The Role of a Higher Power in 12 Step Drug Treatment

The 12 Step treatment model, first developed in the 1950s, has remained the standard approach for treating alcohol and drug addiction. Likewise, the 12 Step support group plays a central role within the majority of drug treatment programs across the United States, according to the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

The 12 Step process centers around a belief in a Higher Power that’s based on each person’s beliefs and/or spiritual practices. While some may be averse to the idea of a Higher Power, this aspect of the 12 Step process offers a range of practical and much needed coping strategies for managing addiction on a day-to-day basis.

The Brain Reward Pathway: Addiction’s Hub

Though different in chemical composition, addictive drugs in general all share certain similarities to the brain’s own neurotransmitter chemicals. These similarities enable drugs of abuse to interfere with the brain’s chemical processes.

With continued drug use, this interference starts to disrupt the brain’s reward pathway, which relies on dopamine neurotransmitter outputs to function normally. These changes have pronounced effects on a person’s motivations and daily priorities, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Even after a person stops using drugs, damage done to this area of the brain makes maintaining abstinence especially difficult. Interestingly enough, the role of a Higher Power in 12 Step drug treatment programs taps into addiction’s effects on the reward system pathway.

Program Objectives: The 12 Step Drug Treatment Process

12 step program

Alcoholics Anonymous offers a 12 step program.

The 12 Step drug treatment process can be broken down into five primary objectives:

  • An ongoing admission of powerlessness over addiction
  • Drawing strength from a Higher Power to overcome addiction
  • Facing and dealing with the negative consequences brought on by compulsive drug use
  • Building a new lifestyle
  • Helping others

In effect, the role a Higher Power plays in a person’s life enables him or her to develop the types of motivations, priorities and mental outlook that make drug-free living possible.

The Role of a Higher Power in 12 Step Drug Treatment

A Substitute for Addiction

According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, any activity capable of stimulating the brain’s reward pathway can impact a person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Much like romantic love or the reinforcing effects of power and money, the practice of prayer and meditation on a Higher Power can replace the reinforcing effects of drug abuse over time.

Likewise, turning to a Higher Power when the urge to use seems overwhelming reinforces the 12 Step program principle of powerlessness in the face of addiction in terms of turning one’s will over to that of a Higher Power.

Behavioral Change

With a belief in a Higher Power comes certain routines and core beliefs that ultimately affect a person’s daily behaviors and outlook towards self and others. In effect, attending religious services on a regular basis becomes one of the structural supports needed to build or “live” a drug-free lifestyle. In turn, the social context of a religious service has a social reinforcing effect, which taps into the basic human need for community and a sense of belonging.

Ultimately, the role of a Higher Power in the 12 Step drug treatment process serves as an inner compass that directs the types of choices a person makes in his or her daily life, including the choice to not use drugs.

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