The Psychology behind 12-Step Treatment Models

Discussing 12 Step TreatmentSince Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the 1930s, 12-step treatment models have gained widespread acceptance among psychologists, therapists, social workers and medical doctors. Twelve-step groups like AA have also become a gold standard of recovery for many members of the general public. What makes the 12 steps such an effective model for drug and alcohol rehab? The psychology behind these principles indicates that these non-profit, mutual self-help groups fulfill several important needs, such as:

  • The need for guidance in changing destructive behaviors and thought patterns
  • The need for support from peers and fellowship with other addicts
  • The need for spiritual fulfillment
  • The need for positive, life-improving experiences

Because the 12-step philosophy is proven to be one of the most successful approaches to managing the disease of addiction, many drug and alcohol rehab programs have integrated these steps into their treatment models. If you enter an inpatient or outpatient rehab program these days, you’re likely to have the opportunity to learn about 12-step recovery strategies or to participate in 12-step meetings.

The 12 Steps and Behavioral Modification

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most commonly practiced therapeutic models in addiction treatment. CBT is a practical approach to rehabilitation, teaching the client how to identify and correct the negative thoughts and behaviors that promote substance abuse.

According to Psychology Today, 12-step programs take a similar corrective approach by encouraging members to change the way they think, behave and socialize with others. The 12 steps incorporates several principles that address the need for behavioral modification in addicts and alcoholics:

  • An emphasis on identifying destructive behaviors by taking a daily inventory of one’s thoughts and actions
  • Guidance in facing one’s personal fears by making amends to others
  • A focus on accepting responsibility for one’s decisions
  • A change of consciousness through prayer and meditation

Newcomers are advised that in order to make serious changes in their lives, they must change their social habits and find a new source of support in the 12-step fellowship. Instead of spending time with other alcoholics or drug addicts, they are encouraged to attend meetings, find a sponsor and contact their fellow recovering addicts when they need support. The fellowship and one’s “Higher Power” fill the emotional and spiritual voids that the addict once attempted to fill with drugs or alcohol.

Positive Psychology and 12-Step Recovery

Twelve-step programs approach alcoholism and drug addiction as diseases that can only be managed by surrendering one’s will to a higher power. In spite of their reliance on the disease model of addiction, 12-step groups offer rewarding experiences that reinforce healthy, sober behaviors. In this sense, the 12 steps reflect the principles of positive psychology, notes the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Positive psychology is based on the belief that gratifying experiences will encourage the individual to repeat a healthy behavior, such as attending meetings or reading AA literature, rather than reverting to a self-destructive behavior, such as drinking or using drugs.

AA, NA, CA and other 12-step groups offer many positive, gratifying experiences for newcomers and old-timers alike, such as:

  • The improvement of one’s circumstances through abstinence and sobriety
  • Emotional support from a fellowship of recovering addicts
  • Positive spiritual communication with a higher power of one’s own choosing
  • The acquisition of practical coping skills that help the addict avoid relapse
  • Support for spouses, partners and children who need help understanding the disease of addiction

Many newcomers who attend 12-step meetings find personal validation in the stories of other addicts. Substance abusers who have been isolated by their disease have the opportunity to relieve their pain by sharing their experiences with others. Alcoholics who have lost their jobs, families, and dignity can recover their self-respect and restore broken relationships with the help of the fellowship and the 12 steps.

How Can the 12 Steps Help Me?

Twelve-step recovery programs aren’t the answer for every addict. But these principles of behavior have helped a lot of people face their addiction honestly and rebuilt their lives on a more solid, stable foundation. At Axis, our approach to recovery is based on the guidelines of the 12 steps. We use these principles as a framework for developing personalized treatment plans that address each client’s individual needs. If you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol problem, we encourage you to call our intake counselors to find out how our philosophy of care can make positive changes in your life.