How Does AA Work? A Review of the Evidence

March 4, 2019 Kristance Harlow
a dark library bookshelf

AA is cloaked in misconceptions and mysticism: a society of “former drunks” who tout spirituality as a means to cure the chronic, genetic, and life-threatening disease of alcoholism.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), as an organization, “neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” But AA, as a societal symbol, is very controversial. People have strong opinions about its benefits and its dangers. It’s an organization cloaked in misconceptions and mysticism: an anonymous society of “former drunks” who tout spirituality as a means to cure the chronic, genetic, and life-threatening disease of alcohol use disorder (AUD). There is no denying that many have found support and achieved recovery through involvement in 12-step programs. That has left researchers with the question: what mechanisms are at work behind the scenes?

Peer Support Groups like AA Increase Oxytocin

Participation in mutual help programs may increase levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Nicknamed the “love hormone,” it is released when people bond socially or physically. A neurobiological view of addiction recovery might look at how oxytocin plays on the brains of people in a treatment program. Oxytocin increases when bonding socially with others in AA and there are other neuroplasticity rewards that come from 12-step program participation. Interactions with other members improve the connectivity between the part of the brain that makes decisions and the “craving behavior” part of the brain.

The oxytocin system is created before age four and its development can be affected by variables such as genetic differences within the receptor itself, or environmental causes like stress or trauma. An underdeveloped oxytocin system is a risk factor for drug addiction. Healthy levels of “oxytocin can reduce the pleasure of drugs and feeling of stress.” Creating opportunities for healthy oxytocin production could benefit people in recovery from addiction.

Oxytocin also boosts feelings of spirituality, according to Duke University research. The study defined spirituality as “the belief in a meaningful life imbued with a sense of connection to a Higher Power, the world, or both.” Study participants who received a dose of oxytocin prior to meditation reported higher levels of positive emotions and feelings of spirituality. The effects lasted until at least one week after the initial experience.

Do AA Prayers Reduce Cravings?

Researchers at the NYU Langone Medical Center used brain imaging to see what, if any, effect praying has on the brains of AA members. They were able to see increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with attention and emotion during prayer which correlated with a reduced craving for alcohol. When exposed to triggers such as passing a bar or experiencing an emotional upset, people who were abstinent from alcohol but not members of AA were significantly less likely to experience the benefits of “abstinence-promoting prayers.” This brain activity seems to also be associated with a “spiritual awakening.”

A spiritual awakening is not necessarily about the divine; rather, it’s an awareness of needing resources that are beyond the reach of a person’s individual ego. This awareness causes a shift that alters one’s perspective about drinking. There are also physiologic changes that seem to occur with increased spiritual awakening/awareness. In previous research, those who were directed to pray daily for four weeks drank half as much as the study participants who were directed to not pray.

Research published in the last five years has tried to find ways to measure effectivenessin 12-step programs, in a way that is unbiased and scientific. One such study published in 2014 discovered that spiritual (rather than behavioral) 12-step work was important for later abstinence.

Spirituality Is Not for Everyone

Not everyone who enters AA experiences a spiritual awakening. According to a review of 25 years of research, it seems that only a minority of people with severe addiction experience this spiritual Aha! moment. While a sense of spirituality creates changes in the brain that can be measured on an MRI machine, there are other aspects of AA — social, mental, and emotional — that aid recovery for the majority of participants.

Twelve-step programs can help addiction recovery because of their ability to propagate therapeutic mechanisms similar to the coping tools and behavioral strategies that are utilized in formal treatments. AA has a lot of parallels with cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT). CBT is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that is effective over just a short period of time. In CBT, patients learn new habits through increasing self-awareness, overcoming fears, taking personal responsibility, and developing shifts in perspective. These are the same underpinnings as the 12 steps.

Clinical interventions that encourage 12-step participation are more successful than clinical interventions that do not encourage attendance. Meeting attendance, sponsorship, and active involvement have come up in multiple studies as being positively correlated with continued abstinence, highlighting the critical nature of connection to others as part of an effective plan for managing addiction long term.

12-Step Programs as a Useful Management Tool

Addiction is a chronic illness with no cure, according to AA literature as well as the medical community, and chronic illnesses require lifelong management. AA can be a good ally in the quest to maintain a healthy lifestyle free of active addiction.

The International Journal of Nursing Education published a study that sought to learn about the quality of life for those attending AA as opposed to those who are not attending AA. They found a significant difference, with those who attend AA reporting a better quality of life than non-attendees.

When looking at meeting attendance over long periods of time, abstinence patterns can be predicted. For people who went through inpatient treatment, the pattern shows that meeting attendance is highest during treatment and reduces at a steady pace afterwards. With reduction in attendance there is also a reduction in abstinence from using drugs or alcohol. Findings from many long-term studies suggest that meeting attendance is important in early recovery and for successful long-term recovery. The reasons for this echo other research findings: community matters.

Dangers Inherent to 12-Step Groups

The nature of AA and other 12-step programs leaves them to be individually organized and without a central governance. There is no oversight and no quality controls. Abuse, inappropriate behavior, bad advice, and social ostracizing can happen.

Perhaps most dangerous is when a single solution is pushed on someone for whom a different angle would work better. Individual satisfaction with treatment plays a major role in “subsequent psychiatric severity,” which means that recovery rates are lower for people who are unsatisfied with the addiction treatment they receive. The World Health Organization suggests that to improve treatment outcomes and engagement with treatment, patient satisfaction ought to be a focus when caring for people with substance use disorders.

AA provides a range of pathways to recovery, but it is not the one-size-fits-all approach it claims to be. It’s particularly challenging for people who also have a diagnosis of (or just struggle with) social anxiety. It’s common for AUD to exist alongside social anxiety. The fear of being negatively appraised can impede progress in recovery. Long-term participation in mutual aid groups such as AA may reduce social anxiety but overcoming that hump in early recovery may require clinical interventions or alternative treatments.

Originally published on the Fix (now shuttered).

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