Higher Power in Addiction Recovery

Published On: September 6, 2023

As part of the process of recovering from addiction, many people find that the acceptance of and faith in some form of higher power helps them to create and stick to new, healthier habits.

For those with no religion or those alienated by religious practices, this might sound alienating, but in this blog, we will explain what higher power can mean and how it can help anyone dealing with addiction problems.

What is a Higher Power?

A person with clasped hands, thinking

Having a ‘higher power’ which can be trusted and believed in is an essential part of completing the 12-step programme by Alcoholics Anonymous as it plays a key role in 7 of the steps. [1]

For a lot of people, higher power means God, and indeed when the first twelve-step programme was pioneered in 1935, the Christian God was specifically cited. [2]

However, the nature of the role that this higher power plays within the process of recovery is flexible enough that individuals can apply it to their own beliefs, choosing from a range of forces and entities to believe in.

Put simply, a higher power is something more powerful than yourself, which you believe has an important impact on the universe, the world, or your life. What is most important is that it means something to you.

Why do I need a Higher Power?

A woman looking nervous

There is good reason for the prevalence of ‘higher power’ references in addiction treatment and recovery. Simply put, addiction is a disease which has an impact not just on the body but on the mind and spirit.

Alcoholics Anonymous cites the alleviation of the pressure on an individual to be in control of their addiction as one of the key benefits of accepting a higher power during recovery from addiction.

By accepting a force greater than oneself, individuals can experience a sense of relief and comfort difficult to encounter while still holding themselves to the belief that they, alone, bear responsibility.

What are the Benefits of Believing in a Higher Power During Addiction Recovery?

red sky

Belief in a higher power can offer a broad range of benefits to those facing the manifold difficulties of recovery from addiction.

1. Releasing Control

By accepting that there is a force more powerful than themself, the individual in recovery is relieved from some of the expectation that they should be responsible for things beyond their control. Not only does this effect prepare people to accept and receive help, but it empowers them to take action on elements which are within their control.

2. Processing Negativity

Believing in a higher power and practising prayer, meditation, or reflection can also help a person to process negative feelings such as overwhelm and anxiety and instead seek and manifest positive emotions such as hope, acceptance, purpose, motivation and gratitude.

3. Combating Loneliness

Loneliness is an aspect of addiction which can be a serious and damaging factor in the success of a person’s recovery, and believing in a higher power can also help people facing addiction feel less alone.

Believing that someone or something is connected to you throughout your struggles and that it is a constant presence can have a positive effect on the emotional side of treatment and recovery from addiction.

4. Gaining Purpose

An important factor in maintaining long-term sobriety is finding a new focus which can replace, at least in part, the relationship an individual used to have with addictive substances.

For some in recovery, a new spiritual perspective offers a sustaining and healthy purpose as they move forward with life after addiction.

What is the Twelve Step program?

Group Therapy

The twelve steps are a framework for recovery which emphasise the importance of acceptance and faith; in particular, the acceptance that one cannot recover independently, but the faith that there exists a higher power which can and will help you.

They are listed on Alcoholics Anonymous’ website thus:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Decided to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. [3]

As you will see, steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11 and 12 all relate to the use of some form of religion or belief in a ‘higher power’.

Does One Need to be Religious to Use Higher Power in Treatment for Addiction?

close up of mans face

In the 2021 census, 37.2% of people in Britain identified themselves as having ‘no religion’. [4] It is, therefore, very likely that a significant proportion of people recovering from addiction will not be able to practice the twelve steps of any organised or mainstream faith.

However, as stated, the 12 steps do not require belief in a specific doctrine or deity, and therefore the benefits of including a higher power in a recovery journey do extend to spiritual practices and belief in more abstract powers.

Atheists can also profit simply by believing in things that benefit them and make sense. As long as the higher power is considered powerful by the individual and provides them with comfort, optimism, strength and a sense of meaning, it doesn’t matter what they choose to believe in.

How Do I Find a Higher Power If I’m an Atheist or Agnostic?

Close up of a small flower and earth in Eastbourne

As long as you consider it to be greater than yourself -and do believe in it-your higher power can be anything you want it to be.

For some people, this is an abstract concept, such as love, while for others, it can be something more grounded in a tangible reality, such as nature.

Some key advice is that your higher power should give you peace of mind and be easy to accept as part of your everyday life: don’t force yourself to take on something which you don’t truly believe in.

For those unsure of what their higher power might be, a good place to start is reflecting on what is already meaningful to you. Ask yourself where you feel most comfortable, what makes you happy, and which experiences positively affect your life.

Perhaps you are reassured by watching the sunrise in the morning, feel your best self after a workout, or are at your most comfortable when reflecting on your relationships with loved ones. All of these are great places to start in finding a higher power which is worth believing in.

What are some Common Non-Religious Higher Powers?

lake and clouds

Not everyone believes in everything, but learning about popular choices of non-religious higher power can be a good way to think more deeply about what you believe in and why.

1. The Universe

For some individuals in the process of recovery from addiction, the idea of the infinite cosmos and the laws which govern it offers a comforting perspective on the importance of everything and its place within that.

Within the universe, things don’t necessarily make sense, but the inevitable progress of time and realities, such as the indestructible nature of energy or the recycling of atoms, creates focus and a sense of meaning.

2. Love

A very popular higher power to believe in is love and the kindness, respect, and joy that it creates.

Besides the optimistic effects of believing in love, having faith in the infinite, forgiving, and sustaining nature of all of the different forms of love that exist in the world can give people in recovery an appreciation of a great and unseen force which is both powerful and present everywhere.

3. Reality

For some, simply grounding themselves within the reality of addiction problems can feel like the truest and most tangible way to acknowledge a greater power than themselves.

Believing in the damage that could be done by not addressing addiction issues, the things which could be lost or taken away by not committing to recovery, and other real-world consequences which are uncontrollable can feel like a realistic and honest way to think about power about yourself.

4. Nature

Another higher power which is very popular for use in addiction recovery is the belief in the forces, beauty and balance found within the natural world.

Acknowledging the strength and beauty of mother nature, and witnessing its seasons and cycles, can help people to think more deeply about long- and short-term purpose as well as their place as a part of something much bigger than themselves.

5. Belief in the Group

For some individuals, believing in the unity, mutual support and joint progress of their recovery group -plausibly their 12-step group- is a significant enough power to sustain their recovery.

The shared intention of a group of people who have made the difficult decision to commence recovery, the strength and hope that they can offer each other and the transformations that they can witness in each other whilst pursuing long-term sobriety can be a power well worth having faith in.

How can I Put Belief in a Higher Power into Practice?

Two people holding hands across a table

In a way, belief in a higher power is a pursuit of a deeper meaning in the world than might be apparent. This is, of course, a very lofty undertaking, but there are smaller ways in which individuals can engage with the higher power they believe in as part of their everyday life.

Reflection and prayer can offer a good daily outlet in which to express thoughts or feelings, consider meaningful goals for the future, and reflect upon and experience gratitude for your life and the experiences that shape it.

Mindfulness, the practice of being fully aware and fully present in a moment, can be a highly beneficial way of grounding oneself and ‘checking in’ with a higher power.

Experiencing stillness and allowing oneself to fully appreciate a moment of existence can be practised easily and improve focus on and perception of the self about your higher power.

Spiritual fulfilment can also be found by connecting and engaging with people. Listening to, chatting with and helping other people can be a wonderful way to reflect upon your place about the broader experience of humanity.

Is there Scientific Evidence for the Use of Higher Power in Addiction Recovery?

A doctor typing on a keyboard with a stethoscope to her side


Below, we cite various pieces of evidence in support of a Higher Power’s role in addiction recovery:

  • A 2010 study by Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam investigating why ‘people who are committed to their religion […] have a higher level of subjective well-being’ indicated that ‘for life satisfaction, what matters is how involved one is with a religious community’, indicating that it is feelings of support and belonging that makes faith beneficial. [5]
  • A 2011 study by Steve Sussman, Michel Reynaud, Henri-Jean Aubin, and Adam M. Leventhal found that relationships with the object of addiction and a higher power operated similarly within the brain, meaning it could ‘provide a means to maintain relatively optimal dopamine turnover in the brain’s reward system after terminating a drug of abuse’. [6]
  • A 2019 study by the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University found that ‘religious beliefs, practices, and belonging as well as spiritual programs inspired by faith in a Higher Being significantly contribute to the prevention of and recovery from substance abuse’. [7]
  • In 2021, the spirituality interest group of the international society of addiction medicine put out a statement requesting that ‘research be promoted to ascertain psychological, cross-cultural, and biological underpinnings on how drawing on spiritual resources can play a role in recovery from addictive disorders’. [8]


man on run drinking water

Even for those uncomfortable with organised religion, the belief in a higher power can be an effective asset as part of an addiction recovery journey and support individuals after recovery to lead sober lives.

If you need more assistance, ring our helpline on 0800 111 4108.


[1] https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-steps

[2] https://www.aa.org/the-start-and-growth-of-aa#:~:text=A.A.%20began%20in%201935%20in,their%20meeting%2C%20Bill%20and%20Dr.

[3] https://www.aa.org/the-twelve-steps


[5] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003122410386686

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3185195/

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6759672/

[8] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08897077.2021.1941514?src=recsys


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