What Is SMART Recovery?

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What Is SMART Recovery? 

Traditional 12-step programs have helped millions of people get and stay sober, but not everyone is comfortable with the religious or spiritual perspective of the 12-step philosophies. Many people seeking addiction treatment do not necessarily connect with a “higher power,” or perhaps they simply prefer to keep their religious views private. SMART Recovery (self-management and recovery training) is a recovery program that fills the gap for individuals who want recovery support without the religious framework.

What Is SMART Recovery and How Does It Work?

What is SMART recovery in comparison to traditional 12-step programs? There are several differences and commonalities between the two. Both programs offer face-to-face meetings and peer support with the ultimate goal of helping others learn to live a life free of addiction. However, the organizations take very different approaches to meet that goal.

SMART Recovery vs. 12-step: 6 Main Differences

1. AA (and all of its offshoot programs, like GA, NA, and OA) focuses on powerlessness, acceptance, and serenity, while SMART encourages its members to become courageous and empowered.

2. AA members practice principles based on the 12 steps. SMART Recovery focuses on problem-solving, lifestyle balance, and evidence-based cognitive-behavioral methods.

3. Unlike AA, SMART Recovery does not insist that addiction is a disease but leaves it up to individual participants to define their own experience.

4. The choice to remain completely abstinent from drugs or alcohol is also up to the participant in SMART. For example, drinking in moderation is acceptable in SMART, but AA views it as a lapse in sobriety.

5. In SMART Recovery, participants are not encouraged to be “lifelong” members, and there are no sponsors. Instead, members are welcome to attend meetings for many weeks or many months as needed to resolve the root causes of their addiction.

6. 12-step programs separate different addictions into different group meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Participants go to meetings that correspond with their addictions. Cross-sharing is discouraged. SMART Recovery welcomes all individuals to the same meeting regardless of their specific issue.

The SMART Recovery Approach

SMART uses a four-point plan to help people change their addictive behavior. Their strategy aims to empower participants in the following ways:

  • Teaching self-reliance and self-empowerment
  • Encouraging recovery
  • Providing techniques and tools for a self-directed change
  • Organizing education meetings that include open discussion
  • Supporting the appropriate use of prescription medicine and psychological therapies

As an evidence-based program, SMART evolves as the science around addiction evolves. The organization accepts new evidence about the causes and effects of addiction and adjusts its program to stay aligned with current studies and thought. 

The 4-Point Program

Point 1: Building and Maintaining Motivation

In point one, participants determine their own “state of change,” which includes six different stages. For example, if a person has no desire to change their behavior, their state of change is “pre-contemplation,” whereas a person who is fully engaged in treatment is in the “action” stage.

Point 2: Coping with Urges

SMART participants are encouraged to acknowledge their urges to use substances and find alternative behaviors to help them cope. The motivations behind urges are considered irrational. An evidence-based type of behavioral therapy called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy helps provide alternatives to irrational behaviors.

Point 3: Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

In SMART Recovery, using a cost/benefit analysis to evaluate four specific questions will help individuals grow. These questions are:

  • What do I enjoy about my addiction?
  • What do I hate about my addiction?
  • What do I think I will like about giving up my addiction?
  • What do I think I won’t like about giving up my addiction?

This exercise is used to help manage thoughts and feelings and can be revisited as frequently as needed.

Point 4: Living a Balanced Life

SMART Recovery teaches that a balanced life is the key to success in recovery. Being honest about one’s life and values and shifting perspectives when needed are important skills necessary to create overall balance.

The organization also uses the “ABCs” tool to help participants analyze their thinking and behavior.

The ABCs include:

A: Activating situation (understanding what has triggered you)

B: Irrational belief about a situation

C: Consequences of that belief

D: Dispute the irrational belief by turning it into a question

E: Effective new methods of rational thinking

Following the step-by-step methods encourages participants to change their perception of a situation and develop a more effective and rational response.

Is Self-Management and Recovery Training Effective?

There have not been large numbers of studies conducted on the efficacy of SMART Recovery, but the studies that exist do suggest the program is effective.

One study published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, which recruited 189 people with alcohol use disorders, showed a significant decrease in the average participant’s drink-per-day number and alcohol-related problems. This study also showed a marked improvement in the percentage of days they were abstinent.

Is SMART Recovery the Same as Rational Recovery?

Rational Recovery is an abstinence-based recovery program created as an alternative to the 12-step model. Like SMART, Rational Recovery rejects the focus of a higher power. The program was founded by Jack Trimpey, a licensed clinical social worker and recovered alcoholic. Trimpey created a trademarked method known as the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique. Rational Recovery theorizes that people can learn to dissociate from their addictive voice and remain abstinent. There are no meetings to attend with this method. All materials are available online and are typically free.

What Are the Cons of SMART Recovery?

No single recovery program is perfect, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are a few cons to consider if you’re interested in participating in SMART Recovery meetings.

Some of the cons that could create obstacles for your long-term recovery include:

  • Volunteers direct meetings; there is no professional accountability
  • No detox assistance programs
  • The program is short-term, which may leave some participants looking for sobriety support in the future
  • Moderate substance use is acceptable, which could be a problem for some in recovery
  • SMART is not as well-known as 12-step programs and meetings may be harder to find

Self-management is in the name. To be successful in this treatment, you must be committed, self-directed, and willing to participate in self-reflection. People with unresolved trauma or severe long-term addictions may not yet have these strengths early in their recovery.

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Finding a SMART Recovery Group

Every recovery program requires commitment, patience, and participation. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. However, not every recovery method is perfectly suited for every person. Before committing to any specific recovery program, consider the following tips:

Research Your Options

Even if the information comes from a trusted source, it is still important to do your own research to know if a program is right for you. There are many options to consider when it comes to ending addiction. Do you need the supervision of a residential facility or the help of medically supervised detox? Do you believe a spiritual perspective will help you get sobriety? Only you can decide which type of program is right for you.

Be Willing to Work

No matter what type of recovery program you commit to, breaking the cycle of addiction is difficult. For any treatment to be effective, you must put in the effort and follow the guidance given.

Ask Questions

Whether it’s a luxury rehab or a meeting in a church basement, any reputable treatment program should be willing to answer your questions. In fact, they should encourage your questions. 

What Is a SMART Recovery Meeting Like?

SMART meetings are free, but some groups do accept donations to cover various costs. Meetings are open to everyone, including friends and family members of the person seeking recovery.

Facilitators encourage new participants to attend a minimum of five meetings to see if the program is suitable and fits into your recovery plan. Meetings last from 60 to 90 minutes and typically have 3 to 12 participants at a time.

Meetings begin with a Group Welcome message. Each participant gets the opportunity to discuss their recovery process and share challenges and successes. Sharing is not mandatory.

After check-in, the facilitator may revisit any issues during check-in or discuss some of the SMART recovery tools.

Typically, the facilitator or a volunteer reads a closing to end the meeting formally. 

Finding a SMART Meeting

SMART meetings happen online (via Zoom and other teleconferencing platforms) and in person all over the world. With over 3,000 scheduled meetings every week, there is probably one available near you.  Find the interactive meeting locator at the SMART Recovery website

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Is SMART Recovery the Right Choice for You?

What is SMART Recovery? It is not a miracle or an “easy” recovery program. It is a support alternative for people who are not comfortable with the religious overtones of 12-step meetings. People with substance use disorders may opt for SMART as part of their after-care program after completing a traditional rehab program. If you need more information about SMART or other recovery options, contact us today. 

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