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The Psychology of AA’s 12-Steps



In this post, we explore the psychology behind the 12-step model. The 12-step model was formulated by Bill Wilson in the 1930s. Bill Wilson was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill formulated the 12-steps to help others attain a spiritual awakening that would ultimately help them overcome alcoholism. Over the years, the 12-step model has been utilised by many different professionals including doctors, therapists, psychologists and social workers.

One must ask, why has the 12-Steps been such a global success for so many years?

Researchers answer this question by stating the 12-steps helps participants attain many important psychological needs.

These needs include:

  • The need for life-improving events
  • The need for spiritual fulfilment
  • The need for peer support
  • The need for guidance

The 12-Steps is not something participants tackle alone from the privacy of their own home. Instead, participants join active 'mutual support' groups. Here, they will benefit by joining a community of people who are recovering from addiction. Perhaps it is the community effect that's really behind the success of the 12-Steps. After all, humans evolved as social animals, and the need for social bonding is inherent.

Parallels between the 12-Steps and behavioural therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a popular evidence-based treatment that's often utilised by drug and alcohol rehab clinics. CBT assists by helping clients modify their thinking and behaviours. Negative thoughts and feeling that encourage addictive behaviours are known as 'addiction triggers.'

Some believe there are parallels between the 12-Steps and CBT because both promote a 'corrective' approach and attempt to assist participants in changing the manner in which they behave, think and socialise.

Examples for how the 12-Steps promotes behavioural change include:

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

When participants join Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, they are advised to alter their social habits and find support via AA or NA's fellowship. Participants may realise this goal by attending local meetings, appointing a sponsor and assisting other addicts in achieving their recovery goals.

Participants are asked to reach out to a 'higher power' in meeting the spiritual void created by no longer abusing drugs or alcohol.

The power of positive psychology

The 12-Step approach proclaims that addiction is a disease and the only way to arrest this disease is to surrender to 'God as you see Him.' Over the years, the word 'God' has been rephrased as 'a higher power' to make the 12-Steps more acceptable to a wider audience. 12-Step groups reward members by allowing them to engage in healthy and enjoyable activities. One could thus argue the 12-Steps is largely based on positive psychology.

In short, 12-Step followers are encouraged to repeat healthy behaviours because these behaviours are ultimately gratifying. Example gratifying behaviours include attending AA meetings and reading AA literature. The gratifying nature of these experience is in stark contrast to the self-destructive behaviours that are associated with substance misuse.

The power of religion

Another important psychological effect linked to the 12-Steps is religiosity. Studies have found that religiosity stops children from drinking, using cannabis and smoking. It was also found that Hispanics generally benefit more from AA meetings compared to their white counterparts because of their greater belief in God.

Getting help today

If you are addicted to drugs and alcohol, then you must ensure your addiction is treated correctly. For more information, contact Rehab Recovery today on 0800 088 66 86. Our free helpline will help you select rehab treatments that's ideally suited to your needs.

Published by: Rehab Recovery

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