Understanding 12-Step Programs Can Reduce First-Time Jitters

Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting

Contributor: Nikki Baker, Content Writer at JourneyPure.

Seeking treatment for addiction is a courageous and effective step toward recovery. But if the plan doesn’t include a way to stay connected with a positive support system, chances of relapse increase.

It is typically recommended during post-treatment to attend 12-step meetings, which can bring about feelings of fear and anxiety, or even discomfort. Understanding the founding principles and the general meeting guidelines of 12-step programs can help ease those fears.  

The History of 12-Step Programs

Since the 1930s, 12-step programs have been an integral part of the treatment and aftercare plan for those coping with alcoholism and other substance use disorders.

Having roots in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), this program is probably the most widely-recognized, free support system for alcoholics. An estimated 1.2 million participate in the 55,000 AA meeting groups held across the country [1].

The model has been incredibly effective in creating an anonymous outlet for those with similar struggles to come together for guidance and fellowship. The model is so effective, in fact, that many other 12-step programs have emerged to help those facing other addictions, such as gambling, overeating and sex addiction. Narcotics Anonymous is the second largest 12-step organization, followed by Al-Anon, which is designed to support the families of addicts.

What Happens in 12-Step Meetings?

The first meeting can certainly be intimidating and there may be some preconceived notions about what takes place.

You may be thinking you’re joining a cult. You’re not. You may think you’ll be forced to hug total strangers. You won’t be. You may think you’ll run into someone you know. You may. But anonymity is the code of conduct and is taken very seriously.

The 12-step program is based on the concepts of [2]:

  • Admitting that one is not in control of one’s addiction
  • Recognizing that a Higher Power can help “restore [one] to sanity” (NCBI)
  • Asking for forgiveness and admitting fault
  • Making a list of those who were harmed by one’s addiction
  • “Having a spiritual awakening” that allows one to change one’s life and stop addictive and problematic behavior

The meetings usually range between 60 to 90 minutes and although agendas can vary and different topics can arise based on the focus for the day, the founding spiritual principles of the 12 steps ring true throughout [3]. This way, anyone, anywhere, can feel at home when they attend.

Attending a 12-step programThe chairperson will open by reading the AA Preamble and they will then lead a group prayer, (the Serenity Prayer). Uncomfortable? No worries. It’s not required. The 12 steps are spiritually-based, founded on the premise there is an ultimate authority, God or a higher power, but the higher power does not have to be God.

Meetings will open and close with prayer and members may share their own spiritual breakthroughs, but everyone’s beliefs are respected and there is a judgment-free setting for non-participation in prayer.

After the chairperson opens the meeting, he or she will ask if there are any newcomers. This is an opportunity to introduce yourself, not a requirement. You may feel like observing the first go-round which is perfectly fine. The chair will often introduce a specific recovery topic, share about their own experience and open the floor for discussion.  

It is highly suggested that members read what is known as “The Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of how Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA.

Is This Right for My Addiction Recovery?

Ben* has been in recovery for nearly two years and admits that he was reluctant to attend his first 12-step meeting. In his mind, he was in treatment and that was what was going to “fix” him.

My first meeting, I didn’t understand why I was there,” he explained. “I certainly didn’t know the culture, and I felt like a needle in a haystack.  However, they told me to keep coming back.  So, I did.”

Professionals in addiction treatment agree that treatment is never a one-size-fits-all approach, and the same can be said for attending 12-step meetings.

They are strongly recommended as a free resource to connect with others who understand similar struggles and can offer emotional support inside and outside of meetings. It is not uncommon to exchange phone numbers with other members.

In a further effort to make the atmosphere as comfortable as possible, you may want to select a “home group” that makes you feel most comfortable emotionally, socially and culturally. Maybe you’re a woman who feels more comfortable sharing openly with other women, for example.

There are meetings that are specific to gender, age and for those who would like to surround themselves with others in the LGBTQ community.

For Ben, the meetings have become a source of strength for him. The more he attended, the more comfortable he became and his entire perspective shifted.

Man in deep thought on the impact of drug withdrawal.“Little by little, I began to feel a part of the whole,” he shared. “I began to understand how vital these meetings are to those struggling with addiction. Now, I can’t live without them – literally. Although it was scary, confusing and a blow to my ego, it was what I needed and still need in order to live the life I’ve always envisioned.” 

To find a meeting near you, check out your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

*Source’s name has been changed to protect his identity

About the Author:

Nikki BakerNikki Baker joined JourneyPure as a Content Writer in April 2017. She is responsible for social media, website and blog content that both informs the public about the addiction crisis in this country and recognizes JourneyPure as a leader in addiction treatment.

She began her career at The Nashville City Paper as an Education Reporter, covering Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, writing both news and feature articles. The bulk of her career has been spent in nonprofit. Prior to joining JourneyPure, served 13 years at PENCIL Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to link community resources with Nashville public schools. Throughout her tenure, she held roles in program management, partnership and volunteer recruitment and management as well as communications management.

Nikki graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts, journalism from Belmont University in Nashville. She is originally from upstate NY but has lived in the Nashville area since 1992. She enjoys spending time with her 13-year-old daughter and their two dogs.


[1] http://www.ct.gov/DMHAS/cwp/view.asp?a=2901&q=494054
[2] http://www.12step.com/12-step-quick-facts
[3] http://www.12step.com/12steps

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on July 9, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 9, 2017.
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.