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How to Overcome the Challenges You Might Face in a 12-Step Program

Many people have overcome addiction by joining and following a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). But that doesn’t mean the 12-step journey is easy. Facing challenges is a normal part of the recovery journey, so don’t be surprised if you encounter obstacles or experience ups and downs along the way. Recognizing and anticipating these challenges can put you in a better position to cope with them if they appear. 

Challenges you may encounter

“When you’re in a 12-step program, you are taking part in your own independent journey towards recovery,” said Anita Karnik, MD, a psychiatrist with University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix Addiction Medicine Fellowship. Your journey won’t be the same as anyone else. You may struggle with resisting triggers, finding healthy activities you enjoy or coping with relapses.

You may also face issues with the design of 12-step programs. Many 12-step programs are based on full abstinence, and you may not feel ready for that. And some 12-step programs discourage medication options such as buprenorphine or naloxone, which can be difficult if you are working with a medical professional to take this medication. 

There are great reasons to join a 12-step program as part of your recovery process. “Studies demonstrate success for people who take part in this type of programming,” Dr. Karnik said. 

Overcoming the challenges

You can try these strategies to help overcome the challenges you might face when you fight addiction in a 12-step program.

Stay committed to the process

Remind yourself of the reasons you’re seeking recovery and the positive changes you’ve already experienced when you’re facing challenges. Focus on your days of abstinence or days of moving away from a substance, any improvements in your relationships and any health benefits you’ve experienced to help you stay committed to the program when you’re struggling.

Seek support and share experiences

A cornerstone of 12-step recovery programs is connecting with others who are taking similar journeys. Reach out to members for support and encouragement and share your own experiences with others. It can be helpful to lean on others who are further along in their recovery, and to help those who are just taking their first steps. 

“Twelve-step programs incorporate the social support people often need in recovery through the group process. This type of support can be very helpful for people who feel isolated in their struggle with addiction,” Dr. Karnik said.

Practice self-compassion

Recognize that there will be times when you may use again and be gentle with yourself. Setbacks are a natural part of the process. It can help to focus on positive self-talk. 

Connect with sponsorship

Sponsors are volunteers who work with newer group members to provide support, encouragement and guidance so you can succeed and stay in recovery for life. Your sponsor can offer valuable insights and help keep you accountable.

Identify triggers and coping strategies

During your recovery, you may face many triggers that lead you toward use of a substance. People often struggle with triggers such as boredom, stress, strong emotions, relationship issues, job changes and people or places associated with the substance. Recognizing these triggers is an excellent first step. Healthy coping strategies can include redefining fun, learning from setbacks and accepting some discomfort. 

Attend meetings regularly

Meetings are a key component of 12-step programs and a big reason they’re helpful for so many people. At meetings, you’ll connect with a supportive and understanding community that can help you work through your challenges. After all, it’s likely that you’ll find people at meetings who have faced the same struggles you have. 

Meetings also provide resources that can give you insights and guidance, such as books, flyers, information about online forums and other educational materials that can help you in your recovery.

Focus on progress, not perfection

Recovery is a process, and it’s important to celebrate each step forward. If you relapse, treat it as an opportunity for learning and growth. You can take another look at your strategies to see if you can point to any relapse triggers, seek help from others and recommit to your recovery.

Prioritize self-care

Taking care of yourself can strengthen your resilience and your commitment to recovery. Take the steps you need to focus on your physical, emotional and mental well-being. Make time and space for healthy eating, physical activity, spending time with loved ones and relieving your stress.

Get professional help

A 12-step program doesn’t have to be the only tool you rely on in your recovery. If you can’t overcome your challenges or you find them overwhelming, contact a therapist, counselor or medical professional. This additional layer of support can be crucial in overcoming difficulties during recovery. 

“It can be helpful to work with an addiction medicine specialist who can oversee and guide treatment options at any point in the stages of change. These clinicians can give you thorough care for substance-related disorders and addiction. They can help with diagnosis, treatment and prevention,” Dr. Karnik said.

The bottom line

With determination, support and commitment, you can find the best way to incorporate 12-step programs in a way that works for you. “The 12-step process can help people work through different issues of acknowledging and confronting the problem, becoming self-aware and self-accepting and creating tools that help move a patient towards recovery.” Dr. Karnik said. 

Each person's journey can look different, and reaching out to medical professionals can be a helpful first step. If you would like to find out more about how an addiction medicine specialist can help you in your recovery, connect with Banner Health.

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