How 12 Step Programs Deal with Recovery and Relapse

Anyone who’s been through drug treatment has likely encountered the 12 Step program approach in one form or another. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 12 Step support groups work in much the same way as group therapy in terms of offering needed social supports while helping addicts develop healthy coping skills for living a drug-free lifestyle.

12 step program

One popular 12 step program is Narcotics Anonymous.

Twelve-Step programs originated with Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization first established in the 1930s. Since that time, 12 Step programs have branched out to address most every form of addiction, including:

  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • Overeaters Anonymous
  • Cocaine Anonymous
  • Co-Dependents Anonymous
  • Nicotine Anonymous

While each of these branches deals with different forms of addiction, the foundation principles that support the 12 Step philosophy address the roots of addiction as a behavior and lifestyle. In this respect, recovery and relapse prevention entail developing the types of behaviors and routines that make ongoing abstinence possible.

With long-term abstinence being the overall goal, recovery and relapse prevention become necessary focal points for building a drug-free lifestyle. Twelve-Step programs base their treatment model on the tools addicts most need for recovery and relapse prevention. Consequently, these programs play an important role in helping addicts work through issues surrounding recovery and relapse.

The 12 Step Program Approach

The 12 Step program approach relies on the benefits of mutual support through the group process as a means for changing undesirable behaviors in a person’s life. According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, the theory behind this approach views individuals who struggle with the same problem can support one another as a group and eliminate the identified problem.

Unlike professionally run group therapy sessions, 12 Step groups operate on an informal basis relying on the power of the group to heal itself. In terms of the actual 12 steps that characterize this treatment approach, each of the steps addresses recovery and relapse prevention from different vantage points. In effect, recovery and relapse prevention become possible through personal growth and spiritual development. The 12 Step program approach uses a step-by-step model as an action plan for applying recovery and relapse prevention strategies on a day-to-day basis.

Whether sponsored through drug treatment programs or offered through community-based agencies, 12 Step programs provide addicts with practical tools for recovery and relapse prevention.

How 12 Step Programs Deal with Recovery and Relapse

In essence, the compulsive behaviors and thinking patterns that drive the addiction cycle act as coping mechanisms for dealing with internal emotional conflict. Over time, these behaviors and thinking patterns create a lifestyle of their own. In effect, addiction becomes a lifestyle that works to promote drug-using behaviors.

In order to overcome the addiction lifestyle, a person must first understand the emotional and psychological motivations that drive it, according to Vanderbilt University. The 12 Step program teaches addicts how to manage internal conflict in ways that don’t rely on the effects of drugs and alcohol. Through working the 12 steps, addicts develop strategies for managing recovery and relapse prevention within their everyday lives. Ultimately, recovery and relapse prevention entail replacing destructive thinking and behavior patterns with health coping behaviors.

The 12 Step process deals with the following issues:

  • Acknowledging and confronting the problem
  • Self-awareness
  • Letting go of the need to control the problem on one’s own
  • Self-acceptance

Confronting the Problem

The first step towards recovery and relapse prevention requires addicts to confront the problem of addiction for what it is. While this may seem like a straightforward task, it can take years before a recovering addict fully understands the damaging effects of addiction on his or her mental outlook.

During the course of a developing addiction, the drug’s effects chemically alter the brain’s reward system, an area that plays a critical role in forming a person’s overall belief systems. In the process, the brain’s logic and reasoning faculties construct a denial defense that works to prioritize and protect the place that drugs hold in the addict’s daily life.

This first step in the 12 Step model attacks this denial defense head-on by helping addicts focus on addiction as a problem rather than a solution. As a recovery and relapse prevention strategy, confronting the problem helps to break down the defense mechanisms that validate addiction-based behaviors.


People who regularly attend 12 Step meetings and work the steps gradually start to develop a growing sense of self-awareness in terms of how their mental and emotional responses fight against their desire to live drug-free lives. With this growing awareness, addicts come to see addiction-based behaviors in a less favorable light. In effect, the “insanity” of addiction starts to become more so apparent.

In terms of recovery and relapse prevention, self-awareness becomes an ongoing process throughout recovery as addicts come to see the irrational belief systems that support addiction behaviors for what they are.

Letting Go

For many people, addiction-based behaviors develop out of a need to control or eliminate internal emotional conflicts. This need to control one’s emotions drives the addiction cycle and over time warps of person’s sense of self as well as his or her relation to others.

A big part of the 12 Step approach to recovery and relapse prevention has to do with letting go of the need to control how one feels through the use of drugs. It’s at this point where addicts learn to turn to a power beyond themselves for help and support. This power can be God, a therapist, the support group , a sponsor or anyone who supports the addicts desire to maintain sobriety.

Addicts learn to reach out to others for help rather than turning to drugs to feel better. As a recovery and relapse prevention strategy, the practice of “letting go” becomes a coping strategy for managing daily life stressors and obstacles in a health way.


As addicts come to realize the damaging effects of addiction on their thinking, a process of transformation takes hold. In effect, this realization brings about a sense of self-acceptance in terms of realizing how powerless a person is to change on his or her own. The 12 Step group model provides an ideal setting for addicts to go through this process of self-discovery while dealing with the key issues that surround recovery and relapse.

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