is for the participant to translate their personal values into their intended changes in behavior. For instance, if a person values a close family, their goal may include “less arguing over my boozing.” To accomplish their goal, the person must make a change in their behavior. In this case, they may need to stick to their resolution not to drink.

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How Does SMART Recovery Work?

4-Point Program

SMART lends techniques from popular therapies such as cognitive-behavioral and motivational enhancement therapy to teach self-empowerment and self-reliance skills. These skills are taught while following a 4-Point Program. The difference between a 4-Point Program and a Step Program is that participants can choose any point in any order.


The first point teaches participants how to enhance and maintain a motivation to abstain. Participants may make a list of concerns and weigh the costs and advantages of using versus being sober.


The second point involves coping with urges. Participants learn what triggers a craving and how to suppress cravings through methods such as distraction techniques.


The third point involves managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It teaches participants how to avoid relapse by examining ideas, feelings, and behaviors that lead to substance abuse.


The fourth point involves living a balanced life. Participants learn how to live a sober life and obtain long-term recovery. They also learn realistic goal setting and planning for the future.

Uses Parts of Different Therapies

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a counseling method that helps people resolve ambivalent feelings and insecurities to find the needed motivation to change behavior. Recent meta-analyses found that MI is as effective or more effective than other treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapy.1

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

Motivational Enhancement Therapy is a counseling approach designed to evoke internally motivated change. Treatment starts with an initial assessment battery session, followed by two to four individual treatment sessions with a therapist.2


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps identify and change destructive thought patterns that negatively influence behavior and emotions.3 A therapist teaches how to replace these negative thought patterns that often lead to depression and anxiety with more objective, realistic thoughts.


Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is an approach that helps identify irrational beliefs and negative thought patterns that may lead to emotional or behavioral issues. Once these negative patterns are identified, the therapist will teach how to replace negative thoughts with more rational thinking patterns.

SMART Recovery and 12-Step Programs

Scientific – Not Spiritual

Religion and spirituality are not part of the SMART Recovery approach. However, the organization encourages anyone to incorporate whatever belief system they have into their recovery plan.

No Sponsors

SMART Recovery obtains its funding from individual contributions, sale of publications, group donations to the Central Office, and grants.

Discourage Labels

SMART Recovery supports no labeling. Words like “alcoholic” or “junkie” are not used as they are considered unproductive and discouraging. The organization sees addiction as a behavioral problem that can be changed and resolved without judgment, blame, or shame.

Talk With – Not To

SMART Recovery meetings are discussions where members talk with one another instead of talking to one another.

Graduating Recovery

SMART participants can graduate from recovery. These participants are the ones who developed full and satisfying lives. They are learning, helping others, making money, and doing other things that self-actualizing people do with their lives. According to SMART, participants have achieved full self-control and no longer crave to use drugs.

Concepts Often Confused with SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery vs. Rational Recovery

SMART Recovery was originally called Rational Recovery Self-Help Network, owned by Jack Trimpey. In 1994, the organization ended all involvement with Trimpey and changed its name to SMART Recovery. The reason behind the change was disagreements between Trimpey and the nonprofit’s board of directors.

SMART Recovery vs. SMART Goals

SMART Recovery is a peer support recovery group that helps people break free from addictive behaviors.

SMART goals are a method that is used to help people define and implement intentions. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The SMART criteria ensure objectives are achievable within a particular time frame. They are often used in healthcare settings, as well as in business and educational settings.

SMART Recovery is created to help anyone battling with any addiction or co-occurring mental disorder. If you or a loved one are looking for a better alternative to 12-step programs, SMART can be a good choice.

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