Alcoholics Anonymous uses daily affirmation therapy as one of its techniques for rebuilding new brain connections and healthy habits.

Critics of AA claim that the organization’s method of dealing with addiction has not kept up with changes in addiction science and research. In the atheistic, existential landscape of the 2010s, there is no room for God, surrendering to a higher power, prayer or meditation as therapy. There is only room for evidence-based science. The non-existent God would have a pretty funny sense of humor, if He showed modern man, that discoveries AA founder, Bill Wilson, made back in 1939, had scientific evidence of success.

What Does Science Teach About Addiction?

First, let’s talk about what MRI technology and neuroscience have taught us about addiction over the last decade. The causes of addiction are varied and each may require a different approach.

  • Nearly ½ of individuals with drug and alcohol addictions have mood, anxiety or personality disorder.
  • Severe mental trauma early in life and impulsivity compulsions are also risk factors for abuse.
  • No matter what the cause, chronic exposure to addictive agents causes the brain to release large amounts of dopamine (the pleasure chemical) into the system.
  • Each drug has a different mechanism on dopamine, but basically, the longer the drug is used, the more dopamine the brain requires to feel normal.
  • The brain on drugs becomes less able to cope with stress and thus an unending cycle of binges, anxiety, and craving.

Addiction is a Tricky Beast

So why not use methadone and naltrexone to get addicts off drugs and then treat them with the psychiatric drugs they need to help their underlying conditions? This makes perfect sense in theory but addiction, as AA’s Bill Wilson understood, is a tricky beast. Ruben Baler, a scientist at the National Institute of Drug Abuse might agree with him.

He states that once the circuitry of habituation is in place, it cannot be destroyed or fully overwritten. Recovering addicts may benefit from medication but they also need cognitive therapy to assist in rewiring the brain’s thought patterns and coping strategies.

The Science Behind Daily Affirmations

Alcoholics Anonymous uses daily affirmation therapy as one of its techniques for rebuilding new brain connections and healthy habits. Affirmations are positive statements that embody everything the individual wants to become.

Repeating them daily and thinking of a positive emotional experience at the same time helps to create new memories to replace encoded memories associated with the high of drug use.

The Big Book of A.A. and These Rooms Blogspot have excellent lists of affirmations.

2014 study shows that “client change talk” generated by the addict himself, increased brain activation. In this study, when therapists engaged abusers in the active process of self-reflection (AA Step 4) and allowed them to come up with their own truths, brain health outcomes were positive.

The repetition of daily affirmations are also akin to mantras used during meditation and prayer. Another interesting 2014 study by Tang and Posner tested brain networks and states using two methods: working memory training and meditation.

The purpose of the study was to discover if cognition, performance, and over all brain state could be improved by either of these two methods. The basic meditation method using body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness in a 20-30 minute session produced significant improvement in attention, mood, stress, and most importantly self-regulation. These are all areas that are crippled by dopamine abusing substances.

What You Should Do

Take time each day to really engage in daily affirmation. Relax, breathe, focus on the present, and listen whole-heartedly to the affirmation. Repeat it and visualize what the affirmation looks like fully active in your life. When you do this, your brain starts to believe you.


Szalavitz, M., (2015) No more addictive personality. Nature, 522, 48-49.

Ruiz, R., (2014) The 12 step dogma, Aeon Essays, 1-12

Ewing, S., Yezhuvath, U.,Houck, J., Filbey, F., (2014) Brain-based origins of change language: A beginning. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 1904-1910.

Tang, Y., Posner, M., (2014) Training brain networks and states, Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 18 no.7, 345-350

Image courtesy of Kevin Jaako, under Creative Commons License.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.