Free Online Help During the Pandemic

You can talk about any kind of problematic behavior at a SMART meeting.

Posted Aug 17, 2020

Jennifer called me because she desperately wanted help. She had gained weight from taking medication prescribed by her psychiatrist, and she was starting to drink more during the pandemic. She had lost her job, so she had no health insurance. She could probably benefit from professional help, but she couldn’t afford it. Fortunately, I could help. I knew that she could learn ways to help her manage her emotions and her behaviors at a free SMART meeting.

There are now lots of online meetings all over the country that Jennifer could attend.

Jennifer’s situation wasn’t hopeless, and she wasn’t helpless. I assured her that when she attended an online meeting, she didn’t have to participate or even show her face. She didn’t have to use the video or audio options on Zoom. She could just listen. That could help. And I told her where to find online resources and that a SMART handbook was available online as well.

Perhaps SMART Recovery (smartrecovery.orgsmartrecoverynyc.org) could help you, too. SMART is a non-profit organization run almost entirely by volunteers. When I helped found it over twenty-five years ago, I was not opposed to AA. I just thought it would be helpful to have another free resourse and one based on cognitive behavioral principles. At a meeting, you can bring up any kind of addictive, semi-addictive, or problematic behavior, including issues with food and the internet. No doubt, the online meetings are a godsend today during the pandemic.

SMART Recovery is different in many ways. There are no steps, no sponsors, and no reliance on a higher power. The Four Point Program uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques that have been shown by research to be effective. There are currently more than 3,000 SMART meetings each week in more than twenty countries.

The Four-Point Program focuses on:

1.     Building and Maintaining Motivation

2.     Coping with Urges

3.     Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior

4.     Living a Balanced Life

As you can see, the program teaches skills but also, through Point 4, helps people develop a more enjoyable, balanced lifestyle. SMART is based on a combination of Motivational Interviewing techniques designed to help people build and maintain motivation to change (the focus of Point 1) and techniques from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the first form of cognitive behavior therapy. Those techniques are used to help people cope with Urges (Point 2) and manage their emotional lives better (Point 3).         

Members are helped to become more aware—more mindful—of the beliefs that often lead to problematic behavior. Then group members—engaging in “crosstalk,” another difference from AA—help question the rationality or helpfulness of those beliefs. Usually slowly, but sometimes quite quickly, participants become more mindful of how they are contributing to their problems. They also learn better ways to respond. As members get better at that, they are also encouraged to develop a better lifestyle balance (the focus of Point 4) between the short-term pleasures and satisfactions of life and the long-term ones.

Meetings are mostly run by volunteers like me, although most are non-professionals. Some people are very adept at running meetings, but others are just learning. It takes time to learn to run a good meeting even after someone has taken an online course to do so. If the meeting you attend isn’t helping you, don’t give up. Try a different meeting if there’s more than one in your city.

In addition, at SMART, no one is going to suggest that you stop a medication or that taking a medication is just substituting one addiction for another. For some people, taking Naltrexone or Suboxone has saved their lives. You may talk about the medications you’re taking to help you manage a mood disorder or another psychological issue, such as anxiety.

In SMART Recovery, the focus is on the behavior that is creating the most trouble in your life. You don’t have to stop every drug or activity.

Different people like different programs and find different approaches helpful. This is underscored by a recent study that found SMART, AA, and two other self-help organizations, LifeRing and Women for Sobriety, all equally effective. All have no doubt saved many lives, and you may find one of them very helpful.

I know people who go to both SMART and AA meetings because they find both helpful. I think it’s fair to say that SMART is more focused on building skills. In contrast, AA provides a kind of fellowship that SMART may not.

If there’s no SMART meeting in your community, consider starting one. The central office will provide you with support, and online training is available.

One goal of the organization is to provide at least one online meeting in each time zone each day. Online meetings are especially useful in countries where people in the professional class often know each other, so attending a face-to-face meeting may be impossible if they want to keep their professional reputations. And, as I mentioned before, during Zoom meetings, you don’t  have to show your face (although that is preferable) or use your real name.

More information, including exercises and worksheets, can be found online at smartrecovery.org.

Note: This blog is an edited version of the answer to Question 46 in Am I Addicted? 64 Questions and Answers to Help You Change an Addictive or Semi-Addictive Behavior, available on Amazon.