How Does A.A. Work?

Alcoholics Anonymous, or A.A., is one of the best programs for people who are interested in recovering from an alcohol addiction. A.A. groups can be found across the world and they all follow a similar structure.

If you are interested in recovering from alcohol, this article will explain how Alcoholics Anonymous works and what you can expect if you join one of these programs.

What Is A.A.?

Alcoholics Anonymous is not only the most popular recovery group, it is one of the oldest and most well-known help organizations on the planet.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been around since 1935 and has spurred a number of offshoots such as Narcotics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous has stood the test of time, remaining popular despite new advances in medical treatments including pharmaceutical therapy for managing addiction.

History & Origins of A.A.

A.A. was founded in Akron, Ohio. The group was the brainchild of a New York stockbroker, Bill Wilson,and a surgeon named Robert Smith (known as Dr. Bob). Despite being accomplished professionals, both individuals had struggled with serious alcoholism.

Both of these individuals had been a part of the Oxford group, a collective that encouraged spiritual living for good health and well-being. While very few people who attended the Oxford group were alcoholics, Bill and Bob recognized that these principles could be applied to addiction recovery.

Bill had been hospitalized a number of times because of his alcoholism between 1933 and 1934. In 1934 he finally bit the bullet and decided to sober up. Bob sobered up in 1935. The two colleagues, recognizing the shared difficulty of fighting alcoholism, decided to put together a group that could help people manage their addiction.

After Wilson moved in with Bob, the two pledged to bring their knowledge and message about addiction recovery across the country.

Early concepts developed during the initial period included the ‘24 hour’ rule. This rule suggests that alcoholics can work towards their recovery one step at a time by reminding themselves that all they ever have to do is stop drinking “just for today.” In doing this every day, addiction recovery can become a long-term process that doesn’t seem so daunting.

They also recognized the importance of seeking recovery in the company of other recovering alcoholics. Prior to this, many alcoholics faced their demons alone. Having companionship and support in the journey towards recovery can be immensely helpful.

In 1939, after A.A. had separated from the Oxford group, Wilson began work on the Big Book of alcoholism. Initially entitled Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, has become a cornerstone for alcoholics in recovery. 

The objective of this book was to help struggling alcoholics find and acknowledge a power stronger than themselves. By acknowledging and submitting to this higher power, they can begin to find solutions and work their way through alcoholism.

Wilson and Smith originally had high hopes for the financial future of A.A., seeking financial aid from big-name individuals such as the Rockefellers. However, most potential investors agreed that A.A. should remain a nonprofit group and be financially self-sustaining.

Several years later, the Twelve Steps — now a fundamental component of A.A. — were written as summaries to some of the most important concepts that were outlined in Wilson’s book. These steps became massively influential and remain the basis of A.A. today.

Once these foundations were laid out, A.A. continued to expand. Bob Smith died in 1950 when there were close to 100,000 members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Three years after, the Twelve Traditions — which we will discuss in detail — were laid out in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The same year, N.A. sought and received permission from A.A. to use its 12 steps and traditions.

In 1971, Bill Wilson died. 30 years later at the turn of the millennium, there were more than 2 million members of A.A. in more than 100,000 groups based in 150 countries around the globe.

And, while a number of other recovery groups have popped up since — many aiming to place less focus on the religious and spiritual overtones of A.A. — Alcoholics Anonymous remains the most influential and popular recovery group on the planet.

So How Does A.A. Work? Goals, Aims, Means

The basic principle of A.A. calls for a spiritual transformation in the individual. By professing their weakness over alcohol to a higher, spiritual power, A.A. encourages people to transmute their lower, addictive desires into the higher virtues of compassion, kindness, and caring.

While many are resistant to the spiritual wording of these terms, they can be understood in a more literal way. By acknowledging that alcohol has taken hold of your cognitive functions, thus impacting your ability to make healthy decisions, one has, indeed, given up control of at least one aspect of their life.

By losing control, one is thus wasting time, energy, and resources on behavior (drinking) that is not healthy or productive. When one stops drinking, they may feel at a loss. Alcoholism takes up a great deal, if not all, of your time. Without something to replace it with, it’s all-too-easy to slip back into bad habits.

By encouraging individuals to practice virtues opposed to addiction, one is able to dedicate the time and energy that they spent on alcoholism into more productive values.

Facets of A.A. include:

  • Appealing to a higher power, which may mean a religious figure such as God, the universe or nature, or even your own desires
  • Praying or meditating in an effort to develop clarity of mind 
  • Recognizing the areas in life that you have made mistakes and bad decisions, and acknowledging your desire to heal from these mistakes
  • Apologizing and seeking forgiveness from those that you have hurt
  • Continuing to carry the message of recovery to others who may be in need

Some people, including A.A. founder Bill Wilson, find that their transformation is immediate and often very mystical. In these situations, individuals immediately come to terms with their addiction and spontaneously develop the willpower and desire to overcome their problems.

Other people, however, tend to experience things more gradually. By working away at their addiction, one step at a time, people who do not subscribe to the mystical aspect of A.A. find that they are able to manage their recovery at their own pace.

Here are some of the ways in which A.A. encourages healthy behavior among its people.

  • A.A. members often try to avoid discussing topics unrelated to their alcoholism. This keeps the focus of meetings on recovery and ensures that people don’t lose sight of their goals. Oftentimes people recount stories of their alcoholism that remind them of why they want to stay sober.

  • A.A. provides a sense of camaraderie and community among people who often struggle to find these things. Trying to overcome an addiction in isolation is often very difficult, and prior to A.A. there were very few avenues for alcoholics to find people with similar goals in mind. By sharing experiences, advice, and time with other recovering alcoholics, people can develop a strong sense of community.

  • A.A. provides information and anecdotal advice that you can’t get from conventional therapy. While therapy is an important part of recovery, it focuses on objective and analytical approaches. A.A. allows you to connect directly with others who have had similar experiences so that you can learn from them.

The majority of A.A. groups allow each member to speak briefly, telling about their past and present experiences with alcohol and their struggles or successes using the 12-step program. However, some groups deviate from this foundation. Some, for example, allow individuals to make presentations.

Starting Out With Alcoholics Anonymous

Even if you’re not going to commit right away to the 12-Step Program, you can start the program simply by attending a meeting. You’ll be encouraged to tell a bit about yourself and you can learn about the others in the group and their experiences. 

Members are often encouraged to practice the 90 Day Challenge, during which they will attend 90 meetings in 90 days. This encourages people to remain wholly focused on their recovery for the first three months after their first meeting.

This can really help to solidify your goals and help you develop a strong and dedicated approach to your recovery. The first three months are also the most challenging, so attending A.A. meetings every day can help.

Not only do these meetings help you remain focused on your recovery, they can assist you in other ways. They help to fight boredom, which is one of the main causes of relapse. They can also help to reintegrate you into a social setting where you can make friends with other people who are not drinking.

After you complete the 90 Day Challenge — or if you decide to opt out of it altogether — you’ll still be encouraged to attend meetings on a regular basis for the rest of your life. This helps to ensure that you don’t lose sight of your goals.

You may also choose to work with a sponsor. A sponsor is a senior member of A.A. who has a number of years of recovery under their belt. They will be able to ensure that you’re staying true to your goals and can help to offer advice and reassurance when you are having doubts.

Many people attribute their success in recovery both to A.A. and to the guidance of their sponsor. Ultimately, however, the way that you choose to proceed with your recovery and A.A. meetings are up to you.

The 12 Steps of A.A.

The 12 Step Program is one of the fundamental components of A.A. Understanding the 12 steps allows you to gain a basic understanding of the process that you’ll be going through if you subscribe to A.A.

These are the 12 steps.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—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 Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. 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.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Following these steps provides a framework by which people can pursue their recovery in earnest.

12-Step Facilitators

Originally, Alcoholics Anonymous programs were separated from, and even at odds with, traditional psychotherapy programs. There was a lot of dispute in the medical community about what the ‘proper’ way to treat alcoholism was.

Nowadays, however, there is more or less harmony between the two different groups. While A.A. and psychotherapy do not officially endorse each other, members and professionals from both groups often recommend them both. 

Many therapists actually encourage the use of 12-step counseling in their therapy practices. This is known as 12-step facilitation. During these processes, therapists and counselors will teach their patients about the 12-step program and help them learn more about A.A. and its methods.

The 12 Traditions

The 12 Traditions work together with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 Steps can be considered the guidelines for recovery, whereas the 12 Traditions are considered to be the principles that lie behind the steps. They help to encourage people to stay focused and determined on their goals.

Here are the 12 Traditions of A.A.

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. 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.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. 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.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

Is A.A. Effective?

Studying the efficacy of A.A. has proven difficulty for researchers for a few reasons. Firstly, as implied by the name, A.A. is anonymous, which makes it difficult to track and follow members. Furthermore, members don’t often perform follow-ups, which can present challenges for researchers who are looking for objective or long-term conclusions.

Whatever the case, the consensus is that A.A. members certainly perform better in their recovery than people who don’t attend the program at all. 

There has also been a number of studies done on mutual support groups, of which A.A. is one. These groups are proven to produce a higher success rate when compared to people who have tried to quit alcohol on their own. 

Open and Closed A.A. Meetings

A.A. meetings can be loosely categorized as either open or closed.

  • Open meetings are sometimes called ‘speaker meetings.’ These meetings can be attended by anyone, alcoholic or otherwise. During these meetings, people learn about the experience of the speaker — how they were affected by alcohol, how they were influenced by A.A., and what sort of progress they are making.

  • Closed meetings are to be attended only by people who are in recovery for alcoholism or who are currently alcoholics. These meetings ensure that all members present will be focused on their recovery and that the meeting will not be derailed by non-struggling members with questions or concerns.


Alcoholics Anonymous is an anonymous recovery group that has been around for nearly a century. As the world’s foremost peer support group, A.A. has helped hundreds of thousands of people stop drinking.

By providing you with community support, advice, and education about alcohol abuse, these programs can help you clarify and stay focused on your recovery goals.

If you’re struggling with alcohol abuse you may want to find out where the nearest A.A. group is located. Anyone can join A.A. if they have an alcohol problem. The sooner you start your journey towards recovery, the safer you will be.

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