Although often used interchangeably, getting sober isn’t the same as being in recovery. When we think of sobriety, we immediately think of quitting alcohol or drugs. Recovery, however, is much more than physical sobriety. It is also about mental and emotional healing and feeling at peace with who you are. So, how can we go from being sober to being in recovery? By practicing emotional sobriety.
What is Emotional Sobriety?
Emotional sobriety is a core concept of 12-step programs and is closely linked to physical sobriety: To be successful with one, you have to be successful with the other.
If you are someone working toward long-term recovery, you must learn to regulate the negative feelings that come up in your everyday life which may lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse. Becoming comfortable with your emotions requires cultivating a new way of thinking about life’s ups and downs.
While practicing emotional sobriety won’t prevent you from experiencing negative thoughts or emotions, it will allow you to feel and honor your emotions, rather than being consumed or directed by them.
What Are Signs of Emotional Sobriety?
- Strong communication
- Ability to recognize triggers
- Healthy boundaries
- Stable relationships
- Stress management
- A positive outlook on life
- Ability to live in the moment
- Loss of interest in drugs and alcohol
If it is difficult for you to relate to the above signs, then you may be lacking in emotional sobriety. Some people may also call this “white knuckling” or “dry drunk syndrome” which is when you abstain from substances but don’t do the deep, inner work to experience true change. A few common indicators are if you often blame others for your problems, have rapid mood swings, try to push your emotions away and find it hard to stay in the present. Fortunately, there’s no need to worry as anyone can develop emotional sobriety, no matter who you are, what you’ve been through, or how long you’ve been in recovery.
Why is Emotional Sobriety Important in Recovery?
Without emotional sobriety, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain long-term recovery from addictive substances and patterns. While sobriety from drugs and alcohol is the beginning of true life in recovery, learning how to manage the underlying emotions that drove the addictive patterns demonstrates a higher level of self-mastery, and is key to preventing relapse. If not managed properly, feelings of loneliness, anger, fear, disappointment, and even boredom can often trigger us to start drinking or using again. But emotional sobriety isn’t just important because it serves as a method of relapse prevention; it is also a critical part of recovery because it enables us to lead a meaningful life and truly thrive in sobriety.
How to Develop Emotional Sobriety?
For many of us – with and without diagnoses of substance use disorders and mental health issues – emotional sobriety takes a significant amount of work, self-reflection, therapy, and most importantly, practice and practical applications. Laying down the tracks for a balanced lifestyle – mind, body, and spirit – is key to developing emotional sobriety. We can achieve this by:
Practicing Mindfulness: Developing mindfulness skills allows us to get out of the fight, flight, or freeze response to stressors and creates a sense of greater calm. It allows the brain and body to get into a state where they can process and communicate more effectively. Mindfulness also enables us to not dwell on the past but rather enjoy the present. Some great ways to develop mindfulness include yoga, meditation, and prayer.
Journaling: Start journaling about the different events in your life and your emotions. As you write down how you’re feeling, you let go of pent-up energy and experience a wave of relief. There is no right or wrong way to journal; do what feels right for you.
Distracting Yourself Momentarily: When you have a rush of intense emotions like sadness or frustration, it can be overwhelming to sit with it. Try redirecting your attention to something else lighthearted. It might be calling a reliable friend, watching a funny TV show, listening to feel-good music, or even taking a hot shower. Once you are ready, you can come back to examine the emotions or thoughts with a clearer mind.
Trying Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) help increase self-awareness and emotional regulation by providing us with a better understanding of how our thoughts and emotions influence our behavior.
Making Connections: Establishing a strong support network ensures that we have someone we can trust to go to when we are faced with difficult situations or uncomfortable emotions. It also helps to keep us accountable in recovery.
For many, emotional sobriety is not a consistent state but is instead found in moments and hours. Don’t feel discouraged if you struggle to regulate your emotions. Often, human beings are not emotionally static. What matters is your ability to recognize and manage your personal stressors and continue working on your recovery. Emotional maintenance work can make all the difference in sustaining sobriety from alcohol and other drugs.