What are 12-step programs? Who participates in them? Why do they work? And what exactly are the “12 steps”?
Twelve-step programs are self-help groups that provide practical and spiritual guides to living with an addicted person or dealing with a personal addiction. The guaranteed anonymity of those who participate is a vital part of their underlying philosophy.
The most widely known and recognized 12-step program is probably Alcoholics Anonymous. However, many other organizations use the 12-step approach to deal with addictive behaviors and their impact on others. These include Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon (for those living with an addicted person), and Sex and Love Anonymous, among others.
Because they operate as fellowships of addicted individuals, or of relatives and friends of addicted individuals, 12-step programs offer participants the chance to share experiences, cultivate hope and positive attitudes, and stimulate emotional strength. Through this group interaction — and through the guidance provided by the 12 Steps themselves — participants seek to solve common problems and obstacles to moving through recovery.
Through my counseling practice I have found 12-step programs to be excellent adjuncts, for some people, to individual therapy. I have, for example, suggested Overeaters Anonymous to those with eating issues when it was clear they needed more than a simple weight loss program. In fact, individual psychotherapy alone often does not provide enough emotional support for people dealing with addiction issues especially in the early stages of their recovery efforts.
The most productive strategy for an addicted person is to gain knowledge about addiction and emotional support from both individual counseling and a 12-step program (or other appropriate group support as determined by a professional.) Individual counseling is a particularly important component because, in my experience, addiction to a substance or activity, including foods or over-working for example, is often generated by the need to self-medicate for underlying brain chemistry problems and emotional trauma or both.