Josh Chandler | May 22, 2024

How the Serenity Prayer Is Used in Addiction Treatment

Introduction to the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is a staple of any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, as it can apply to anybody’s daily life, whether religious, spiritual, or secular. While the origins of this prayer are debated, it became well known during the sermons of an American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who used it often throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It spread through the YWCA and other groups during this period, inspiring Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs

The most well-known words to the prayer are as follows: 

God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

The rest is as follows: 

Living one day at a time,

enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;

taking, as Jesus did,

this sinful world as it is,

not as I would have it;

trusting that You will make all things right

if I surrender to Your will;

so that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with You forever in the next.


In short, it encourages people to accept what cannot be changed with serenity and without judgment and take action when they can do things to improve their situation. The original longer version of the prayer distinctly has a Christian bent. Still, depending on the type of recovery group you belong to, it may be shortened with the wording changed, removing the religious undertones while keeping the core message. 


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The Role of the Serenity Prayer in Recovery

For many people, acceptance of their situation as they give in to a higher power is helpful because they feel powerless and out of control when it comes to addiction. Accepting that there will always be life circumstances we can’t change and being ok with how we feel, even when our emotions are unpleasant, is part of learning to tolerate distress, overcome emotional pain, and move forward in life, even when it’s hard. 

The prayer continues to be a daily touchstone for those in the program and may be used as a mantra by those going through difficult moments. Many people will repeat it to themselves when they’re triggered, angry, or overwhelmed as a way to pause, ground themselves in the moment, and remember the work they’ve done on their sobriety. 

Reciting the prayer can also help people connect to whatever higher power they identify with, be it God, Mother Nature, your ideal self, or the unknown universe. The word “serenity” is the antonym of “anguish.” Like all aspects of recovery, selecting your higher power is personal, and you can interpret the prayer in any way that provides you with guidance, comfort, strength, and hope. 

Breaking Down the Serenity Prayer

The AA version of the Serenity Prayer makes three main points, each key to maintaining a healthy mindset during recovery.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Acceptance and tolerance to distress are key to stress reduction. Feeling life’s everyday chaos and negativity can affect the way you see the world and make it more likely that you will act impulsively. When faced with a difficult trigger, you may find that invoking the Serenity Prayer can remind you to take a beat, stop, and use a healthy coping mechanism like mindfulness rather than making a reactive emotional choice. 

the courage to change the things I can,

Making big life changes, altering deep-set thought patterns and mindsets, and working toward sobriety is not only physically challenging but, at times, downright terrifying. You may have to say goodbye to old friends, change your daily routine, look within and examine yourself realistically, and push yourself every day. It isn’t easy, but you can do it. The prayer reminds us that it takes courage to be your authentic, best self, and all you can do is continue moving forward daily.

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change means taking a realistic look at yourself, your life, and your behaviors and making appropriate, logical decisions rather than basing your life on emotional responses. For example, you cannot make your friends stop using drugs if they don’t want to, but you can choose to limit the time you spend with them. You cannot change the past, but you can make amends and become the person you want to be. It takes wisdom and experience, but practicing this thinking over time will help you take practical steps toward a healthy recovery. 

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The Serenity Prayer in Group Therapy Sessions

During 12-step meetings, the Serenity Prayer is often recited at the beginning and the end of each meeting. Repetition can help people remember the words when they’re having a difficult time, or they may repeat it like a mantra when they need a reminder of what it takes to stay on track in their recovery plan. Using the Serenity Prayer during group therapy sessions can encourage participants to discuss what is and is not changeable in their lives and what steps they may take to meet their goals. 

Coping Strategies and the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer mirrors coping strategies taught in addiction treatment programs, like dialectical behavioral therapy. It encourages logical thinking and mindfulness over rash emotional choices and promotes doing all we can to achieve a peaceful existence while taking practical steps toward achieving life goals. Coping strategies like eating right, exercising, making new friendships, and stress management all fit into the parameters set out by this prayer, making it an excellent addition to any substance use disorder treatment program.

Challenges and Critiques of the Serenity Prayer in Treatment

One of the biggest challenges associated with the Serenity Prayer is its spiritual aspect, which does not work for everyone. Although it can be reworded without theistic language, the prayer invokes a higher power, which may not jive with some people’s worldviews. 

Another criticism of the prayer is that it portrays a black-and-white look at the world, with every challenge being one that a person can or cannot change, with no room for gray areas. This type of thinking can feel disheartening to people facing big challenges that cannot be changed right away, and it may be better phrased as “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change quickly or easily.” 


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Muse Treatment’s Approach to Spiritual Elements in Recovery

Muse Treatment Center is a multidisciplinary treatment center that incorporates all types of care in a person’s recovery journey. When you join us, one of the first steps we take is a thorough assessment, in which we learn not only about your history of alcohol and drug use but also about your physical, psychological, spiritual, social, and behavioral health and your personal recovery goals. With that information in mind, we will create a program that works for you, incorporating a mix of evidence-based therapies, groups, holistic addiction therapy, 12-step programs, and relapse prevention programming, amongst other methodologies. 

If you or a loved one are seeking help for substance abuse, please call us today at 800-426-1818 or contact us online. We are here to answer your questions confidentially so you can get the help you need now. 

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Josh Chandler
Josh Chandler
After growing up in Chicago and North Carolina, Josh chose to get help with substance use disorder and mental health in California because of the state's reputation for top-tier treatment. There, he found the treatment he needed to achieve more than five years of recovery. He's been in the drug and alcohol addiction rehab industry for four years and now serves as the Director of Admissions for Resurgence Behavioral Health. Josh remains passionate about the field because he understands that one phone call can alter the course of a person's life.

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