The Ultimate Guide to 12-Step Programs: What They Are, How They Work, and What to Expect

12-step programs

While many Americans struggle with addiction, the silver lining is that around 22.3 million live in recovery after some form of substance use disorder. In fact, approximately 75% of those who experience addiction eventually recover, so the odds are very good.

When addiction has a hold on you though, it can be challenging to seek outside help. But the good news is, you can get structured assistance from 12-step programs.

If you don’t know what these are, then not to worry. Keep reading to find out what 12-step programs are, how they work, and what you should expect from them.

What Are 12-Step Programs?

12-step programs are exactly what they sound like: detailed addiction programs that walk you through 12 phases of recovery. They first originated from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which is actually a spiritual organization. However, there are many 12-step programs that don’t emphasize spirituality or religion, so if you’re atheist or agnostic, there are programs suited for you too.

Here’s each step in detail, so you know what to expect.

1. Admit Powerlessness

First, you need to be honest about and to yourself. All too often, we deny we have issues when addiction has, in fact, taken over our lives.

When you can stop lying to yourself and admit that you’re powerless over the substance of your choice, then you can take the right steps toward recovery.

2. Find Hope

Next, you need to believe that a higher power to help you get sober. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean it’s God or any deity; it can be any higher you choose to turn to and find strength in.

3. Surrender

After putting your faith in this higher power, you must surrender yourself to it. Overcoming addiction won’t be easy or even possible on your own, so you need to trust this higher power to put you on the right path.

4. Take Inventory

Now take a step back and assess your life. There’s a good chance that you’ve hurt your loved ones’ feelings and ruined relationships with them. So identify how you’ve affected these people.

This step might be one of the hardest ones to do, but it’s important to push through. It opens the door to growth.

5. Share Inventory

It’s time to admit the wrongdoings you’ve identified in step four. You need to do it in front of the higher power you’ve chosen to put your faith in, as well as another person you trust.

6. Become Ready

Another tough thing to do is to accept your character defects. But once you can do that, it’ll be easier to let them go and have the higher power correct them.

7. Ask God (Or Another Higher Power)

This is the actual step where you ask the higher power to assist you with your shortcomings. These should be things that you can’t achieve on your own, even with lots of self-determination.

8. List Amends

It’s time to dig even deeper from step four. Make a list of the people you’ve wronged and want to make amends to.

9. Make Amends

This is another challenging step in 12-step programs, as you’ll have to actually confront the people on your list. But it’s an incredibly healing step that can reopen relationships.

10. Continue Inventory

It’s not enough to admit your past wrongdoings and leave it at that. It’s essential to hold yourself accountable, be aware of your actions, and admit when you’re wrong.

11. Pray and Meditate

Here, you should connect with your higher power through things like prayer or meditation. The goal is to discover what your higher power has in store for you.

12. Help Others

When you’ve turned away from addiction and truly find sobriety, then it’s time to help others. There are plenty of other people who are in your old shoes, and you can assist them on the road to recovery.

How Do 12-Step Programs Work?

Addiction is a tough beast to beat, and you shouldn’t have to go through it alone. 12-step programs break down this monumental task into manageable ones so you can make progress slowly but steadily.

However, do note that you can also experience some steps simultaneously. And it’s not uncommon for people to go through some steps in a cycle while in recovery.

While you’re in a 12-step program, you’ll have a sponsor, someone who’s completed the program themselves. Your sponsor will guide you through the steps, and you can always call them when you’re struggling and need an open ear and support. They’ll help you live a drug-free life, which includes coming up with a relapse plan in case of emergencies.

What Happens in a Meeting?

With your sponsor, you’ll attend regular meetings. Here, you’ll meet other people going through recovery and hear their stories.

You’ll share your struggles and thoughts, which can make you feel less alone in your journey. And you’ll also celebrate your milestones together, such as a month of sobriety.

At the beginning of each meeting, you’ll have a moment of silence, which pays respect to those still suffering and struggling with addiction and recovery. Then you’ll say a serenity prayer, which is spiritual and not religious in nature. Next, you’ll read the program’s literature, so newcomers know what they’re in for, and everyone gets a reminder.

The meeting then opens up for speaking and sharing, which is the main part of the meeting. Everyone who wants to speak will get a few minutes to highlight their struggles and achievements. At the end, people can also share if they’ve had the urge to use or do something destructive.

To close the meeting, you’ll have another moment of silence and then prayer.

Examples of 12-Step Programs

We mentioned AA earlier, but there are many other 12-step programs you can choose from. They include:

  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
  • Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
  • Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA)
  • Heroin Anonymous (HA)
  • Celebrate Recovery (CR)
  • Pills Anonymous (PA)
  • SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery
  • Al-Anon
  • Nar-Anon

The last two programs are intended for the loved ones of people with substance abuse disorders.

What Should You Expect From 12-Step Programs?

You shouldn’t expect instant success from 12-step programs. You need to put in the work and dedication to make it through each step, but it’ll be highly rewarding.

The fact is, you may relapse, and that’s ok. In fact, between 40-60% of people with substance use disorders relapse, so it’s very common. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed at recovery; you’ve just stumbled a little.

Here are the other things you can expect to gain from being in a 12-step program.


Spirituality may have been something you weren’t interested in before, or maybe you abandoned it in the past. But 12-step programs will help you get back in touch with a higher power, which can be a pillar of light in such dark times.

A Total Life Transformation

Yes, 12-step programs are meant for recovery from substance abuse disorders, but they can do much more than that.

While you’re going through the steps, you’ll grow as a person. You’ll come out with a new outlook on life and take away life skills that you can apply to things other than addiction.

More Compassion for Other People

Addiction is a disease that makes you selfish. 12-step programs give you perspective on how addiction’s affected your relationship with others and how they must’ve felt.

Acknowledging those you’ve hurt and making amends instills more compassion in you. This creates stronger relationships with not only your loved ones, but future friends as well.

A Strong Support System

Some people are lucky and already have a strong support system in place. But when you have no family and friends to count on, recovery is exponentially harder.

12-step programs offer safe and strong support systems where you can make friends for life. In addition to your sponsor, you can count on these people to sympathize with your journey and cheer you on, every step of the way.

Get Help With Your Addiction Issues

There may be times when you feel hopeless about your addiction issues. But it won’t always be like that, especially if you have the right support.

There are many 12-step programs waiting for you, and there’s bound to be one that’s the right fit. While taking the first step toward recovery can be scary, it can also be freeing.

So now that you know what to expect from these programs, it should hopefully be less daunting to seek assistance. By reaching out, you’ll be taking that vital step to fight addiction and find sobriety.

Do you feel like you or a loved one need help with recovery from addiction? Then call (866) 578-7471.

  1. Finally the infamous 12 steps are reveled. i read a while back step no. 13 but seriously I never though the 12 steps to be so cliche. It is a goood thing after all the simple things in reality are those that matter most.

  2. Detox to rehab has been a blessing to everyone. I’ve always learn through your various post. Thanks for sharing this 12-step program with us.

  3. You might not have previously been interested in spirituality or you could have given up on it. However, 12-step programmes can assist you in reconnecting with a higher power, which can be a source of light under such trying circumstances.

  4. This is a great program to help the people that are addicted to be free. Many people are trying to run from their problems through addiction, which is deadly.

  5. A perfect 12 steps program I must say. Thank you so much detox for this great information it will be very helpful and useful.

  6. This article is really informative and educative and also well detailed. It will go along way in helping one live a better life.

  7. I love the fact that God was involved. These are proper steps to break any addiction. It’s definitely been proven from testimonies. Just bear in mind, it’ll take time.

  8. 12 steps programme has been a point of reference for years. This is because many people have actually testified as regards its impact on their recovery from every form of evil addiction.

  9. This is a useful information. If these steps are duly followed, the addicted can overcome the challenge. Thank you.

  10. Thanks for sharing this 12 steps program. This is very useful for all people who are suffering from drugs and addiction.

  11. The 12 step program has been such a huge blessing… I have read and seen people that has come into the program and go out whole.
    Thanks Detox.

  12. Thanks a lot for giving so much detailed information about the ,12 step program that walks people through the 12 recovery phase of addiction. I have never heard of this program before. But what I know is that people struggling with addiction need to undergo this program. I love the fact that the 12 step program break down the tasks addicted people have to do into easy and manageable ones. It’s hard to beat addiction. Any program that breaks the recovery process into manageable ones is a great program

  13. Programs such as this should be supported by the government. The community are doing its best to help those who are dependent to drugs, it is now the time that the government should totally extend its hand to those in greater need.

  14. There is no way any addicted person will go through these steps and he or she will not recover. They are good procedure for recovery.

  15. This is really a nice programme which will help addicts to total restoration. it is good to know that you can always recover.

  16. The 12 step-program looks an awesome programe that will make addicts a lot sober. This is one program to be imbibe by addicts

  17. What I like most about the 12 step program is the part about finding God. I have seen many lives change for the better because of that.

  18. Numerous lives have been changed and continue to be changed for the better thanks to the 12 step program. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the program to anyone battling the demons of addiction.

  19. The 12th step is great. There is always great satisfaction in helping others recover once you have recovered yourself.

  20. Thanks for breaking down into details exactly what the 12 step program is all about. I have heard about it severally but never knew what it entailed.

  21. The fact that the 12 step program incorporates a support group makes it very effective. With the right support system anyone can overcome their addiction.

  22. Thank you for sharing all the examples of 12 step programs available. Persons looking for recovery should find this write up very resourceful.

  23. I appreciate that you’ve mentioned that a relapse should simply be treated as a stumble and not a failure. Many tend to give up once they relapse.

  24. Great to hear that there are 12 step programs that don’t incorporate religion. At least the atheists have a chance too.

  25. It is never an easy thing to overcome an addiction. Being a Muslim, I always pray to God Almighty all the time and it works. I feel less attracted to addictive things that are bad as Islamic spirituality helps me to overcome addictive behaviours.

  26. I like the aspect that a higher power tends to help a lot in the recovery process. Personally I believe in God and know that He can make everything better including helping with addictions. It difficult to change a person but God can change anyone.

  27. These 12 steps are really great guide towards recovery. If only addicts can be true to themselves and admit they have an addiction issue, that will mark a turn towards recovery.

    1. This is so true. It can be difficult at first to seek help, but if an addict could admit to oneself that they have a problem and seek help, with God and determination, the individual can recover from addiction.

  28. Thank you detax to rehab for sharing these type of stories with all of us.These stories are really very much helpful for many people.

  29. I like that the program helps one get back in touch with a higher power. A sense of spirituality always helps a great deal in recovery.

  30. I can see how these 12 steps are structured to give an addict the easiest path to recovery. Kudos to whoever came up with this model.

  31. Finally a well detailed and in-depth guide on exactly what the 12 step program entails. I have been looking for this information for some time

  32. The best part about this is the last step. Helping others is a very wholesome thing to do especially if you have successfully recovered yourself.

  33. There are numerous success stories from people who have gone through the 12 step process. It’s a revolutionary program with great results.

  34. A sponsor is very vital for anyone to successfully go through the 12 step program. It’s like having a mentor guide you through every step of the way.

  35. The program has been tried and tested the world over and the results speak for themselves. I highly recommend this program to everyone fighting addiction.

  36. 12 steps program has indeed changed a lot of lives. May this program be continued to be spread to people who are in need.

  37. I can see why this is the ultimate guide for those struggling with addiction. I especially like the meditative, spiritual component of the program. Thanks for sharing.

  38. All you’ve said here are instrumental for anyone to adhere to. 12 step program around drug abuse has helped lots of people who were addicts get back to normalcy, it is a necessity to look back and recall the 22 steps and understand how to tackle each issue when it emanates.

  39. The 12 Steps especially for Alcoholic Anonymous is very popular in drug rehabs. I believe when implemented correctly it can be an aide to recovery from addiction.

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