How Effective Are 12 Step Programs?

The 12 steps as guides to recovery for alcoholics have been around for decades. Since their origin in the 1930s as the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12 steps have been expanded, altered and used in other types of addiction treatment.

Although 12 step based programs have helped many people get sober and stay sober over the years, the concept of the steps has also had numerous detractors. As scientific research begins to answer questions about addiction, many people question the effectiveness of 12 step programs. Even though the 12 steps did not originate from research and evidence, we know today that they can be useful for many addicts.

12 step critics

The 12 steps are sometimes seen as controversial because they are not based on scientific evidence. Some researchers who specialize in addiction treatment believe that the 12 steps are not helpful for addicts. Certain experts claim that the 12 steps do not work, that they are no better than doing nothing, that they force religion on people and that they can even be harmful. (Read In Defense Of 12 Steps: What Science Really Tells Us About Addiction.) Many of the claims detractors make about the 12 steps, however, are based on misconceptions. (Read Why the Hostility Toward the 12 Steps?)

For example, you do not have to be religious to benefit from the steps. Others believe that addicts become helpless and give up responsibility for their actions when going through the 12 steps, which isn’t true. Some even see the 12 step programs as cults, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Do the 12 steps work?

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about the 12 steps is that they don’t work to help addicts recover. What research into the 12 steps and other treatments for addiction tells us is that they do work. Any support group, whether it uses the 12 steps or not, is proven to be an important and effective aspect of a thorough addiction treatment program. Along with individual counseling, 12 step support groups make up the most effective treatment available to addicts.

One of the reasons support groups using the 12 steps are so effective is that they give recovering addicts a place to go.(Read Does Science Show What 12 Steps Know?) Most intensive treatment programs for addicts last for only 30 days, after which they are expected to go back into the world and survive surrounded by temptations, triggers and cravings. With support groups to turn to, recovering addicts can survive and even thrive, even when the possibility of relapse is all around them. The importance of the community and support provided by 12 step programs cannot be understated.

Anecdotal evidence has shown that the 12 steps work, but now science is catching up and explaining why. For example, one study showed that monkeys involved in social groups were able to develop more receptors in their brains that in humans are related to resisting addiction. It is possible that involvement in 12 step support groups has a similar effect on human brains. Research has also shown that social and emotional attachments, like those fostered in support groups, help people resist the temptation to use drugs or alcohol. The 12 steps tend to be controversial and seem especially mysterious to those who don’t know a lot about them. As research begins to uncover more information about addiction and treatments that work, the 12 steps stand to be vindicated.

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  1. The Power in Powerlessness | katiemacbride - September 28, 2015

    […] me, it’s been extremely liberating to realize my own powerlessness. This is another point that critics of the 12-step concept of powerlessness, or those within 12-step programs who would distort the concept, fail to understand. If someone […]

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