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How AA Works – Identifying the Individual Mechanisms That Help People Maintain Abstinence

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Plenty of research shows that 12 step programs help people stay clean and sober...so what happens at meetings to help so much?

Well, after breaking things down into their component parts, health researchers have identified a number of independent mechanisms that seem to confer the most recovery-related benefits.

They are:

  • Changes in social networks
  • Motivation maintenance
  • Self-confidence improvements
  • Reduced depression
  • Increased active coping
  • Increased spirituality or religiosity
  • Helping others

Read on for a brief explanation of how each process helps and for links to research results which illustrate how each mechanism increases your ability to maintain sobriety.

How AA Helps You Stay Sober

Changes in Social Networks

AA helps you replace the social relationships you lose when you start avoiding the places, people and things associated with drinking or drug use.

As social beings, we need companionship and as people in early recovery we need emotional support and guidance. AA can provide all of this. Also:

  1. People from AA meetings, particularly those with significant sober time, model behaviors associated with abstinence. Although friends outside of recovery can also model positive behaviors, they may not have a complete understanding of what’s needed to overcome addiction.
  2. People from AA meetings are willing to help those new to recovery. You might not feel comfortable calling a sober friend for support at 3 am, but you'd make that call to your sponsor or someone from a meeting.1

Although any alcohol dependent person can benefit from AA, people who have the most harmful social networks going in (social networks that support harmful drinking) get the most value out of AA and AA-mediated social support.2

Keeping Motivated

Regular attendance at meetings helps people stay focused on the behaviors associated with recovery success.


You can’t stay sober until you believe that you can.

In AA you learn skills that help you avoid relapse and you learn to make use of social support which further bolsters your ability to maintain abstinence. Furthermore, successful members provide a regular reminder that long-term recovery is very attainable.

Research suggests that for those with moderately severe alcohol addictions, increases in self-confidence account for much of the positive gains made.3

Reduced Depression

Compared to the general population, people starting off with AA are more likely to be depressed or have depressive symptoms. However, those that stick with AA show decreased depression, and those who go to the most meetings see the biggest improvement.

  1. Researchers don’t know why AA reduces depression, but they suspect it works primarily by helping people reduce their drinking.4
  2. Those with more severe alcohol addictions tend to see the greatest benefit from AA-mediated reduced depression.

Increased Active Coping

Compared to alcoholics that don’t attend AA, researchers know that people who attend AA meetings drink less, have less depression and have more self confidence.

Once you get sober and you feel emotionally healthier and more optimistic about the future, you tend to engage in additional healthy coping strategies that further increase your resiliency.5

Increased Spirituality and or Religiosity

  1. People who attend AA tend to experience an increase in personally-defined spirituality.
  2. The increase in spirituality is greatest for those who start AA with a low sense of personal spirituality.
  3. Spirituality increases help people achieve longer periods of sobriety.6

Those that stick with AA and work the steps, particularly steps 11 and 12, tend to find a greater sense of purpose in life and this increased sense of purpose is highly correlated with longer periods of sobriety.7

In one study of AA members, those that had experienced a spiritual awakening (self-defined spirituality) by the end of 3 years post entry were most likely to have maintained sobriety.8

Helping Others

Giving back to others is a formal component of the 12 step program, and research shows that helping others is not only of altruistic benefit, it’s also associated with significantly higher chances of maintaining sobriety.

Of those that attend AA meetings, those that spend more time helping others are significantly less likely to relapse.9

AA - Take What You Need

At the end of the day, it may not matter to you why the program works – just that it does.

It’s free, it’s widely available and you can attend as often as you like or need to, for as long as you want to.

It’s not for everyone but many call it a literal life-saver, so if you haven’t tried it, maybe you should?!

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Page last updated 17/06/2015

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