Last updated: 08/13/2021
Author: Dr. Susanne Reed
Reading Time: 9 minutes
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was established in 1935 and has helped millions of people understand alcohol use disorder (AUD) and find support in their recovery journey.1 AA is often the first suggestion made to individuals looking for help with alcoholism. Just because AA is the oldest program to help people with alcohol addiction doesn’t mean you don’t have questions about it. Here are answers to 10 of the most common.
In this Article:
- 1. What Actually Is AA? Is It Different Than the 12 Steps?
- 2. How Do I Know If I Need AA?
- 3. Can I Work the 12 Steps Without Attending AA Meetings?
- 4. Do I Need to Be Religious to Attend AA Meetings?
- 5. How Many Meetings Do I Need to Attend?
- 6. What Is a Sponsor? Am I Required to Have a Sponsor?
- 7. Can My Family Be Involved in AA?
- 8. Will AA Work for Me?
- 9. What If I Need Help with Both Alcohol and Drug Misuse?
- 10. What is the Difference Between the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions?
1. What Actually Is AA? Is It Different Than the 12 Steps?
Alcoholics Anonymous is a peer support community of people who are in recovery from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). They come together to work on all issues related to alcohol misuse and to help others do the same. AA meetings are free and the only requirement to join the group is that you have a desire to stop drinking alcohol.2
AA is also a place where family members can come to understand how alcohol affects you and your family dynamic, as well as what they can do to help you in your recovery journey.2
The 12 Steps are a framework to help those who are struggling to achieve and maintain sobriety work through some of the processes of recovery, including steps to heal relationships. The 12 Steps were created using the error experiences of the founders and early members of AA. 2 The final version of the steps that are in use today is considered the core of helping people maintain sobriety for the rest of their lives.
Not all AA meetings are step meetings, but you can attend meetings where you focus on a specific step—usually one step each week in sequential order—or where each attendee shares about their current step work.
2. How Do I Know If I Need AA?
Alcoholics Anonymous provides support for anyone struggling with alcohol misuse or AUD, which is the clinical designation for alcoholism. You will likely experience certain signs and symptoms if you struggle with alcohol use. These can be indicators that you need alcohol addiction treatment, which may include AA.
Clinical indicators of AUD include:3
- Feeling a desire to stop drinking, but being too overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms or other factors to try to stop using alcohol
- Attempting to stop using alcohol, with or without supports, without achieving a sustained period of sobriety
- Using more alcohol than you intend and feel like you can’t control how much you drink
- Spending a lot of time obtaining alcohol, drinking alcohol, and dealing with the consequences of drinking alcohol
- Building a physical tolerance to alcohol, which means you need more alcohol to achieve the same effects you did previously
- Continuing to use alcohol despite experiencing direct negative consequences of alcohol misuse, such as physical health issues, increased mental health symptoms, financial issues, or interpersonal problems
- Experiencing significant withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop using alcohol entirely or when you go without alcohol for a period of time—sometimes as short as 8 to 12 hours depending on the severity of your AUD. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:3
- Shakes or tremors
- Nausea, vomiting, or other digestive issues
- Flu-like symptoms
- Sleep disorders
3. Can I Work the 12 Steps Without Attending AA Meetings?
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on the philosophy that mutual support is essential in recovery from AUD. AUD is, by nature, an isolating condition. When alone, you have less accountability and less support—two major factors influencing long-term recovery. Studies show the positive effect of social support on recovery outcomes over time.4
While you will work the 12 Steps individually and on your own time, you can still discuss your progress with the group when needed. AA sponsors are also part of 12-step programs. You will speak to your sponsor outside of meetings, but the majority of sponsors recommend regular meeting attendance.
4. Do I Need to Be Religious to Attend AA Meetings?
Alcoholics Anonymous was initially founded on Christian beliefs and values. However, it is now a non-denominational group that welcomes anyone who wants to stop using alcohol.5
Several of the 12 Steps refer to a “higher power.” However, AA also uses the phrase “God as we understand him.” Your higher power can be a deity from any religion or an areligious figure, force, or concept. Your connection to your higher power is about a meaningful relationship that helps you find freedom from guilt, shame, anger, and other negative emotions that can trigger alcohol misuse. 5
Looking to your higher power involves admitting that you do not have control of your alcohol use. You surrender control to your higher power and to the system of the 12 Steps. You are saying, “I’ve tried, and I have been unable to do this alone. I will stop trying by myself and follow this path.”5
5. How Many Meetings Do I Need to Attend?
Alcoholics Anonymous does not prescribe a specific number of meetings because each person has different needs. Research shows that attending one meeting a day for the first 90 days has a positive effect on recovery outcomes and reduced risk of relapse for individuals who participated in these meetings.6
Studies show a correlation between 12-step programs attendance and long-term sobriety. This research may indicate that your sobriety may not be directly related to the number of weekly meetings you attend, but on being engaged in the recovery process.7
Other studies show higher rates of abstinence from alcohol in individuals who attend AA meetings and also work with a sponsor in 12-step programs. Having a “home base” AA group where you connect with the same people each week was also shown to have a positive effect on abstinence.8
6. What Is a Sponsor? Am I Required to Have a Sponsor?
An AA sponsor is a peer mentor who has completed the 12 Steps and progressed in their personal recovery. Sponsors are not licensed mental health specialists and are not a replacement for a therapist or psychiatrist.
Your sponsor can be who you call when you face a trigger and potential relapse. Sponsors are also a resource for finding sober activities, learning new skills and coping mechanisms, and talking through challenges. They provide a bridge between the time you spend in a group and the time you spend alone, helping you stay accountable in recovery.9
7. Can My Family Be Involved in AA?
AUDs both the person with the condition and the people they have close relationships with, often their immediate family members. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages family involvement in the recovery process. Family support can have an effect on relapse rates. Additionally, involvement in a loved one’s recovery can reduce the negative effects in a family, such as mental health symptoms and substance use disorders.10
Family members can attend open AA meetings with their loved ones. Closed AA meetings are exclusively for individuals in recovery. There are also Alcoholics Anonymous Family Groups (Al-Anon), which are exclusively for loved ones of someone with an AUD.10
8. Will AA Work for Me?
Like any other program, Alcoholics Anonymous provides different recovery outcomes based on what is put into it. One study on the effectiveness of AA groups shows that abstinence rates are nearly twice as high for people who attend AA than for those who do not. Participants in the study reported that being in a group of people with a common goal was beneficial, as was hearing others’ stories. The study indicated that individuals experience the most positive recovery outcomes when they attend AA in conjunction with other treatment modalities, such as interpersonal psychotherapy. 11
9. What If I Need Help with Both Alcohol and Drug Misuse?
Many people struggle with polysubstance use disorder, which means being addicted to two or more substances. Polysubstance use disorder can include alcohol and any other substance, including over-the-counter medicines, prescription medications, recreational substances, and illicit substances.
Multiple 12-step programs have been developed to assist those with polysubstance use disorders, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Cocaine Anonymous (CA). Each of these 12-Step programs has been found to assist in substance use disorder recovery.
Some individuals also experience dual diagnosis substance use disorder and mental health disorder diagnoses. It’s important to get specialized treatment for mental health disorders and medical disorders outside of AA.12
10. What is the Difference Between the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions?
The 12 Steps are guidelines to help you get sober and stay in recovery. The 12 traditions are the principles behind the guidelines. They are intended to help you stay focused on the goal of long-term sobriety.13
The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are as follows.13
The 12 Steps
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Decided to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and promptly admitted it when we were wrong.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening due to these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.
The 12 Traditions
- Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the most significant number depends upon AAA unity.
- For our group purpose, there is but one authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants—they do not govern.
- The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- AA , as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.
You can find a local AA meeting in our directory to begin attending. To find professional treatment for alcohol addiction, call us at (800) 662-HELP (4357).
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the U.S./Canada.
- Erickson, M. (2020). Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence. Stanford Medicine News Center.
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism). Harvard Medical School.
- Donovan, D. M., Ingalsbe, M. H., Benbow, J., & Daley, D. C. (2013). 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: an overview. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 313-332.
- Post, S. G., Pagano, M. E., Lee, M. T., & Johnson, B. R. (2016). Humility and 12-step recovery: a prolegomenon for the empirical investigation of a cardinal virtue in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholism treatment quarterly, 34(3), 262-273.
- Caldwell, P. E., & Cutter, H. S. (1998). Alcoholics Anonymous affiliation during early recovery. J of Substance Abuse Treatment, 15(3), 221-228.
- Laudet, A. B., Magura, S., Cleland, C. M., Vogel, H. S., Knight, E. L., & Rosenblum, A. (2004). The effect of 12-step based fellowship participation on abstinence among dually diagnosed persons: a two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 36(2), 207-216.
- Zemore, S. E., Subbaraman, M., & Tonigan, J. S. (2013). Involvement in 12-step activities and treatment outcomes. Substance Abuse, 34(1), 60-69.
- Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397-403.
- Timko, C., Cronkite, R., Kaskutas, L. A., Laudet, A., Roth, J., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Al-Anon family groups: newcomers and members. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74(6), 965–976.
- Krentzman, A. R., Robinson, E. A., Moore, B. C., Kelly, J. F., Laudet, A. B., White, W. L., Zemore, S. E., Kurtz, E., & Strobbe, S. (2010). How Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) work: cross-disciplinary perspectives. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 29(1), 75-84.
- Donovan, D. M., Ingalsbe, M. H., Benbow, J., & Daley, D. C. (2013). 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: an overview. Social Work in Public Health, 28(3-4), 313-332.
- Gross, M. (2010). Alcoholics Anonymous: still sober after 75 years. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2361-2363.