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The Importance of Step Work in AA

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The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program includes more than 2 million members in about 180 nations worldwide.1 Many AA members use working the 12 Steps to adjust their thought patterns and manage the urge to use alcohol, helping them create a social and cognitive framework that supports staying sober. Working the 12 Steps can be one of the tools you use to help sustain long-term recovery.

In this article:

What Does Working the 12 Steps Mean?

As part of recovery, many AA members “work” the 12 Steps.2 Step work can include reading AA literature, attending meetings, and personal reflection, but is focused on the 12 Steps of AA . Members may also cultivate other meaningful personal habits and connections through prayer or meditation, writing in a journal, or working with a peer mentor known as sponsor. Some AA members do step work with the support of a therapist or recovery specialist. Mental health providers can facilitate a person’s entry into a 12-step program, and they often encourage patients to remain active in recovery groups.3

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Routine step work can help members stay focused on their goals. Step work reminds members of the difficulties they faced while drinking, while also encouraging a new life focus on the hopefulness of recovery.

While working the steps, members confront and work to overcome negative emotions, some of which may be related to the underlying factors that contributed to the development of their addiction. For example, early exposure to substance use and traumatic events can lead to alcohol misuse.4 Step work can help members explore events in their past that may have affected their drinking habits, recognizing what may have contributed to their alcohol use while also taking responsibility for their own choices. AA members can also use the steps to aid in healing relationships that may have been damaged by their alcohol misuse.

Is Working the 12 Steps Required?

AA does not have a set recovery program or create treatment plans for individuals. Every aspect of AA, including the 12 Steps, is optional. However, the 12 Step program is one of the most used resources in the AA community because many individuals find working the 12 Steps helpful across multiple stages of recovery. AA holds numerous meeting types, but most locations hold step meetings for this reason.

Because working the 12 Steps involves personal reflection and action outside of meetings, it is one way to stay actively and directly connected to recovery resources and the AA community.

Step work can have the following benefits.

Promote Healthy Cognitive Patterns

Researchers recognize that the risk of relapse appears in stages, with emotional and mental symptoms appearing first. In both stages, individuals find their focus shifting away from recovery. For example, during emotional relapse, many individuals find themselves focusing on how other people affect them rather than on the choices available to them, while in the mental relapse stage, individuals may find themselves obsessing over people, places, or things associated with their substance use.5 In both situations, identifying these cognitive patterns and determining how to refocus your thoughts dramatically reduces the risk of relapse.

Step work can be a potential tool for navigating progressive relapse risk. In Step 4, for example, you make a moral inventory that encourages you to recognize your own responsibility rather than thinking about how others could have acted differently toward you.2 In the subsequent steps, you explore how you can move forward in recovery from these past decisions.

Unhelpful ways of thinking—clinically known as cognitive distortions—are a common feature of substance use disorders. Addiction distorts a person’s thinking, and may lead to patterns of negative or critical self-talk, profound shame, denial, or catastrophizing.6 People who have the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing may feel that the impact of events is much larger than it is in reality or may picture the worst-case outcome or a situation.7 Catastrophizing can lead to feelings of helplessness or pessimism, and they contribute to a hesitation to reach out for help.

Step work involves several opportunities for reality checking. For example, Step 10 consists solely of continuing “to take personal inventory” and admitting when you are wrong. 2 The steps provide a roadmap toward recovery that doesn’t rely on your own power, will, or control.

Negative thinking is another cognitive distortion that can be a major roadblock to addiction recovery. As AA members work the steps, they learn to combat negativity. Members set aside shame and turn their lives over to a higher power.8 They focus on managing their thoughts and behaviors while accepting circumstances outside of their control. Members can also develop or strengthen their personal spiritual beliefs during their time in AA. Spiritual beliefs are associated with increased optimism and psychological resiliency.9

Step Work Can Boost Social Connections

While many factors can contribute to alcohol misuse and the development of addiction, part of recovery is confronting your responsibility for your own choices and, ultimately, your own sobriety. During step work, AA members reflect on their personal mistakes and missteps. They consider the ways their behavior might have harmed others. This includes the “searching and fearless moral inventory” in Step 4 as well as “a list of all persons we had harmed” in Step 8.2

While working Step 9, you reach out to make amends to the people you identify in Step 8 unless doing so would cause further harm. “Making amends” is a flexible approach that can involve letters of apology, face-to-face conversations, or the promise to attend therapy together. Members can decide for themselves, with the help of a sponsor if they choose, how to make amends.10

This process can help with healing relationships damaged by alcohol misuse. Many AA members discover that step work allows them to confront the impact of their addiction on others. This type of step work can provide a fresh start for families affected by alcohol misuse. After making amends, members may feel closer to their loved ones. Members can rebuild their support system, which reduces their risk of relapse.11

Step Work Can Increase Spirituality

Several steps make a reference to God or a higher power. However, keep in mind that AA is not a religious program. People who aren’t religious can still work the steps. The 12 Steps simply ask members to trust in a power greater than themselves. AA members can define this power for themselves. Some members interpret a “higher power” as the best parts of humanity or nature. Members can work the steps even if they don’t have a personal belief in God.8

AA is not a religious program, but it includes several spiritual elements.8 As part of the 12 Steps, members are asked to turn their lives over to their personal higher power. Previous belief in any higher power isn’t required to join AA—Step 2 is “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”2 For some individuals, part of working this step involves identifying who or what that power is for them.

As they work the steps, members try to improve their relationship with their AA higher power. They attempt to understand the type of life a loving, forgiving higher power would want for them and make any necessary changes in their life.

Developing spiritual practices may help you overcome negative self-perception.12 As part of the 12 Steps, AA members learn to treat themselves with compassion. They accept their mistakes, make amends, and move forward with their lives and recovery. By building a relationship with a higher power, members can also seek out service opportunities. They offer compassion and support to others during their recovery. This process can help members develop a sense of community and inner peace.

Members seek spiritual support and guidance through meditation or prayer throughout working the 12 Steps, but specifically when they reach Step 11. Prayer and meditation have been associated with psychological and physical benefits. Researchers have found a connection between consistent, mindful religious and spiritual practices and improvement in memory, sleep quality, and cognitive function. Studies also indicate that who engage in mindfulness meditation may be better able to cope with stress, grief, and anxiety.13 Managing negative emotions can help you avoid relapse and maintain your sobriety.

How Do I Work the Steps?

Step work is a personal pursuit, based on the understanding that your recovery cannot be dependent exclusively on any other relationship. You can work the steps entirely on your own using AA literature as your guide. However, AA as an organization encourages every individual in recovery to seek social support as this is a demonstrated factor in relapse risk. 5 Many AA meetings are dedicated to the study of the 12 Steps, either consecutively with one step being studied every week or with every individual having the opportunity to bring their current step work into discussion at the meeting.

You can also work the steps with the help of a sponsor or your therapist.14 These individuals can act as a guide. They can help you explore different ways to work the steps and choose the approach that’s right for you. A sponsor is an individual who has been in long-term recovery and worked the 12 Steps, while a specializing therapist is a licensed behavioral health professional who can help you process the feelings and experiences that may arise while you work the steps.

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Give yourself plenty of time to work the steps. Many newcomers make the mistake of rushing through the steps, but most people find certain steps difficult. It may take several weeks or months to make progress with these steps. Remember that there is no time limit and no prize for early finishers. Take your time and work on each step thoroughly. Move on to the next step only when you feel ready.

Some members choose to work the steps in order. Others move backward and forwards between steps. They might pause to focusing on steps where they need the most help. Remember that you can always return to a step to rework it. As new challenges emerge, members may return to the steps for further work. Continued step work offers an opportunity for growth and development.

What Should I Do If I Have Trouble With Some Steps?

Many AA members develop a stumbling block while working the steps. You may have trouble with the first three steps, which ask you to accept that you are powerless over alcohol. You may also find it difficult to make the inventory outlined in Step 4.

Some members have trouble navigating the intersection between AA and their spiritual beliefs.

Many members have difficulty with making amends in Step 9. This process can seem overwhelming, stressful, and nerve-wracking. It can be beneficial to work with a therapist, sponsor, or experienced AA member during this step. Making amends can heal relationships and rebuild families. But talking about addiction can potentially reopen old wounds. Credentialed or experienced individuals can suggest safe, healthy ways to make amends. A therapist can also offer family or marriage counseling for families affected by addiction.15

Remember that the 12 Steps do not encourage members to reach out to people who may threaten their sobriety. Members should not reach out to dangerous or abusive people from their past. They also should not demand continued contact with someone who has terminated the relationship. Your sponsor or therapist can help you determine when it’s appropriate to reach out to make amends and help you find closure if a person you would make amends to is not accessible, such as if they have passed away.

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  1. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2020). Estimates of A.A. Groups and Members.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2018). The Twelve Steps Illustrated.
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  4. Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and posttraumatic stress disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and Anxiety, 27(12), 1077–1086.
  5. Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
  6. S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Reducing Relapse Risk. Whole Health Library.
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  8. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2014). Many Paths to Spirituality.
  9. Puchalski, C. M. (2001). The role of spirituality in health care. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), 14(4), 352–357.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Step Nine.
  11. Atadokht, A., Hajloo, N., Karimi, M., & Narimani, M. (2015). The Role of Family Expressed Emotion and Perceived Social Support in Predicting Addiction Relapse. International Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction, 4(1).
  12. Verghese, A. (2008). Spirituality and mental health. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(4), 233.
  13. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Meditation: In Depth.
  14. Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397–403.
  15. S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) Treatment. MedlinePlus.
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