Alcoholics Anonymous or AA is a 12-step program and support network designed to help those with an alcohol problem stop drinking and manage their cravings. AA meetings are run by people who have been through the program themselves rather than doctors or trained counselors.
Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is welcome to join, no matter their age, race, orientation, or religious beliefs.
How does Alcoholics Anonymous help people deal with alcoholism?
Alcoholics Anonymous works by keeping people engaged and active in their recovery. It combines the essential tools you need to stay sober into a workable program that is simple to follow.
AA teaches you skills that help you stay sober.
The 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are the heart of the program. The steps are designed to challenge the out-of-control thoughts and behaviors that drive addiction.
As you apply the steps in your life, you replace old, negative habits with positive, healthier ones. In clinical terminology, this process is called cognitive restructuring because it changes the way you think about drinking.
Some helpful skills that you can learn and practice in AA include:
- Avoiding the people, places and things associated with alcohol
- Thinking through the drink by reminding yourself of the consequences (including physical consequences like early liver damage or wet brain, as well as relationship conflict, job loss or legal issues).
- Staying sober one day at a time.
If you consistently go to meetings, read AA materials, and talk to other alcoholics in recovery, these you’ll begin to naturally integrate these principles into your life. Listening to other alcoholics talk about the steps will help you apply them in your own life.
AA is a network of supportive people in recovery.
Fun and friendship are a huge part of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA meetings are a great place to meet and socialize with others who are on the same journey. Together, fellow alcoholics hold each other accountable without being judgmental.
Peer support also functions as a safety net, especially in the first few months when cravings are the strongest. Being able to reach out to someone who has been through the process can save you when you’re thinking about drinking.
Those who stay active in the program build up a network of trusted fellow alcoholics that they can reach out to at any time.
AA develops a sense of purpose.
Addiction robs people of their self-worth and sense of purpose. Part of AA is restoring meaning to your life.
Some AA members gain a sense of purpose by showing up to meetings early and making coffee for everyone. Other members do service by sponsoring newcomers and guide them through the steps or delve deeper into the spiritual aspects of the program. There are many ways to stay involved but being involved is what counts.
What are the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous?
The 12 steps are the core of the AA program. Members strive to work the steps to the best of their abilities.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The 12 steps, along with books and literature, provide directions for early recovery and a framework for long-term sobriety and personal growth. People continue to “work the steps” by applying them in their daily life throughout their recovery.
What are AA meetings like?
Meetings aren’t depressing places where people lament about their past drinking. The vibe is positive and friendly. People are genuinely happy to be there because they enjoy it, and it helps them stay sober.
Alcoholics Anonymous will never ask you for any personal information, and you don’t have to go through any formal process to join. The only thing you have to do to get started is show up at a meeting.
The structure of AA meetings follow one of three formats:
- Open Discussion – Group members select a topic and share their recovery experience relating to that topic. Topics include the first step, gratitude in recovery or helping others.
- Speaker – One group member or guest shares their personal experience with recovery and AA, followed by a discussion.
- Big Book/Literature – Group members read passages from AA literature and discuss.
Regardless of the format, feel free to just sit and listen. Someone may invite you to share, but you won’t ever be forced to participate or say anything.
Is Alcoholics Anonymous religious?
No. AA doesn’t require any specific religious beliefs or even a belief in God. People from all religions and beliefs get sober in AA, and there are plenty of non-religious AA members.
You define what “higher power” means.
If God is referenced in a meeting, it is just a word that some people replace with words like universe, spirit, consciousness or higher power. Pick whatever concept sits well with you.
Regardless of AA, finding a “higher power” is important in recovery
Instead of writing off references to a higher power as religious, do some soul searching. Finding a purpose outside of yourself to believe in takes you out of the cycle of meaninglessness.
- You can define what higher power means, so it applies without believing in religion or even God
- Regardless of AA, defining a higher power is important to your recovery
When was AA founded?
The first meetings of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous were held in 1935 in Akron, Ohio. However, the program as it exists today began in 1939 when the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was published.
The book and the program quickly spread across the United States and internationally. Recent estimates suggest that there are over 2 million Alcoholics Anonymous members worldwide.
What is AA’s success rate?
AA is an anonymous program, and it does not track the successes and failures of participants for two reasons:
- Logging relapses discourages newcomers, which defeats the purpose of the program.
- Self-reported data is unreliable, especially considering denial is a part of addiction.
There have been only a handful of scientific studies on Alcoholics Anonymous, but the little data that is out there shows that AA works.
- People that consistently participate in support groups like AA are more likely to get sober and stay sober after treatment.
- AA has the greatest success when combined with other therapies.
- Even by itself, AA is better than receiving no therapy at all.
What are the AA coins?
AA coins are plastic or metal tokens that participants earn when they hit specific milestones in their first year of sobriety. The coin ranking systems vary from meeting to meeting. but most meetings use the following:
AA groups give out coins at meetings to mark sobriety time because:
- It provides encouragement and motivation to stay sober
- It shows new members that long-term sobriety is possible
- Members keep their coins as a reminder of their recovery
After 9 months, members receive yearly medallions on their sober anniversary to commemorate multiple years in the program.
Do you have to get a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous?
Having an AA sponsor is highly encouraged.
A sponsor explains the ins and outs of the program and guides you through the steps of AA. The whole point of going to meetings is to form connections with others and form relationships, and you’re missing out on a huge part of the program if you don’t.
However, you do not need a sponsor to start attending meetings. Most people get a sponsor after they show up. According to the AA traditions, the only thing you need to join is a “desire to stop drinking.”
How is AA different than rehab?
Support groups are not designed to treat addiction or underlying mental health issues. It’s about the daily maintenance of sobriety.
Alcohol rehab actually treats the brain disease of addiction and any co-occurring disease that hides behind the drugs and alcohol (like trauma, depression or anxiety).
Treatments here include:
- CBT, DBT and mindfulness group and individual talk therapy
- Holistic art, music, equine, yoga and adventure therapy
- Family or couples counseling
- Relapse prevention and aftercare planning
- Medications for detox and to stabilize the brain (like anti-depressants)
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Lilienfeld, S. O., & Arkowitz, H. (2011, March 1). Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-alcoholics-anonymous-work/
Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006). Participation in treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: a 16-year follow-up of initially untreated individuals. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(6), 735–750. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20259
Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an alcoholics anonymous sponsor?. Psychology of addictive behaviors : journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019013
(2019, December). Estimates of A.A. Groups and Members as of December 31, 2019. Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/smf-53_en.pdf
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