The Value of AA

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The MATCH study from 2010 showed that those who attended AA meetings (or other 12 step style meetings) within the first three months of treatment had a higher abstinence rate a year later than those who did not. While the study remains controversial and there are criticisms about methodology, the question has remained – How does AA help alcoholics remain sober?

In other words, to the extent that AA helps, what is it about the program that is actually causing the benefits. This is important because we’d like to enhance those factors and maybe adopt them in other addiction treatment areas.

A new study reported in the Journal Addiction points to two mechanisms. The first is a sense of community and shared struggle. While this may seem obvious, it means more than just attending meetings and sharing stories. What they mean is a real network of supportive people who are involved in each other’s care and wellbeing. Since this may not be present in all groups, it also helps explain why AA sobriety rates are all over the map. To the extent that someone really feels like they are a member of a community, this mechanism will aid sobriety.

The second finding was that AA attendees gained more confidence in themselves and their ability to handle social drinking situations without succumbing to temptation. This is more surprising, but probably just as important as the first factor. There will be times when an alcoholic has the means and opportunity to drink, without their support network present. It is just these times when internal strength must come into play and the right decision made. Those who manage to deal with their drinking from inside themselves – those that are confident and competent to do so – will fare better at these critical times.

The next questions may be how to increase the level of abstinence support, even outside of formal AA, and how to help alcoholics regain the ability to make a choice not to drink.

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