Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is more than just becoming abstinent. A detox may help you get away from active addiction, but what stops you from going back to it, or trading one addiction for something else? The key is emotional sobriety. Given that there is no known cure for addiction, this is the thing most likely to provide you with happy and lasting sobriety.
In the early days of sobriety, if you’re experiencing cravings but determined to stay sober, your mind might say, “I can’t do this. I’m sober now.” Or if you’re feeling upset and unhappy, you may start to consider going back to your addiction to cope. However, if you have achieved emotional sobriety, your mind won’t even go there. It will go from “I can’t” to “I don’t even want it”.
It has been said that recovery from addiction is essentially a growing-up process. This process is necessary for most addicts because their addictive behaviour has most likely caused them to miss out on the normal journey from childishness to maturity that most people go through naturally.
After all, reaching for your drug of choice to help you cope with a difficult situation is essentially a childish, irresponsible act. In recovery, the achievement of emotional maturity is a major goal simply because immature reactions to life situations often lead to relapse.
What Is Emotional Sobriety?
Emotional sobriety is a state of inner peace, self-regulation, and emotional balance. It is not a state of eternal happiness, but rather the ability to acknowledge, confront, and cope with any positive or negative emotions that may appear. It is not about suppressing one’s emotions – it is about accepting them. Usually, it is also connected with ’emotional intelligence’.
Thus, for example, even extreme anger is dealt with not by using substances or escapes, but through a more healthy reaction. However, in true emotional sobriety, this is also a natural and automatic reaction, instead of a procedure you follow.
Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson said that emotional sobriety is one of the keys to a lasting recovery from addiction.
It can be compared to the term “intrinsic motivation” in psychology. It is when you behave in a certain way because it is naturally satisfying, not because you are seeing a reward or avoiding a punishment.
Signs of an Emotionally Sober Person
Emotional sobriety essentially means living a balanced and mature lifestyle that consists of the following elements:
- Being able to manage emotions and mood
- Maintaining a logical perspective on circumstances
- Being resilient/able to cope even when things get difficult
- Recognising and regulating harmful thoughts and behaviours
- Living in the present and not overthinking the past or future
- Being able to address problems as they come, instead of avoiding them
- Avoiding self-pity and self-defeating thoughts and behaviours
- Being able to connect to people and community
An emotionally sober person is aware and accepting of what they feel. In most cases, strong emotions should be dealt with in an appropriate manner. However, distraction or repression are natural reactions as well.
While these may be normal in extreme situations even for a healthy mind, they should not be so when it comes to minor life stresses. They are also common with people in early recovery, until they learn emotional sobriety.
Someone who has emotional sobriety will not be likely to turn to a self-harming behaviour, such as drugs or alcohol, as a first reaction. Nor will they try to deny what they feel. Instead they will recognise that they are angry for this or that reason and deal with it in a healthy way. This might mean going out for a run as a release, directly facing the situation to find a solution, or attempting to see a positive aspect to what has happened.
Emotional Sobriety: Nature vs. Nurture
Emotional sobriety is not something you’re born with. It should be acquired as part of a person’s growing-up process but too often, this does not happen. Thus, someone who didn’t grow up in a wholesome environment may be confused about the nature of their emotions and how to deal with them. Inability to validate emotions during early childhood, perhaps through lack of a suitable role model, is one of the most common causes for poor emotional processing.
Emotional sobriety may also not be completely due to environment but rather the development of the brain. If there are issues with the limbic system of the brain (the emotional control centre), or if a person suffers from depression or bipolar disorder, that may affect how they deal with their emotions as well.
Alternatively, someone who suffered from trauma or PTSD at a later age may “unlearn” the necessary skills. This is because after a traumatic experience, the brain rewires itself to act in survivor mode. Thus, they will use their “fight or flight” part of the brain instead of the more logical emotional or cognitive processing centre.
Why Emotional Sobriety Is Important in Addiction Recovery
If emotional sobriety is all about self-regulation and balance, addiction is the opposite. It is the absence of self-control. In recovery, the first step is abstinence, or physical sobriety. The second step is trying, and hopefully achieving, emotional sobriety. This may be seen as essentially detox and therapy, which are at the core of most addiction recovery treatments.
Addiction is a chronic disease with no cure that is known yet. While abstinence can help you remove an addiction from your life, emotional sobriety helps you live your life free from addiction. It is essential if you want to ensure a long-lasting recovery. If you don’t deal with your underlying problem, and learn to regulate your emotions, you may find that you suffer from being a ‘dry drunk‘ even if you are in recovery.
In the beginning of a sober lifestyle, things can get stressful and difficult. For example, you may feel jealous of your friends who can go out for drinks, or struggle with social interactions that involve alcohol. Emotional sobriety can alleviate this. It will also help you use the challenges you face as an opportunity for self-improvement.
Emotional sobriety helps you deal with struggles during treatment and in life without reaching out for self-harming substances. This means you’ll be less likely to go back to your addiction or replace it with a new one.
How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety in Recovery
Achieving emotional sobriety is not easy. It takes time and effort. There also needs to be a willingness to change. Although it is natural for a healthy mind to be in an emotionally sober state, the same isn’t true for most people with an addiction. Fortunately, no matter what you have been though, emotional sobriety is a state of mind that can be acquired. It can be learned or relearned.
It isn’t easy for most people to deal with their feelings or address their problems. For someone that has suffered trauma or turned to addiction as a coping mechanism, it may be even harder. Tim, who is in recovery, says, “It was easier for me to quit heroin than to deal with my feelings. And it took me over a year, a very painful time, to stop using.” However, no matter what it takes to get there, it is worth it.
In addition to therapy, mindfulness is one of the best skills to learn for achieving emotional sobriety. Yoga and meditation are often suggested as an aid, but you can also take mindfulness courses. In the meantime, try to implement some of this into your life:
Feel What You Feel
Emotional sobriety is all about acceptance, and giving yourself permission to feel whatever your body wants to feel. Therefore if you’re angry, accept that you’re angry and then understand why. Only by finding where the problem lies will you be able to deal with it.
Stop and Think
Now that you’ve identified the problem, is it really worth getting this upset over? If yes, find a healthy way to vent, then think about potential solutions so you can resolve it ASAP. If no, give yourself permission to get frustrated for a bit, then find a way to move on.
Of course, it’s not always that easy. Surely, you know how much it “helps” when you’re raging and someone tells you to, “Calm down,” or when you’re depressed and someone offers the advice of, “Cheer up!” It doesn’t make you feel any better does it? This is why it is important to be able to acknowledge and express your emotions, and be able to deal with them. However, that’s a skill that may take time to learn.
It’s natural to be overwhelmed with memories of the past or worries about the future. However, it is much better for your mental health to focus on the here and now. You can’t change what has happened, and you can’t predict what will.
This is especially important when you’re dealing with new problems. While it is wise to learn from past mistakes and consider future consequences, dwelling too long on either one will yield no progress. Self-forgiveness is crucial for a healthy recovery.
Support Is Important
Social connections and general support is essential when it comes to maintaining emotional sobriety. It doesn’t mean you need to have lots of friends, but you should form meaningful connections. That way, you are constantly interacting with people, which is necessary when learning to express and deal with emotions. It is also helpful to have someone to reach out to.
Reappraisal is an important aspect of emotional sobriety. It refers to being able to confront a negative situation and turn it into a positive one. Such as although you lost your job, now you have an opportunity to work in a better place or try out a new career. You may not be able to change a situation, but you can change your thinking and approach.
Therapy Is Essential for Emotional Sobriety
While there are emotional sobriety skills you can learn yourself, there is a reason why there is a major focus on therapy in addiction recovery treatment. It is essential to address the underlying causes of addiction, which prompted it in the first place.
For this reason, at Castle Craig Hospital, we place a strong emphasis on psychotherapy for those seeking a lasting recovery. Without therapy and the self-discovery that comes through it, one is extremely unlikely to achieve complete emotional sobriety.
Because of the prevalence of secondary psychological issues, dual diagnosis is something Castle Craig takes very seriously. Whether its depression, trauma, a personality disorder, or other types of mental illness, it needs to be appropriately addressed.
All patients at Castle Craig participate in both individual and group therapies, based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and DBT (dialectic behaviour therapy) methods.
Therapy is essential because it teaches you to self-regulate your emotions, which can be a trigger for relapse later on. And this is where aftercare comes in, which is also highly emphasised at Castle Craig. In preparing for aftercare, a patient is provided with many useful tools that will aid them once they leave rehab.
If you’re looking into treatment for alcohol, drug, or other behavioural addiction, Castle Craig is ready to help. We will gladly provide a consultation and recommend the right route to take. Contact us at +44 1721 788 428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | January 7, 2020