SMART Recovery is a mutual- and self-help recovery program that has been an alternative to 12-step programs for more than 25 years.

Standing for Self Management and Recovery Training, SMART Recovery is an international non-profit organization and support group style that offers help to those seeking abstinence from addictions and addictive behaviors.

An alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (AA), SMART Recovery offers secular support group therapy and is often incorporated into rehab programs for addiction.

What Is SMART Recovery?

As a support group, SMART Recovery is a self-empowering addiction recovery program. It claims to be based on the latest scientific research and a worldwide community that includes mutual support groups.

The SMART Recovery 4-Point Program helps people recover from all types of substance and behavioral addictions, such as:

Similar to many other groups, SMART Recovery offers face-to-face meetings and daily online meetings. In addition, they offer an online message board and 24-hour chat room to learn about SMART Recovery and connect with addiction recovery support.  

Origins and Development

The history of SMART Recovery dates back to 1994 when the board of the former Alcohol & Drug Abuse Self-Help Network incorporated the SMART Recovery program. The original concept was to provide secular self-help and mutual-help framework based on techniques taken from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET) and unspecified scientific knowledge.

Since 1994, the organization has expanded to include more than 2,400 weekly meetings in 21 countries. The founding president of SMART Recovery is Joe Gerstein MD, and the organization is based in Mentor, Ohio.

How Does SMART Recovery Work?

The program uses a four-point system to overcome the dysfunctional beliefs, thinking and behaviors of addictions. The SMART Toolbox is a collection of methods (or tools) that use the four points. These points are discussed in SMART Recovery’s main program publication, the SMART Recovery Handbook.

For people who are seeking help recovering from addictions, SMART Recovery can be used as a stand-alone primary recovery support program but does not need to be exclusive. The program is generally considered an alternative to 12-step programs. However, SMART Recovery emphasizes that participants should find their own paths to recovery, so it is also suggested as a supplement to 12-step programs.

4-Point Program

The four points are the basis of the SMART Recovery approach to recovery and are detailed in the SMART Recovery Handbook. Unlike the 12 steps of AA or NA, the four points can be done in any order.

The four points include:

1. Building and maintaining motivation: Participants are encouraged to make a list of the pros and cons of addictive behaviors versus those of being in recovery to motivate themselves to stay strong in sobriety.

2. Coping with urges or substance cravings: Participants identify their personal triggers and the irrational thoughts and beliefs that lead them to act on their triggers. They learn to deflect these triggers and thoughts to overcome cravings.

3. Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors: Group participants are taught to examine their own feelings and thoughts that lead to their addictive behaviors. Techniques for handling negative thoughts are emphasized.

4. Living a balanced life: Participants decide what is important to them in life and what achievable goals they would like to set. They learn to live without using harmful substances or addictive behaviors and work toward what is important to them.

SMART Recovery ABC Model

The ABC model is a technique that is borrowed from REBT, which is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. The ABC model is a simple self-help exercise that allows a person to challenge the irrational beliefs and thinking patterns that influence addiction. People complete the exercise mentally, but there is an ABC worksheet available to allow people to practice.

The ABCs are:

A. Activating events: what started the negative thought or emotion?

B. Beliefs: what do I believe about the activating event?

C. Consequences: what am I feeling and how am I behaving?

D. Dispute: challenge the beliefs; which ones are dysfunctional?

E. Effective new thinking: what new belief can I use to replace the dysfunctional one?

Benefits of SMART Recovery

Various benefits and advantages of SMART Recovery include:

  • Flexibility: web-based or in-person meetings and discussions
  • Mutual- and self-help aspects: the support group and personal tools help people support each other and themselves
  • Extensive literature and resources
  • Duration: SMART Recovery provides the ongoing long-term support that most people need in recovery
  • Behavioral approach: SMART Recovery addresses the dysfunctional thoughts that contribute to addictions

SMART Recovery vs. 12-Step Programs

Some fundamental differences exist between SMART Recovery and 12-step programs, such as AANA and Gamblers Anonymous.

These differences include:

  • SMART Recovery does not require abstinence from substance use, while 12-step programs are abstinence-based. However, research into alcohol use and drug use shows that people who are dependent on a substance are unlikely to be successful with a return to responsible drinking or drug use behaviors.
  • SMART Recovery is a secular, non-religious group. While the 12-step program is also non-religious — it is a program of spirituality — the program does use the words God and prayer often.

There are some fundamental similarities between the two programs:

  • Both focus on treating the underlying mental, emotional and social causes of addiction
  • Both provide the group support and long-term support that are known to be crucial for long-term recovery
  • Both programs provide excellent literature and mentorship

A recent study of people with alcohol use disorder showed tentative support for alternative programs to AA, including SMART Recovery, concluding that these alternatives show promise.

SMART Recovery in Addiction Treatment

Although SMART Recovery was started in 1994, there has only recently been independent research into its effectiveness, and an independent investigation has not yet been established a success rate.

However, current research supports it as an alternative to 12-step programs, as it has all the factors needed for being an integral part of long-term recovery.

One two-part study involving “heavy problem drinkers” found that SMART Recovery reduced their alcohol-related problems and number of drinks per day, and increased their percentage of abstinent days compared to those who used another online recovery program.

Additionally, another study that reviewed the existing research available on SMART Recovery concluded that there are positive outcomes for addiction recovery, but that the sample sizes involved were too small to make any conclusions about its effectiveness.

Further research is planned to fill any knowledge gaps in the effectiveness of SMART Recovery.

SMART Recovery at The Recovery Village

At The Recovery Village facilities, SMART Recovery is offered as an alternative, secular group meeting to 12-step groups for people who are not religious. The Recovery Village rehab centers incorporate SMART Recovery as a part of daily addiction treatment in most levels of care.

Most locations of The Recovery Village offer SMART Recovery meetings in addition to AA, NA and other 12-step groups. The following locations offer SMART Recovery groups as part of addiction rehab:

How to Find a SMART Recovery Meeting

Available SMART Recovery meetings near you may be searched by location on their website, or a meeting list can be downloaded. Most groups are open to the public, although some are not. No registration or prior contact is necessary to attend an open meeting. Most SMART Recovery online meetings and forums may be located from the organization’s website.

If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We offer comprehensive substance use disorder treatment at accredited facilities across the country. Contact us today to learn about our personalized treatment plans.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Andrew Proulx, MD
Andrew Proulx holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, an MD from Queen's University, and has completed post-graduate studies in medicine. He practiced as a primary care physician from 2001 to 2016 in general practice and in the ER. Read more

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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.