Working the 12 Steps With a Little Help From Brain Science

Working the 12 Steps With a Little Help From Brain Science

Millions struggling with addiction* have found their pathway to recovery through the 12 Steps — AA and NA, as examples. Millions of their loved ones have found their recovery from secondhand drinking | secondhand drugging (SHD)** through 12 Steps, as well — Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, as examples.

But there are many more who report having a problem with the whole “God thing.” Some are not convinced there is a God or Higher Power; others wonder how turning their lives and wills over to God or their Higher Power makes any sense. And even though newcomers are assured that their God or Higher Power can be whatever/whomever they so choose, as long as it is something greater than themselves, many report feeling conflicted when they contemplate the first three steps, especially. Additionally, many others report having tried the 12 Steps but stopped because they didn’t work for them no matter how hard they tried and prayed and felt deeply connected to God or their Higher Power.

Sometimes re-framing the first four Steps with a little help from brain science can help. It can help because the person can better understand and appreciate why all of the dogged willpower and determination they’d exerted to try control how much they drank or used had not worked time and again. This same information can also help family members and friends better appreciate why they, too, are powerless over alcohol or drugs. It’s because they are powerless over another person’s brain if that person’s drug of choice has been ingested, because of the way addiction hijacks the brain.

Working the 12 Steps With a Little Help From Brain Science

Working the 12 Steps With a Little Help From Brain Science

Working the Steps with a little help from brain science can make a difference for some.

Here are the first four Steps:

1 – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol/our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

And here are the first four steps reframed as science-based adaptions:

1 – Came to understand the disease of addition as a TREATABLE but chronic, often relapsing brain disease that makes me powerless over my brain (therefore over my behaviors) when I ingest my substance of choice, and I came to accept that I have this brain disease (aka brain disorder). 

For more on this science, check out the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) booklet (and website) > “Drugs, Brains and Behaviors: The Science of Addiction,” and the HBO “Addiction” website (created by the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA], the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and produced by HBO) > “Understanding Addiction.” Another important resource is The Surgeon General’s 2016 Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health – this is the link to the Executive Summary.

2 – Given the power of addiction cravings and the chemical and structural changes that have occurred in my brain because of my disease and/or my risk factors, I accept that my way of “handling” it by trying to control how much I use or drink cannot work.

For more on this, check out NIDA/NIAAA/RJF/HBO’s > “Understanding Addiction > Let’s Talk About Craving.” Additionally, for those who are struggling with more than “just” addiction (in other words, more than a dependence on alcohol or other drugs), it can be very important to “Pay Particular Attention to Mental Illness and Childhood Trauma | ACEs When Treating Addiction.”

3 – Accepted that “my way” has not and cannot work. I know I must abstain from my substance use entirely because it will activate deeply embedded brain maps, and I am open to trying any of the various treatment options available. If one fails, I will try another.

For more on this, check out these posts of mine, “7 Things to Know When Looking for Addiction Treatment” and “Understand Brain Maps | Change a Habit | Change Your Life.”

4 – Understand that many of my “character defects” are really the consequence of the brain changes caused by the brain mapping associated with my addiction and the risk factors I have, all of which led to my developing this brain disease. I now understand that these character defects are not the “real” me, but rather the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of a person with the untreated, complex brain disease of addiction.

For more on this, see the links above.

Sometimes using these science-based adaptations can help a person struggling with treating or recovering from their addiction and those recovering from secondhand drinking | secondhand drugging embrace the 12 Steps and the help and support they offer. This is not to say, however, that everyone should be able to relate to or use the 12 Steps; there is no one, nor right, way to “do” addiction treatment or recovery. So as they say in the rooms, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” 🙂

*NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) continues to use the term addiction and defines it as a chronic, relapsing brain disease. However, as NIDA also writes, “addiction” is not considered a specific diagnosis in the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was updated in 2013. DSM-5 replaces the categories of substance abuse and substance dependence with a single category: substance use disorder. Given the general public still thinks of a person’s dependence on alcohol or other drugs as addiction, I used this term in this article.

**SHD refers to the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors (secondhand drinking) or drug misuse behaviors (secondhand drugging). For more on this concept, I refer you to a series I wrote for Alcohol Awareness Month 2014 [Note: all references to secondhand drinking apply to secondhand drugging, which means you are dealing with a person’s drug misuse behaviors as compared to dealing with a person’s drinking behaviors.]:

©2017 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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