Twelve-step support groups have been a popular way to get sober since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. While 12-step programs have helped countless people over the years, they are not without controversy. Critics say the 12 steps are not based on evidence or research and the success rates are too low. Others say that support group meetings are breeding grounds for bad people who prey on the vulnerable. The debate will likely continue, but what is certain is that the 12 steps work for some people and not for others. How do you know if the program is right for you?
Learn About the 12 Steps
A good place to start in deciding whether you should throw your lot in with the 12 steps is in finding out more about them. Read up on the philosophy of recovery espoused by AA and what the steps are. AA is not the only 12-step program, but it was the beginning. If you understand what AA does, you will have a good understanding of all 12-step groups. Here is the general philosophy condensed to a few points:
- As an addict, you are unable to control your compulsions.
- You recognize that a higher power can strengthen you.
- You work with a sponsor to assess your past choices and mistakes.
- You make amends for those mistakes.
- You learn to live a new, sober life and you help other addicts in turn.
What Does the Science Say?
If you are a skeptic, you might be interested to know how research supports or debunks the 12 steps. The program certainly didn’t get its start with research into effective addiction treatment, but since the 1930s there have been studies that have looked at the 12 steps. A number of these studies have shown that 12-step programs and support groups for addiction do work. They work best when used after a complete treatment program. In other words, if you go to rehab for your addiction, joining a support group afterward is an effective way to maintain sobriety.
Researchers have pinpointed a few ways in which attending a 12-step group can help you stay sober. One study found that spiritual awakenings, so-called “seeing the light” moments, can help change patterns in the brain that keep addicts using. The spiritual aspect of the 12 steps can be that pattern-changer. Other studies have found that the social enrichment of a 12-step meeting changes dopamine receptors in the brain, which helps addicts feel better and resist relapse.
The Social Aspect
Experts agree that any complete and effective plan for addiction treatment should include some kind of social support. You need to decide if a 12-step group provides the kind of socializing that will help you. The evidence says that it most likely will help, especially if you are already sober and have gone through a treatment program. However, research does not say that to benefit from social support you must follow the 12-steps as outlined by AA.
Your social support could be a strong family or group of friends willing to spend time with you as you struggle to stay sober. It could be one or two new friends who have been through what you are going through and want to help. To decide if the 12 steps are right for you, read up on them and then take the plunge. Try attending meetings and working with a sponsor. If any aspect of it makes you uncomfortable or it just doesn’t feel right, you can stop going. What is most important is that you find the support that works for you to help you stay sober.