By Lauren Smith

Last updated: 05 December 2023

Smart Recovery is an international non-profit helping people recover from addiction through a program of self-help and mutual aid meetings. Pitching itself as an alternative to 12-step programs, SMART Recovery offers participants scientifically grounded techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) and a social support network.

Key takeaways:

  • SMART Recovery views addiction not as a lifelong disease the individual will never completely cure but rather as a problem that can be objectively analyzed, solved, and left in the past.

  • SMART Recovery's four-point framework is undertaken in whatever order suits the participant. 

  • The tactics in the “SMART Toolkit” are borrowed from scientifically validated therapeutic methods. These techniques are told through meetings, readings, and worksheets.

SMART Recovery

What is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery was founded in 1994 to empower people to gain independence from addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and other harmful behaviors. SMART Recovery support groups equip participants with the practical tools to tackle their addiction and move on with their lives.

SMART Recovery views addiction not as a lifelong disease the individual will never completely cure but rather as a problem that can be objectively analyzed, solved, and left in the past. The program believes people are responsible for their behavior, including their addiction, and can change that behavior by modifying their thinking.[1]

Through readings, workbooks, homework, digital resources, and facilitator-led meetings, participants learn techniques drawn from several therapeutic modalities, which help them manage cravings, deal with difficult emotions, change their mindset, build motivation, and lead a healthy life. SMART Recovery emphasizes self-reliance and, fittingly, the program is led by the participant. They decide which techniques are helpful, how their sober life looks, and when to move on from the program. 

SMART Recovery meetings also provide community support. More than 3,500 mutual aid meetings are hosted every week in 25 countries. Additionally, 40 meetings are held online each week, in eight languages and multiple time zones.[2]

What does SMART Recovery stand for?

SMART Recovery is an acronym, standing for Smart Management And Recovery Training. 

How does SMART recovery work?

SMART Recovery empowers people with addictions through mutual aid meetings and self-help techniques gleaned from therapy. It helps them navigate a four-point program, guided by eight principles.

SMART Recovery 4-point Program

SMART Recovery's four-point framework is undertaken in whatever order suits the participant. 

  • Building and maintaining motivation: emphasizes that the individual has power over their choices, behavior, and goals. This stage often involves an objective analysis of their addiction, with participants comparing the benefits of continuing the addictive behavior and leaving it behind.

  • Coping with urges: helps participants understand why they have urges to use the substance or engage in other destructive behaviors, how to recognize these urges, and how to prevent acting on them.

  • Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors: helps participants understand why they feel, think, and act in certain ways; modify these engrained patterns and stop using them to feel better.

  • Living a balanced life: helps participants develop a lifestyle that will support sobriety for years into the future. They’re taught how to set realistic goals, plan for the future, and sustain healthy habits.

The 8 principles of SMART Recovery

  1. Recovery through self-empowerment: Participants take responsibility for the change in their life. They’re shown a range of treatment options and are encouraged to select from among them.
  2. Mutual help: As they recover, participants build a healthy, productive life, which often includes helping new participants.
  3. Volunteer management: SMART Recovery is staffed almost entirely by volunteers. Meetings are led by volunteer facilitators who themselves overcame addiction through SMART or others who want to benefit their community.
  4. Acceptance: SMART Recovery strives to be a welcoming environment for people of any race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It helps people tackle addictive behavior to any substance or activity.
  5. Participant support: SMART Recovery is funded primarily through participant donations and the sale of literature.
  6. Evidence-based practice: The program employs scientifically-backed methods and reacts to new advancements in addiction science.
  7. Collaboration: Participants are encouraged to supplement SMART Recovery with any other treatment method they see fit, including professional therapy, prescribed medication such as opioid agonists, and 12-step programs.
  8. International presence: SMART Recovery has a presence in 25 countries.[6]

The “SMART” Toolkit

The tactics in the “SMART Toolkit” are borrowed from scientifically validated therapeutic methods. These techniques are told through meetings, readings, and worksheets.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): teaches participants to assess their thoughts, understand how those thoughts influence feelings and behavior, including their use of drugs, and modify their thinking to change their lives.[3]

  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): helps individuals recognize their high-risk behavior and how it creates problems in their life, explore and overcome their ambivalence and resistance to change, and identify strengths that can help them enact that change.[4]

  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT): helps people identify and dispute erroneous beliefs and negative thought patterns in order to change their behavior.[5]

What addictions does SMART Recovery help with?

SMART Recovery welcomes people seeking freedom from any addiction, including: 

How is SMART Recovery different from AA?

SMART Recovery pitches itself as an alternative to 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), although participants can use the programs in parallel.

It differs from AA and NA in several ways:

  • Theory of addiction: While AA and NA view addiction as a disease, SMART Recovery believes that theory disempowers people and makes addiction their main identity. Instead, it views addiction as a behavioral problem that can be corrected. Therefore SMART Recovery discourages the use of terms such as “addict” and “alcoholic.”

  • Length of participation: AA and NA view addiction as a lifelong condition without a cure, even when the person has been abstinent for years. Some people attend meetings for decades as they manage their condition. SMART Recovery believes full recovery from addiction is possible and that participants will move on from the program.

  • Spirituality: In AA and NA, participants turn to God or another higher power for help in overcoming their addiction. SMART Recovery believes that the power to change addiction lies within us.

  • Medication: NA and AA don’t officially exclude medication-assisted treatment (MAT) such as methadone and naltrexone. However, they permit local groups, which are largely autonomous, to set their own policies. In practice, that means people using medication find a chilly reception in some groups. SMART Recovery is more open-minded about MAT and believes people should use scientifically- informed methods they see fit to overcome addiction, including properly prescribed psychiatric and addiction medication.[8]

  • Meetings: AA and NA meetings largely consist of people sharing their personal accounts about addiction and recovery, with “cross-talk”—debate, comments, and questions from other people—discouraged. SMART meetings encourage cross-talk, even disagreement. People don’t recount life stories but rather focus on the future.

How do SMART Recovery meetings work?

SMART meetings typically last between 60 and 90 minutes and are led by volunteer facilitators. Meetings are held in community spaces and are free to attend, although donations are accepted to cover renting the room and materials.

Meetings vary in format but typically begin with participants briefly checking in, giving their first names and, if they’ve attended before, how they’ve used SMART Recovery in the previous week. New faces are invited to briefly introduce themselves.

Meetings usually revolve around one of SMART Recover's four points or a specific technique from the toolkit. Facilitators draw evidence-based strategies from CBT and non-confrontational motivational interviewing to help attendees find motivation, change their perspectives, and learn coping skills. Experienced members share their knowledge and skills with newcomers. 

Debate and discussion are encouraged, but the sharing of long personal accounts is discouraged. Participants are invited to focus on the future.[9]

Can anyone attend SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery meetings are open to anyone seeking independence from any addiction, including behavioral addictions such as gambling and gaming.

People who have suffered due to a family member or loved one’s addiction are welcome to attend meetings. SMART Recovery also runs Family and Friends meetings which help these people tackle their own problems and move toward their goals.

Find SMART Recovery meetings near you

SMART Recovery meetings run in 25 countries. To find one near you, use SMART’s online locator.

To find other treatment options for addiction in your local area, click here.