Why Alcoholics Anonymous Works

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Why It Works

People struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) have several treatment options at their fingertips. There are psychotherapy treatments, medications, support groups, and more. A popular support group is Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly known as AA. What makes AA popular, and why does it seem to work for so many people? Here, we explain how AA can help alcoholics recover.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by the inability to control or stop drinking alcohol. AUD has negative effects on the mind and body. Key characteristics of AUD include:

  • Lack of control: People suffering from AUD find it difficult or impossible to control their drinking or limit the amount they drink. It is also challenging for them to quit altogether.
  • High tolerance for alcohol: Those with AUD tend to have a high tolerance for alcohol and need to increase the amount they drink to feel the same effects as previously. This higher tolerance is often the first sign of AUD.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Individuals with AUD go through withdrawal when they stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms include tremors in the hands, sweating, and nausea.

Damaging Effects of Alcohol on the Body and Mind

People with AUD often continue to drink despite the negative impact it has on their bodies and minds. Alcoholism does tremendous damage to the body. Extreme alcohol consumption can lead to liver ailments including alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and a fatty liver. The liver’s job is to break down alcohol. After years of heavy drinking, however, there is too much damage to the liver, and its ability to function properly is severely limited. This condition can eventually be life-threatening.

Excessive alcohol consumption also leads to high blood pressure and an increased risk of a heart attack. Digestive issues can develop, too. Alcohol irritates the digestive system, causing painful gastritis.

Besides damage to the body, long-term alcohol abuse can lead to memory loss and conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome arises due to a B1 vitamin deficiency and results in damage to the brain’s thalamus and hypothalamus. Finally, long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder?

AUD can affect people of different social classes, ethnicities, and ages. The reasons are varied and often complex. Here are some key factors that contribute to AUD.


People with AUD in their families are at a higher risk of excessive alcohol consumption. The genes ALDH2 and ADH1B have been linked to alcoholism, and individuals with those genes have a 50% higher risk of developing AUD. Although genes are not the sole reason people develop AUD, they clearly play a large part.


Environment plays a significant role in the development of AUD. Societal acceptance of underage drinking or binge drinking in university settings can encourage and enable alcohol dependence. Peer influence also plays a crucial role in people’s abuse of alcohol. And drinking alcohol is popularized in the media, making it seem acceptable and even cool.


Some people drink as a way of managing stress from work, relationships, or other sources. Chronic stress can lead to consuming excessive amounts of alcohol as a way of coping.


People who have experienced trauma may drink to self-medicate. Whether they are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression from their past trauma, drinking may help them function in their daily activities.

Cultural Influences

Some cultures normalize heavy drinking. This normalization can contribute to many instances of individuals developing alcohol use disorders.

Psychological Issues

Many people with mental disorders may turn to alcohol to help alleviate their symptoms. Whether they have anxiety, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, they may perceive a calming effect with alcohol use.

Personality Traits

Some people enjoy engaging in risky behavior, such as excessive drug and alcohol consumption. Years of this behavior can push them over the edge into addiction.

Economic Factors

Poverty, too, can contribute to AUD. The day-to-day stress of economic hardship may drive people to drink excessively as a way of coping with their situation.

What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Started in 1935 by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a community of individuals whose goal is to maintain sobriety. 

The cornerstone of AA is its 12-step program, which outlines principles to live by. These steps are:

  1. Admitting you are powerless over alcohol
  2. Believing that a higher power can help
  3. Deciding to turn your will over to God or whatever higher power you feel comfortable with
  4. Making a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself
  5. Admitting to your higher power, yourself, and another human being the exact nature of your wrongs
  6. Being ready to have your higher power remove all your character defects
  7. Asking your higher power to remove your shortcomings
  8. Listing people you have harmed
  9. Making direct amends to those people, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting when you are wrong
  11. Using prayer and/or meditation to improve your contact with God as you understand the deity, seeking knowledge of the divine will and the power to carry it out
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, carrying this message to others with AUD, and practicing these principles in all your affairs

AA also follows 12 traditions, which outline the principles of AA as an organization and their ultimate goals, such as self-supporting.

Central to AA’s 12 steps is the belief in a higher power. Although the 12 steps refer to God, individuals can choose whatever higher power they are comfortable with to guide them through their recovery journey. Examples include nature, love, or even. 

AA Is Free

Because AA is a nonprofit organization, it is free to attend meetings. There are no membership fees or dues. This makes it accessible for people of all economic backgrounds who may need help but cannot pay for individual therapy sessions.

Supportive Community

The supportive community can be instrumental in making people feel understood, reducing their sense of isolation, and making them feel like they belong to a community of people who share their challenges.

Shared Experiences

In AA meetings, members openly bare their souls, sharing their experiences. Hearing how others overcame struggles can motivate and inspire newcomers to take the same steps to recovery.


Newcomers who are in the early stages of recovery can get a sponsor. Sponsors are experienced members who guide newcomers in their recovery process. This mentor relationship can further encourage newcomers in their recovery. Besides the sponsorship roles, AA encourages members to be responsible and accountable to the group for their sobriety goals. This group commitment can further motivate people to stay sober.

12-Step Program

The structured approach can help provide individuals with a roadmap to recovery. This roadmap emphasizes spiritual and personal growth. The 12-step program also provides psychological growth, as members are asked to make amends to people they have harmed. 

Anonymity and Confidentiality

Some cultures see support groups and group therapy as weaknesses. The anonymity promoted in AA provides members of all backgrounds with a safe environment where they can openly share their experiences, pain, and setbacks without judgment or ridicule.

Easy Access

AA has over 2 million members in more than 123,000 groups in roughly 180 nations. As of December 2021, 64,541 AA groups comprising 1,350,415 members were operating in the United States. This makes it easy for individuals to find an AA meeting near them. 

Alcoholics Anonymous vs. Other Treatment Plans

AA has found popularity worldwide, but there are other treatment plans that are also effective. Here is how AA compares with other treatment methods.

Detox Phase

Inpatient rehab facilities are best suited to individuals needing to detox. Inpatient rehab centers offer a structured environment and 24/7 medical staff that can help manage withdrawal symptoms. AA, on the other hand, is better suited for individuals already on the road to recovery, though some members join AA after only one day of sobriety.


After the detox phase is complete, facilities like Defining Wellness Centers usually develop a comprehensive treatment plan for those with AUD. This can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET). These therapies explore the root cause of a person’s AUD and provide skills to prevent a relapse. While AA offers peer support, it does not provide targeted counseling. Members simply share their experiences with others.


Rehab centers and individual counseling aren’t always available to everyone, especially those in rural towns. On the other hand, AA groups are free and available in most cities in the U.S.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Treatment programs sometimes combine medication to help individuals manage their cravings or alleviate withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. These medications are often used in combination with therapy. AA does not offer medications to its members.


Individual counseling and rehab centers often end after a certain period. Clients can graduate from inpatient rehab centers to outpatient rehab centers as they gain more recovery skills. On the other hand, AA members can choose to go to AA meetings for as long as they wish.

How Defining Wellness Can Help

At Defining Wellness Centers, we believe in the combination of evidence-based treatments and holistic healing. Our goal is to heal the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. If you have AUD, we provide medical detox. We also have a variety of treatment programs customized to each person. Besides our evidence-based treatment programs, we offer wellness technology, trauma-informed treatment, music therapy, art therapy, and equine-assisted therapy.

If you are ready to start on the path to sobriety, contact our team to find out how we can help.

Begin your Recovery Today

If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.