People working to overcome substance use disorders (SUDs) have their pick of recovery options that can guide them to sobriety. Recovery from addiction is often portrayed a certain way in the media, such as taking place in a popular 12-step program or a treatment center-sponsored alumni group.

While those options are fine, there are other programs a person can pursue at their own pace. One such option is SMART Recovery®, a free self-guided program that helps people stop substance use and harmful habits. 

If you are interested in trying SMART Recovery®, read on to learn more about the program to see if it is right for you. Here, we cover the basics of the program and some questions about it.

What is SMART Recovery?

The acronym “SMART” in SMART Recovery® stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. The program welcomes people to “discover the power of choice” as they work toward overcoming substance use disorders and addictive behaviors. It was established in 1994 to give people the tools they need to leave behind a harmful way of life if change is what they truly desire.

On its frequently asked questions page, it defines addictive behavior as “over-involvement with substance use (e.g., psychoactive substances of all kinds, including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, food, illicit drugs, and prescribed medications), or over-involvement with activities (e.g., gambling, sexual behavior, eating, spending, relationships, exercise, etc.).”

Several other groups have recognized SMART Recovery® as a resource for working through substance abuse and addiction. These include the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). 

Who Does SMART Recovery Help?

The program offers free meetings for people who are struggling with substance use disorders, including those involving prescription medication. People who are undergoing medication-assisted treatment are also encouraged to join. Meetings are also held for:

  • Family members and friends of people with SUDs
  • Teenagers
  • Students
  • Military veterans
  • Inmates in correctional facilities through its InsideOut program
  • Hospitals
  • Treatment facilities
  • Others in the recovery community who need support

According to the organization’s Fast Facts page, “Tens of thousands of people gather weekly at 3,500 SMART meetings in 26 countries, including more than 2,200 in the U.S.1 People anywhere can attend more than 40 weekly meetings online with a computer or smartphone, and receive support through 24/7 chatrooms and message boards.”

There is also a SMART Recovery® Handbook that is available in multiple languages.

SMART Recovery’s Mission

SMART Recovery® is clear about its mission and purpose to help people regain control of their lives after addiction. According to its site, its mission is to “offer no-fee, self-empowering, science-based, face-to-face, and online support groups for abstaining from any substance or activity addiction.” 

People who have chosen to refrain from substance use or other addictive behaviors, and even those who are thinking about it, can benefit from SMART Recovery®, according to the program’s literature. 

What Does SMART Recovery Teach?

The SMART Recovery® program has several objectives it aims to teach participants. One main goal is to show participants how they can improve themselves by changing self-defeating ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. 

It uses evidence-based principles, practices, and tools to help them achieve this goal as well as how to have a long-lasting quality of life. Cognitive behavioral therapy and Motivational Interviewing the practices it uses.

SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program

SMART Recovery® aims to help people find the power within themselves to change their lives by changing their addictive behaviors. It offers a four-point framework that is based on science to guide people through this process. Each point comes with tools and techniques to help people grasp the concepts of each point so that they can apply it to their lives.

The four points are:

Point 1 – Build and Maintain Motivation

Point 2 – Cope With Urges

Point 3 – Manage Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

Point 4 – Lead a Balanced Life

The discussions that take place at program meetings focus on these four points. Participants do not have to follow the points in the order listed. However, they are encouraged to give themselves the time they need to study the points that apply to their current needs. 

We’ll briefly go over the four points here:

Point 1 – Build And Maintain Motivation

It is important to stay motivated during recovery as it keeps people focused on achieving and maintaining sobriety. Reviewing what is important in one’s life can motivate a person to work toward their goals and abstain from anything that takes their focus off that goal, which includes using addictive substances or engaging in harmful behaviors.

Point 2 – Cope With Urges

Cravings for drugs and alcohol, or even to gamble or overeat, happen during the recovery process. There is no time limit on cravings. They even happen to people who have been substance-free years down the road after quitting. Understanding the triggers that lead to cravings and setting boundaries can help people cope with their urges. 

Techniques that offer some form of distraction can keep people from using, and they can identify distorted thinking patterns that can also lead one to use substances or engage in harmful behaviors when they do not want to.

Point 3 – Manage Thoughts, Feelings, And Behaviors

Relapse happens in stages, and before the physical part of relapse happens, the breakdown starts with one’s thoughts and feelings usually happening first. Usually, negative thought patterns come with addictive behaviors. 

SMART’s participants are taught how to change their mindsets so that they can think positively. It is important to gain control over your thoughts and emotions. Doing so leads one to act responsibly and respond to stress and other triggers in a healthy manner, which can help one to avoid a relapse. 

Point 4 – Lead A Balanced Life

Each person who participates in SMART Recovery® will have to decide for themselves what a balanced life that promotes sobriety looks like. What’s the same for everyone is that the decision to live in sobriety takes work.

Set realistic expectations of what a balanced life includes, and practice sound decision-making so you can make solid plans for the future. For some, balanced living means practicing habits that promote healthy eating, exercise, getting ample rest, and aligning one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual needs.

It is important to align oneself with goals that promote independence from drugs, alcohol, gambling, overeating, undereating, and other addictive and harmful behaviors that SMART Recovery® aims to help people overcome.

How to Participate in SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program

People who are interested may start it at whatever stage of change they are in. Participants are welcome to use the free digital tools and techniques that guide participation in the program. They can be downloaded from the organization’s website. Taking some time to learn how the tools work will make following the program easier.

Documents such as a “change plan worksheet,” a “trigger homework sheet,” videos, and other SMART Recovery® tools are designed to encourage a closer look at addiction or addictive behaviors. 

You can attend online meetings, which are led by SMART-trained facilitators. During the meetings, participants are invited to speak about their challenges and successes on their journey. They also can expect to receive support from other group members. 

Is SMART Recovery a 12-Step Program?

No. SMART Recovery® is not a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. It differs from a 12-step program in two ways:

First, its approach is based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of addiction recovery, not spiritual faith or beliefs. This means as science evolves, so does its approach. For this reason, the program’s core beliefs are viewed as flexible.

Second, it does not subscribe to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to addiction recovery. Individuals are encouraged to consider their needs and preferences as they create a recovery program that works for them. 

SMART Recovery® does not use labels for the people who follow its program. So, no one is referred to as an “addict” or “alcoholic,” and addiction is not regarded as a “disease.” 

Another concept that sets SMART Recovery® apart is that it doesn’t view recovery as an ongoing lifelong process. People can “graduate” from a SMART Recovery®  program. They also may use the program’s tools for as long as they would like.

Participation in a 12-step program is not discouraged. The program is open to all, as SMART Recovery® is committed to helping people find a path to recovery that makes sense to them.

Does the Program Work?

SMART Recovery® promotes personal choice and each person’s right to exercise that choice when addressing their addictions and addictive behaviors. Only the people who participate in the program can determine if it works. 

If you are considering joining the program, you can use it by itself or use portions along with other programs or approaches that you find effective. If you want to join a SMART Recovery® group, click here to find one.

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