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SMART Recovery: Everything You Need To Know

by Landmark Recovery

July 1, 2019
Two therapists in a room talking about cognitive behavioral therapy.

Updated: May 4, 2023, at 12:28 a.m.

What is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery is a four-point recovery program based on science and focused on abstinence. Short for Self-Management and Recovery Training, the program focuses on a self-empowering system of recovery. People are encouraged to take charge of their own lives and leave addiction behind.

The approach to SMART Recovery harnesses scientifically based methods of behavioral change. The core goal of the program is to help the person in treatment overcome the type of self-defeating thinking that hinders long-term sobriety and leads to relapse. During rehab, people enrolled in SMART Recovery can expect to develop the confidence to choose addiction recovery over addiction.

We’ll explore all aspects of SMART Recovery below starting with its origins.

History of SMART Recovery

SMART was founded in 1994 as a program developed from the earlier Rational Recovery.

Rational Recovery

Founded in 1985, Rational Recovery enjoyed success throughout the 1990s as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step groups. Studies conducted at the time indicated that a person was more likely to become and remain abstinent from alcohol if they participated in Rational Recovery meetings.

In 1992, the non-profit Rational Recovery held a meeting and the result was the incorporation of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Self-Help Network (ADAHSN). By 1994, the organization had rebranded to SMART Recovery.

So that’s how things got started, but how does SMART Recovery actually work?

Theory-Based Methodology


A magnifying glass a pen laying on an open book. An individual is trying to learn everything you need to know about smart recovery to overcome addiction.

Much like AA, the principles underpinning SMART Recovery are mutual support, confidentiality, and accessibility, but they are tied together with SMART evolving scientific knowledge.

Unlike AA, the prime focus of SMART Recovery is on self-empowerment as a means of accepting full responsibility rather than handing this off to a higher power. That said, while often positioned as non-spiritual, it’s perfectly possible for anyone spiritually inclined to participate. SMART Recovery programs can also be followed in tandem with a spiritually-based alternative like AA.

In group meetings, participants learn to control addictive behavior through self-reliance and positive coping strategies. The techniques applied to achieve this are borrowed from the disciplines of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), MET (motivational enhancement therapy), and REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy).

The way in which these skills and strategies are learned takes place within a four-point program.

A 4-Point Recovery Program

A woman holds up four fingers. The four represents the four points in smart recovery

Unlike the 12-step model which is followed strictly step-by-step, SMART Recovery’s four-point program doesn’t need to be followed consecutively.

The 4 areas, commonly referred to as points, are as follows:

  1. Building, increasing, and maintaining motivation
  2. A refusal to give in to urges
  3. Self-management without relying on any substances
  4. Rebuilding a balanced lifestyle

Building, increasing and maintaining motivation

Without the willingness and dedication to stay sober, long-term recovery will always be based on fragile foundations. One of the key approaches to enhancing motivation to stay sober is by addressing the pros and cons of a life of abstinence.

For most people, setting aside addictive behaviors leads to dramatic improvements in terms of health, wellbeing, and relationships. Sobriety can also lead to a productive and financially stable lifestyle as patients will no longer be spending so much money on funding their habits.

On the flip side, continuing down the path of alcohol dependence or substance abuse includes neglected responsibilities and squandered potential. Relationships tend to unravel. Health and nutrition suffer. The long-term outlook is bleak.

By rigorously assessing these upsides of sobriety and the negative consequences of continuing down a path of abuse, motivation can be strengthened. This motivation can be a powerful driving force in the early days of recovery.

A refusal to give in to urges

Cravings for drinks or drugs are an inevitable part of recovery, but SMART Recovery helps participants to create effective coping strategies that minimize the chance of relapse when these urges crop up.

SMART Recovery’s strength is that it teaches patients a number of techniques to help combat these cravings.Some of these strategies include investigating the root causes of triggers, practicing mindfulness, and learning how to identify and overcome irrational beliefs that can lead to a relapse.

There are many acronyms used in SMART Recovery beyond that of the actual name of the program and the ABCs is one extended exercise used to attack cravings head-on.

  • A: Activating Experience – This part of the exercise deals with identifying the triggers that lead to relapse
  • B: Beliefs – Whether rational or irrational, reality-based or wishful-based, beliefs take many forms. SMART Recovery teaches each patient to dispute and dismantle these beliefs, particularly when they’re irrational, to minimize the chance of relapse
  • C: Consequences – For every action, there is a reaction and this program teaches patients that a consequence is the direct result of allowing a trigger to cause a negative reaction.

With that bedrock set in place, SMART Recovery teaches the patient that urges are fleeting. By delaying urges for a short time they can be effectively resisted. Strategies for combating cravings include escape, acceptance, and substitution.

Self-management without relying on any substances

The third point concerns the detailed exploration of irrational beliefs that can be responsible for relapse. Whether it’s being placed in a compromising situation like a party or a general emotion that brings about a craving, an awareness of irrational, and distorted thinking is key to overcoming it. Some triggers can be worked through while others are better to be avoided completely.

Rebuilding a balanced lifestyle

Getting sober is one thing. Staying sober is another thing entirely.

The crux of the fourth point is rebuilding and planning for the future based on both short-term and long-term goals. This is achieved by taking inventory of the things that are important and working to put them into practice.

Here, coping skills and relapse prevention along with taking advantage of community resources all play valuable roles in recalibrating life so it’s more rewarding and sustainable.

To address each of these four points, the SMART Recovery Toolbox is comprised of methods from:

What Type of Addiction Is SMART Recovery Useful For Treating?

A woman sitting and thinking about Smart Recovery

SMART Recovery can be used as a standalone program or in combination with other support groups. The various Anonymous groups are segregated, including:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Cocaine Anonymous
  • Gamblers Anonymous
  • Narcotics Anonymous

SMART Recovery, on the other hand, can be used to treat any of the following:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug Addiction
  • Behavioral Disorders

While this tool may work, how impactful is it really?

How Effective Is SMART Recovery?

A young man leaning up against a wall thinking about how effective Smart Recovery is for addiction treatment

A 2018 study published online in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment compared SMART Recovery to:

  • AA
  • Women For Sobriety
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery.

With income and demographics normalized, SMART Recovery was not quite as effective as AA in terms of total abstinence, alcohol drinking issues, or the outcomes of abstinence. However, when normalized for treatment goal, SMART Recovery participants actively pursuing abstinence fared just as well as AA members.

Since appropriate medications can be sanctioned and not stigmatized as “another form of addiction”, SMART Recovery can be highly effective for anyone with a dual diagnosis.

It’s Contrasted with 12-Step Programs

Both programs see a group of recovering alcoholics and drug users working together through a range of exercises to conquer addiction. Where most 12-step programs are segregated according to the nature of the addiction, SMART Recovery meetings are open to anyone regardless of the addiction.

With SMART Recovery, participants are not labeled with terms like alcoholic or addict. Labels like this are considered to serve no purpose and may, in some cases, interfere with treatment.

Many people avoid dealing with 12-step programs because they refuse to admit powerlessness over their own circumstances. With SMART Recovery, there’s no requirement to do so. Indeed, the whole point of SMART Recovery is to actively make changes and to accept full responsibility. While most 12-step programs are considered a lifelong affair, participants at SMART Recovery only attend meetings for as long as they prove useful and necessary.

SMART Recovery Meetings

Individuals in an outpatient treatment program meeting for a therapy session

Typically, SMART Recovery meetings are 90 minutes but they can take as little as 60 minutes.

The format is broadly similar:

  • Welcome
  • Personal updates
  • Setting the agenda
  • Coping: activating events
  • Pass the hat for donations
  • Review and homework
  • Socializing

One of the ways in which SMART Recovery meetings differ from 12-step programs is that patients are not asked to talk about past stories related to addiction. While programs like AA use the idea of a higher power to aid in recovery efforts, this is not the case for SMART Recovery.

Likewise, patients are not given sponsors and there are no suggestions that you need to attend the meetings for life. Though it is generally recommended that a patient attends at least five meetings to determine if the process will be beneficial.

While AA is considered a lifelong commitment, participation in SMART Recovery is only encouraged for as long as it’s deemed necessary.

With roughly 1500 global SMART Recovery meetings taking place each week, not all facilitators have first-hand experience of alcoholism or addiction. Meetings are sometimes serious but often have a fun element involved. The socializing aspect is important, just like with AA.

While SMART Recovery has proven to be effective in helping patients, is it possible that this program can help those close to the patient as well, though?

Can SMART Recovery Help Family & Friends?

A woman hugging her friend who just finished treatment, including smart recovery

SMART Recovery meetings come with no requirements, so anyone close to the participant, whether friend or family, is welcome to attend. Loved ones are taught how to help motivate and encourage the patient throughout the recovery process. Just as SMART Recovery can help with a range of addictions, it can also help friends and family of the patient.

Pros and Cons

To conclude, here is a quick view of some of the leading benefits and drawbacks:


  • Totally inclusive with no entrance requirements for meetings
  • Based on CBT, a tried and tested psychological approach
  • Suitable for treating a broad spectrum of addictions from drinking and drug addiction to behavioral addictions
  • Works equally well whether or not you believe in a higher power


  • SMART Recovery is neither as well-known nor as widespread as 12-step programs like AA
  • There’s no professional accountability since meetings are run by volunteers
  • Participants need commitment, determination, and a willingness for self-reflection. As such, this program is not the best fit for everyone

A Summary of SMART Recovery

Based on the four central points outlined above, the overall approach of SMART Recovery can be summarized as follows:

  • Participants learn how to empower themselves and become more self-reliant
  • There’s a strong focus on encouraging participants to actively rebuild their lives rather than hoping changes will simply occur without proper goal-setting
  • Psychological counseling and medication are both approved as combination therapies when appropriate
  • Attending meetings is encouraged but it’s also possible to undertake SMART Recovery online

What To Do Next

For more information concerning SMART Recovery, call our confidential admissions line at 888-448-0302. If you or a loved one feels this form of addiction treatment would be suitable, it’s possible to arrange a visit ASAP. Visit our locations page to find a rehab center near you.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.