What is SMART Recovery?

While 12-Step remains the international standard in self-help groups for individuals looking for support after an addiction, there are an increasing number of options available. Self-Management and Recovery Training, commonly known as SMART, is one of these alternatives. SMART offers not-for-profit, free self-help groups for addiction recovery across the United States, typically as a direct alternative to 12-step groups like AA or NA. Rather than promoting spirituality and higher power, SMART focuses on personal decisions and freedom, pushing self-empowerment as the means to stay clean and sober.

Most people think self-help groups and go straight to 12-step, and for good reason. It’s the most popular option in the United States. However, SMART is increasingly common as well, with programs in multiple countries available to help individuals recover from alcoholism, substance-use dependence, and even behavioral disorders such as food and internet addictions. With a research-based approach and no focus on spirituality, SMART makes a lot of sense for anyone who is not interested in using spirituality as a means of recovering and who prefers to find their own motivation to stay in recovery.

What is SMART?

Smart Recovery is a relatively new alternative to 12-Step and was founded on the basis of offering a scientific-based self-help group. The group takes an official stance on factors such as substance use dependence, medication, motivation, and volunteerism, with a core focus on individual empowerment. SMART uses research and evidence-based tools, language, and support. However, SMART uses the same series of meetings, support materials, and assistance to help individuals move past addiction.

What Happens in SMART?

SMART Recovery combines elements of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and MET (Motivation Enhancement Therapy) but focuses on REBT or Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. Like 12-Step, SMART uses a multi-point program, but it is more loosely based around steps individuals have to take based on scientific research rather than on spiritual guidelines. These steps are known as the 4-Point Program.

The 4-Point Program – SMART Recovery breaks the recovery process and their available tools and resources down into 4 points:

  1. Building motivation
  2. Coping with urges/cravings
  3. Managing emotions and behavior
  4. Creating a balanced life

Every individual who moves into a SMART program is taken into this program, which focuses on building self-empowerment from the start. Rather than using labels such as “alcoholic” or “powerless” SMART focuses on creating internal motivation through power to change, by teaching individuals’ tools to change, and by creating the opportunity for change.

SMART also focuses on key competencies:

Motives and Goals – Here, individuals are asked to increase their awareness of their motives and goals, so that they better understand why they are driven to use or drink, and why they are driven to recover.

Beliefs – SMART works you through the process of understanding beliefs around addiction and trying to align yours with scientific theory rather than beliefs that contribute to feelings of inferiority and continued addiction.

Emotions – SMART helps individuals to understand and tackle emotions in order to cope with them in a healthy way. With a strong focus on decreasing emotional disturbance and increasing self-acceptance, SMART works to improve total emotional health for increased happiness and decreased self-medication.

Behaviors – Behaviors are a major contributor to addiction and substance abuse, which is why behavioral therapies are among the most common therapies. SMART offers a variety of therapeutic modalities like Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), as well as the more well-known CBT and DBT therapies. These behavioral tools are designed to help individuals recognize and resolve harmful behaviors.


SMART Recovery uses “Toolboxes” which consist of evidence-based tools designed to help individuals tackle addiction, cravings, and triggers at different levels. Toolboxes are most often based on cognitive behavioral therapy, with worksheets, questions, activities, plans, and information. For example, the ABC is a SMART Toolbox designed to help individuals analyze events and triggers using a series of “Activating Event”, “Belief” and “Consequence”. This worksheet asks individuals to recognize what goes wrong, to dispute that belief, and to figure out something to do instead.

Stages of Change

The stages of change map similarly to 12-Step but are based on scientific-research, with resources, tools, and help for individuals at each stage:

  1. Precontemplation – The individual does not yet realize they have a problem
  2. Contemplation – The individual recognizes their problem and how it affects them
  3. Determination/Preparation – The individual decides to change
  4. Action – The individual uses tools and support to begin change
  5. Maintenance – The individual changes behavior to maintain change
  6. Exit – The individual can choose to exit the program
  7. Relapse – The individual can relapse at any point in the stages.

Individuals may also enter SMART at any of these stages and receive relevant help at each of those stages.

SMART Recovery Meetings

SMART offers meetings designed to foster conversations about and around addiction and recovery. Meetings typically last for 60-90 minutes and are hosted by a trained facilitator, typically a volunteer.

Most meetings follow a set process:

  • Welcome and overview of topics
  • Check-in to discuss successes and challenges
  • Discussion
  • Work with tools
  • Open-discussion

Here, each member is asked to participate and contribute, much like in 12-step.

Is SMART Recovery Effective?

SMART Recovery is relatively new and as such, has not been the subject of extensive studies. However, the program uses multiple evidence and research-based practices such as CBT, MET, REBT, and group therapy, all of which have a proven effect on rehabilitation outcomes. Like 12-Step, studies typically show that SMART cannot significantly reduce substance abuse on its own but that it does have a valuable impact on encouraging recovery maintenance and abstinence after seeking treatment. These factors tie into ongoing treatment, social motivation, and having an ongoing reminder of motivation to recover.

How is SMART Recovery Different from 12-Step?

While 12-Step is by far the more popular of the two treatment options, SMART offers significant advantages from a scientific basis.

  • Science-based curriculum
  • A focus on motivation and empowerment
  • Medication and ongoing prescription use are supported
  • Ongoing therapy
  • Ongoing behavioral treatment
  • Emotional validation

The largest difference for most people is that SMART focuses on personal empowerment and scientific motivation. 12-Step focuses on finding a higher power in recovery and using that as a motivation.

However, there’s no one best solution for everyone. Many people respond very well to spiritual approaches and others do not. SMART Recovery is vastly different from 12-Step but it is not better for everyone. At the same time, it offers many advantages and a strong approach. You can also choose to attend meetings without committing long-term in case you have doubts.

SMART Recovery offers a strong science-based alternative to the self-help group. As such, it’s a valuable tool for individuals who want to follow up on a drug rehab program, who want to maintain their recovery, or who are looking for motivation to go to a recovery program in the first place.

Contact South Coast Counselling at 1-844-330-0096 and find the help you need or help someone who is addicted in finding the help they need. Speak with one of our experienced treatment advisors today in complete confidence.