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What is SMART Recovery? Part 1

By Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

SMART Recovery is a secular, evidence-based recovery program that emphasizes an individual’s ability to gain empowerment through making better choices. SMART is an acronym that stands for Self Management And Recovery Training, with a strong emphasis on “self management,” (you will also find that this program loves its acronyms!).  SMART is a program of personal accountability by learning how to identify, challenge, and reframe patterns of thinking to make lasting behavior changes. Communal support can be part of one’s recovery, but SMART emphasizes that participants benefit greatly from learning to manage their own thoughts and feelings utilizing a variety of SMART Recovery Tools, all contained in the SMART Recovery Handbook. There are no sponsors in SMART, and the program strongly discourages labeling oneself as an addict or alcoholic, because that merely describes behaviors, not people as a whole.

Program Background

The program was developed in 1994 as an alternative to traditional 12 Step recovery programs, although SMART can easily coexist with Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step fellowships. The founders of SMART Recovery did not seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather they sought to integrate evidence-based brief interventions that have demonstrated efficacy in aiding long-term thought and behavior change. These include practices of Motivational Interviewing, the Transtheoretical Model a.k.a. The Stages of Change, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. What this means for a participant is that SMART Recovery meets you where you are at in your Stage of Change (Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, and Exit), and utilizes a 4-Point Program that empowers individuals to determine their goals for lasting thought and behavior change away from problematic addictive experiences.

Point 1 – Building and Maintaining Motivation

The 4-Point Program starts with 1) Building and Maintaining Motivation to Change, in which the participant may work through a series of written exercises (Hierarchy of Values, 3 Questions, Change Plan, and Cost Benefit Analysis) to aid in making a case for oneself to make a change in their life with regard to their addictive behavior. SMART does not dictate recovery goals to its participants (lifelong abstinence from all substances, for instance). Instead it empowers them to build a compelling case for themselves to argue in favor of making a change with regard to their addictive behavior. This part of the program is cleverly designed to move a participant, somewhat swiftly, through the Stages of Change. At the end of Point 1, they are left, minimally, in the Preparation Stage of Change, having developed a Change Plan and drawn up a Cost Benefit Analysis to weigh both the costs and benefits of making their proposed change (to quit drinking or using, for instance) as well as the costs and benefits of NOT making the change.

Point 2 – Coping with Urges

Point 2 is Coping With Urges, in which a participant learns to identify their triggers, track cravings, and defeat urges to fall back on old addictive behaviors. The key SMART Recovery Tool in this section is the DEADS tool, as in “kill your urges DEADS!” This tool is another acronym, standing for Delay/Deny giving into the urge, Escape the urge, Avoid/Attack/Accept the urge, Distract from the urge, and Substitute addictive thinking with rational thinking to cope with the urge. This also leads into an introduction to the ABC’s of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, which is further utilized in Point 3 – Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors, and will be explained in Part 2 of this blog, along with Point 4 – Living a Balanced Life, the ultimate goal for anyone in recovery and seeking to make lasting changes.

Meanwhile, if you are concerned about your addictive behaviors, Symmetry Counseling has many addiction specialists on our clinical staff. Contact us today for a free initial consultation. We offer both in-person therapy sessions and online counseling in Chicago to support you. 


SMART Recovery:

SMART Recovery Illinois:

SMART Recovery Arizona: (search for local meetings)

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