How Effective are 12-Step Programs?

Addiction can be incredibly difficult to overcome. It has psychological, physical, and spiritual components, and every individual experience it differently. Also, there are so many different types of addictions that can shatter the lives of those suffering.

There are a plethora of substances to which one can develop an addiction, from alcohol to organic plants, through narcotics, not to mention nicotine, and even readily available cleaning products and bath salts. Meanwhile, behavioral addictions can turn out to be just as debilitating. People report addictions to gambling, overeating, sex, and compulsive behavior such as hoarding.

Finally, every individual addict has a different genetic and psychological makeup. For some, addiction has a strong genetic component, passed on from generation to generation. For others, it can be a specific traumatic event or process they underwent earlier in life which sparked addiction. Meanwhile, for some, the cause is mostly physical. For them, addiction may be the result of a desire to numb significant physical pain.

Therefore, there is no one size fits all solution to addiction and no magic bullet which can cure every type of dependence.

The 12-Step Solution

Although it cannot offer the answer for every addictive tendency, the 12-step approach offers a strong and proven approach to recovery. It has several advantages and is therefore worthy of consideration in most cases of addiction.

Although it has long attracted the curiosity of researchers, it was once quite difficult to research 12-step programs. As the name of the organizations would tend to suggest, these groups are highly committed to maintaining the anonymity of their members. Also, all groups were closed to the public until fairly recently. This meant researchers could not observe meetings or located members easily. This made it highly difficult to assess the success of 12-step programs through reliable scientific studies including control groups and the like.

However, some 12-step programs have begun to run open meetings that the public and researchers can attend. Also, as the stigma surrounding alcoholism has abated somewhat, more members are willing to volunteer for studies. However, it is notable that there are few studies of 12-step programs aside from AA.

12 Step vs. Other Recovery Options

However, we can now state quite authoritatively that AA works very well in comparison to other forms of treatment of alcoholism. One of the first authoritative studies on the topic, released in 2003, found that when an addict attended a meeting in the first three years of recovery significantly improved the odds of maintaining long-term abstinence from alcohol by no less than 35%. A study conducted a few years later, yielded similar results while looking at outcomes over a longer period. In this study, 67% of those who attended meetings remained sober years later, while 34% of an equivalent control group did the same.

If so, there is no doubt that alcoholics attending AA fair better than those seeking no treatment at all. But how do they fare in comparison to addicts receiving professional cognitive addiction therapy? Quite well indeed. Addicts participating in cognitive therapy were found to maintain sobriety at a lower rate than those who regularly attended meetings.

If so, both 12-step programs and cognitive therapy improve the chances of maintaining sobriety. While the 12-step program may have the edge according to some studies, there is no reason to choose between the two. Therapy addresses the specific psychological mechanisms behind individual addiction, while 12-step programs help replace unhealthy tendencies with a healthier lifestyle.

It is highly advisable to seek both types of help to increase the odds of recovery.

The Secrets of 12-Step Success

Over the years, the number and variety of 12-step programs have widened and today there is an appropriate group to deal with most maladies. Some are very wide and cover many types of addiction, for example, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous cover wide and varying types of addictions. Then there are more specific ones such as Cocaine Anonymous and Clutterers Anonymous which cover narrower behavior. With the wide variety now available, most addicts are likely to find a home.

The Spiritual Foundation

12-step programs address a specific component that can enhance the life of an addict, regardless of their background and type of addiction. It helps provide a spiritual foundation to recovery, which replaces the faulty personal judgment which led to the hell of addiction with an altruistic purpose provided by a Higher Power. Many addicts find this useful in their recovery, and a great number report that they cannot imagine life without a higher spiritual purpose.

The Social Component

Another component in the effectiveness of 12-step programs is the instant social network it provides for members. Isolation and loneliness are some of the main maladies associated with addiction. As every addict can attest, one can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people, if one does not feel understood. It is also the isolation that may lead to relapse. When addicts continue to surround themselves with enablers and active addicts, it greatly increases the chances of resuming destructive behavior.

The 12-step program provides addicts with fellowship, through sharing and talking, and through the relationship with the sponsor. Members of groups also typically reach out to each other regularly and engage in a shared activity. Many psychologists believe that the success of 12-step programs is best explained through this social component. 

If so, while 12-step programs are not a magical cure, they are one of the most effective and proven methods of dealing with addiction. There are many methods of addressing addiction, and all should be researched and considered. However, 12-step programs remain an indispensable part of the recovery toolkit.