Difference Between AA and SMART Recovery

Published On: August 27, 2015

People often attend SMART Recovery following dissatisfaction with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). However, AA remains the dominant and most well-known brand amongst recovery circles in Britain, although SMART Recovery has made significant inroads too. Today SMART is perhaps the most dominant ‘non-step’ alternative in the United Kingdom. Many of our patients come to us not having heard of SMART yet many are dissatisfied with AA. We’ve thus written this post in order to demystify some of your potential concerns regarding SMART.

So what happens at SMART?

Standing for Self-Management and Recovery Training, SMART Recovery embraces psychology and psychotherapy much more than AA has done. SMART is rather akin to group therapy you may receive during private alcohol rehab. Unlike AA, SMART instructors receive training before they are allowed to hold group sessions. SMART is also a trademark and unauthorised meetings are shut down for trademark infringements. This allows SMART the ability to apply a standard of quality control to its meetings.

SMART’s theoretical framework

SMART uses a ‘four-point programme’. These four points include:

  1. Enhance and maintain motivation to abstain
  2. Cope with urges
  3. Manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviours
  4. Balance momentary and enduring satisfactions

This framework encourages participants to map out their own path to recovery. SMART shifts participants’ ‘locus of control’ to an internal position and therefore allowing them to shape their own destiny. AA, on the other hand, encourages members to seek the help of a ‘higher power.’

SMART’s framework is based on Albert Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Ellis was a prominent American therapist responsible for many of today’s prominent addiction therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy. The focus of REBT is on changing negative and unhealthy thoughts into positive alternatives.

How SMART differs from AA

SMART is much more fluid and flexible that AA when it comes to its core beliefs. Self-empowerment is preferred over and the powerlessness approach adopted by AA. SMART has a scientific rather than a spiritual foundation. SMART is utterly secular in its approach. This contrasts sharply with AA’s insistence that members must believe in a ‘higher power’.

Unlike AA, SMART does not advocate a ‘one size fits all’ approach to recovery. Each participant is encouraged to adopt an approach that suits their own specific needs based on their age, sex, duration of addiction and psychological profile. Participants are not labelled ‘powerless’ or asked to admit their addiction in front of the rest of the group.

SMART shifts the focus away from ‘alcoholism’ and onto ‘addiction’. SMART considers addiction to be the physical act of drinking alcohol or taking drugs, and once an addict is in ‘recovery’ the ‘addiction’ ceases to exist. AA holds that an addict is always an addict for the rest of his or her adult life. AA is often accused of dwelling on the ‘historical’ aspect of its members’ addiction. SMART instead focuses on highlighting participants’ irrational beliefs that risk a relapse episode in the present.

Unlike AA, SMART allows cross-talk amongst participants. The spot-light is therefore not concentrated on a single person. At SMART, individuals talk with one another, rather than at one another.

SMART also lacks a central text such as AA’s ‘the Big Book’. Click here to read SMART Recovery’s recommended reading list.

Why you must not write AA off completely

If you’ve tried AA and not enjoyed it, we recommend you consider trying another group at another location. AA clearly has the more powerful peer and sponsor network out of the two. AA holds far more meetings than SMART currently does in the UK. AA began in 1939 whilst SMART only began in 1994. Significantly, SMART Recovery currently does not offer a sponsorship programme. AA’s sponsorship programme is without a doubt one of the organisations key benefits over SMART, particularly for those unable to afford private alcohol rehab since a sponsor often helps his or her partner through this difficult period.

Get the best of both Worlds

Why not try AA and SMART and see which is best for you. If you already go to AA, consider going to SMART too and vice-versa. Some may like the spotlight being on them at AA. SMART doesn’t really offer this platform. Cross-talk during SMART may mean the conversation goes off-target. SMART requires a strong leader to ensure not the group is not sabotaged by one or two ‘know-it-alls’. You may find the best results are achieved by combining both AA and SMART together.

Click here to find a SMART meeting in your local area.

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