Non 12-Step Addiction Rehab Programs Explained

Most everyone is familiar with the 12-Step program associated with Alcoholics Anonymous.  This popular fellowship program has been around since the late 1930s assisting members worldwide in their quest to live a life without drugs and alcohol.  What is less familiar, but just as significant in the addiction and recovery world, are the non 12-Step programs that have been growing in popularity since the 1970s with venues popping up across the country.


Thankfully, more tailored approaches to recovery are appearing on the horizon.  This development provides options for people seeking a support group where they feel a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and comfort.  Instead of a one-size-fits-all mold into which all individuals in recovery must squeeze, a non 12-Step program offers a much-appreciated alternative to the traditional 12-Step program.


What is Non 12-Step Treatment?  


One might ask why there is a need for a non 12-Step approach to addiction recovery? What makes a non 12-Step different from a 12-Step program?  In a nutshell, a non 12-Step treatment program captures those in early addiction recovery who might otherwise eschew a 12-Step program.  While the A.A. 12-Steps are imbued with a religious theme throughout—references to God or a Higher Power—the non 12-Step programs steer clear of any such references, offering a more secular approach to healing from addiction.  For people who do not associate with a religious worldview, a non 12-Step program gives them the alternative that will resonate with their own belief system.  


A non 12-Step program is a holistically oriented approach to addiction recovery that emphasizes self-empowerment—in sharp contrast to the 12-Step theme of self-identifying as powerless and defective.  The non 12-Step programs can vary in their particular message or approach, offering even more options within the broader category.  This variety of programs becomes crucial for recovering addicts who sincerely want to remain sober and are in need of a social support system, but who aren’t necessarily religious.  They are looking for the right fit, and for many a non 12-Step program is a perfect match.


SMART Recovery


The most widely available non 12-step program is called SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), an international non-profit organization that was established in 1992.  The SMART Recovery program is science-based and places an emphasis on self-empowerment.  The SMART Recovery model offers four areas of focus, including:


  1. Building and maintaining motivation
  2. Coping with urges
  3. Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  4. Living a balanced life


Where the 12-Step program of A.A. teaches members that their addiction is a life-long disease, the SMART recovery non 12-Step programs helps participants achieve self-directed change by encouraging them to believe that they can recover from addiction.  For individuals who take ownership of their lives and responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the SMART Recovery non 12-Step program resonates.


A Holistic Approach to Addiction Treatment and Recovery


Where the non 12-Step programs provide an alternative approach to addiction recovery, recovery is enhanced by also adding holistic therapeutic treatments to augment the program.  A holistic approach to treatment simply means that all aspects of the individual are treated, not just the addiction behaviors.  A foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) allow for identifying thoughts and feelings that trigger substance abuse and replace that behavior with new, healthy responses, giving the newly sober person tools to access when the need arises.  


Art therapy can be a great way to relax and express your feelings, especially newly sober.

By integrating adjunct therapies into the non 12-Step program, an emphasis on self-awareness and emotional healing will help promote long-term recovery, supplementing the psychotherapy.  These holistic therapies boost relaxation and teach stress reduction techniques, as well as assist the individual in discovering core emotional issues that may be driving the addictive behaviors.


Examples of holistic therapies within the umbrella of addiction treatment and recovery are:


  • Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation
  • Massage
  • Equine therapy
  • Garden therapy
  • Journaling
  • Acupuncture
  • Art and music therapy
  • Exercise


All of these aspects of a non 12-Step program work together to create a sense of calm…and confidence in recovery.  Healing the whole person, not just the addiction, is what the non 12-Step program is all about.


About Shelly Tichelaar


With 35 years of experience working with addicts in recovery, Shelly Tichelaar understands the needs of her clients.  Shelly oversees the daily operations at Ranch Creek Recovery, ensuring that all clients feel welcome and cared from start to finish of their healing journey at RCR.  Shelly helped build a team of professionals that truly desires to match each client with an individualized program that will best meet his or her treatment needs and goals in a comfortable and therapeutic setting.

28 thoughts on “Non 12-Step Addiction Rehab Programs Explained

  1. I had my last drink of alcohol 1/9/1991 and have never relapsed. I never give that date, I just say that I have made it thru another 24hrs. I started that after I hit 5yrs and was told the further you are away from your last drink, the closer you are to your next one. Over time, my thoughts about recovery have changed in many ways and some have been written in stone. I posted a few days ago about that. I do not care how you do it, just do it. I also believe that one can recover from alcoholism. But a cure is not in the tool box of a human. I enjoy reading your posts about other things that help. The Mind, Body and Spirit concept is something I endorse 100%. Thank you for providing people with such information. One thing is for certain, alcoholism will kill you! Peace, Marshall

    Liked by 1 person

  2. With regard to opioid addiction, the bottom line is that doing something is better than doing nothing. It has been difficult to prove that counseling and support groups improve patient out comes. However, the data suggest that all forms of counseling tend to produce small improvements in outcomes but not dramatic improvements. Still, a little better is better than no better. There is some data to suggest that it does not matter which counseling or support group you choose, one type seems to work as well as the other. So choose the one that fits you best. It is my personal opinion that the more effort you put into your recovery, the more likely you are to recover. (Admittedly, that may just reflect that those who engage in groups and counseling are highly motivated patients to start with and have an increased likely hood of doing better than those who don’t engage.)

    Having said all that, it should be remembered that when physicians and organized medicine had pretty much given up on treating alcoholism, AA was the first program to have some success. Better than organized medicine! It is still a valuable tool for the addict to use. Particularly considering the fact that none of the medical treatments for alcoholism (or any addiction) are as successful as we would like and AA is free. Can’t beat the ROI.

    Another thought: If you think that your addiction can be cured. There is a word for that kind of thinking. It is relapse. There is good data to show that addiction produces physiological and anatomical changes in the brain. It is likely that the longer the addiction, the more profound the changes and the younger the patient at the onset of addiction the more profound the changes. There is also some evidence to suggest that these changes may revert back to normal over time; however, the time required for these changes in the brain to normalize is probably measured in decades and it is not completely clear that the changes ever completely reverse. It is thought that these changes are the reason that relapse happens much faster than the initial onset of addiction. This persistence of changers in the brain is one of the reasons that NIDA is advocating long term treatment for addiction, perhaps lifetime treatment. Everyone wants a cure, but currently, it is my opinion that medical science, magic, or any “program” can not offer a sure fired cure. If someone tells you that can for sure cure your addiction: run the other way before you are parted from your money and risk losing your life in a relapse you thought couldn’t happen.

    Just my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. Though a few lines stuck out, this one is bad: ” Healing the whole person, not just the addiction” is being ascribed to AA?

    AA is the only program listed that fixes the whole individual beginning with the clear understanding that drinking is a symptom of greater problems.

    I all for different strokes for different folks, but I didn’t think it right to let that mischaracterization go unchecked.

    Interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very good. Thank you for your valuable feedback. Like you, I am very biased towards the benefits of 12-step programs, especially AA. I was blessed to have a wonderful guest author that contributed a different point of view. I love the passion it brings out in people and I’m glad you shared you experience with mischaracterizations.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There is also a whole new wave of spontaneous sobriety methods and websites/communities

    -This naked mind
    -Hip sobriety

    All of these listed above says that getting and staying sober is a proud choice not a sad consequence. I love this because the way you frame it is pivotal to how enjoyable your sobriety is and that effects how long you can sustain it for.

    This new wave is saying that drinking alcohol is not natural it’s drug addiction and no one is immune. It removed the brainwashing that somehow humans were ‘meant’ to be able to drink and that drinking is necessary. And therefore the poor alcoholic is defective in some way. It puts the onus on the drug itself where it belongs.

    There isn’t a one size fits all approach to staying sober. Thank you for the article I really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Love , love, love the idea of non 12 step recovery. My daughter is 21 and went to a couple of AA meetings and felt very overwhelmed, confused and, out of place. It worked for me (7 years sober) but not for her. She is now 75 days sober with only family and friends support and Im afraid of a relapse. This may be good for her. Thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I can totally relate to your story. My husband and I got sober in AA and we are very grateful for the loving fellowship we’ve found. Our daughter went to some 12-step groups in her late teens and felt very out of place. I am so glad there are so many options today. You must be proud – 75 days – what a miracle!!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. The 12-stepper in me is always curious about the different options out there. i disagree with a bit of your wording in here (as it’s not been my experience) but I am more whole-heatedly for what keeps people sober, and addressing the root of the issue. In my words, the illness.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I personally have used the 12 steps… and now I am in a group called celebrate recovery that is Christ Based through the 12 steps. I would never want to force religion on someone (it doesn’t work even if I wanted to) as part of his or her recovery and it is great that there are so many methods to deal with addiction. I absolutely believe that nothing we do will work as a stand alone. I use yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to help me with my journey. I wonder if there are any statistics for success of folks using the SMART, because the 12 steps admittedly have an apparently low success rate depending on who you ask. AA reports about 50% that never relapse. Outside sources put that number closer to 15%. I suppose the difference is AA probably only counts those who stay in the program whereas outside sources look at everyone who goes to a meeting and then relapses. (that is a pure guess) At any rate a very interesting read and the more tools we can give our fellow addicts the better in my opinion. Thanks for sharing!


      1. That’s a good article and I love that it states that anything that works for someone’s recovery is a great thing. In my town you could find a CR group that meets for each day of the week, and we do first meet for Worship, but then we do get into our small open share groups. In our open share it is a mixture of habits, Alcoholic to Xenophobe (I can’t think of a habit or addiction that starts with Z but you get it). Other CR groups do closed share where “like habits” are grouped. Again, anything that works for someone has value and even though I know I need Christ in my recovery I would never force Him into anyone else’s. However anyone who was curious I would embrace and educate!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. “For individuals who take ownership of their lives and responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the SMART Recovery non 12-Step program resonates.” That is the one sentence that gives me shivers. As addicts we have been trying to take ownership of our lives all along and doing a dang poor job of it.

    Our choices prior to turning to a recovery program have been anything but taking responsibility. An active addict’s mind (pre-program, still contemplating where to go for help) is not a reasonable one.

    Yet how fun it is to buy into the idea that we are one of those “special” addicts, better than other addicts because we by golly, take ownership of our lives and responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors! No addict can meaningfully claim that prior to recovery.

    12-step programs teach us to admit the truth of our powerlessness over the substance or behavior to which we are addicted. For instance, I am not powerless over my life and choices – I am powerless over alcohol and certain foods.

    For any one of us to admit this, is owning responsibility for today’s choices. It is proactively crucifying the one vice that has held us in addiction for so long – a desire for control.

    In fairness, I have seen in AA and OA the difference between some members who have had CBT or DBT training and those who have not. Gratefully I have had both.

    The non 12-step program idea of directly teaching healthier ways of thinking is wise. That information is available by following the 12-steps, but depending on a person’s spiritual and mental makeup can be more difficult to translate into practice.

    As a 12-step follower, I know people in recovery can have an intelligent and thoughtful reliance on a Higher Power without being lower class addicts.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Always interesting where a blog might take you, I have attempted several 12 step programs through my struggles and completed several sets of steps only to find myself relapsing time and time again. For me personally, it has taken a multi-faceted approach to maintain sobriety. My primary “program” (people like a one stop shop when in times of struggle) is SMART, I also combine a lot of self maintenance with healthy activities, daily (sometimes hourly) check ins with friends and sobriety partners, a few 12 step principles, healthy lifestyle, and sometimes just raw willpower.

    I’m a firm believer that a “mixed media” approach has a higher chance of success *should* the individual choose it to be so. It has taken me several attempts and several adjustments to get to where I am today and knowing what has worked and what has not through my own personal experience has allowed me to tailor my program into just that: “MY program”. While a full on traditional 12 step program may not be for me, I will never discount the power they have for so many others, SMART and Rational Recovery, CBT, DBT, and attention to a healthy lifestyle works for me and so that is my focus.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have tried 12 step programs. I start out with a bang- everything is new, everyone is new, I’m on my path to healing!… And then a few months go by and it’s painfully clear that maybe the whole “fake it ’til you make it” just isn’t gonna cut it when it comes to the spirituality aspect, aka what the entire program is based off of.

    I kept trying, praying every night, reluctantly calling my sponsor every day, and it was exhausting. It did not feel genuine. I was trying to fit a square into a circle, all the while thinking I was just defective because that’s what I’ve been brainwashed to think, that every problem that crops up is my disease talking and I just need to pray on it, that all my problems will be solved by giving my will and life to a Higher Power.

    I really wish I could do that, that AA worked for me, and I can’t help but think there’s something wrong with me for not being able to surrender. I get angry because when I talk about it, everyone tells me to just “let go and let God”, “fake it ’til you make it”, “keep coming back”, “your HP can be this chair’ (my favorite). I feel like I’m defective and that there’s something wrong with me for not having the ability to “let go and let God”.

    I attended a SMART meeting and the social aspect of it left a lot to be desired. AA meetings have so many people, and they all struggle with alcohol, whereas at the SMART meeting I went to only 2 out of the 5 people there had a problem with alcohol, one of them being me. The other guy was moderating, which I know is out of the question for me. I am so intolerant that I immediately just wrote off this meeting and this program as not being for me solely because moderation is an option.

    I have been meditating, enjoying the little free time I have after work and on weekends, now that I’m not using all my free time on the phone with my sponsor and attending meetings. I struggle with compulsive eating and I’ve been reading Geneen Roth’s books. I know I need to find a way to deal with that because food and weight are all I think about. I will continue not to drink, but right now, the food issue needs to be dealt with. I picked up Refuge Recovery and Recovery and Integral Recovery. I’m looking into the non-12 step recovery options. I’ve also recently started a blog here, which is helping.

    If I feel the strong urge to drink, I know AA is there, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. They say to take what you want and leave the rest. This is my journey and I’m becoming okay with who I am and who I’m not.


    1. I am really glad that you shared your story with me. I have two suggestions. First, there are several Facebook groups that offer fellowship and support. I can give you some suggestions if you don’t find one you relate to. Second, I have a Google + group that supports supports recovery. It’s a really good group of folks
      Finally, if you need someone to talk to you can always call me on my cellphone 949-307-2880.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is awesome! I’ve been dancing around 12 step AA and CA meetings atm. I need to just get over things and throw myself at the programme. It’s great to know that there really ARE more options out there. Thank you. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s