Skip to content

What is Emotional Sobriety?

By Patty Bell, Interventionist and Family Relations Manager, Capo by the Sea Image Licensed by Adobe Stock Everybody knows what the meaning of “sobriety” is, but how many have never heard of emotional sobriety? In fact, our emotional sobriety is as important as physical sobriety, or abstinence. Our

what is emotional sobriety

By Patty Bell, Interventionist and Family Relations Manager, Capo by the Sea

Image Licensed by Adobe Stock

Everybody knows what the meaning of “sobriety” is, but how many have never heard of emotional sobriety? In fact, our emotional sobriety is as important as physical sobriety, or abstinence. Our attaining a state of emotional sobriety is actually the key to maintaining abstinence.

The concept of emotional sobriety was first introduced in Alcoholics Anonymous when the founders quickly realized just quitting alcohol was not enough to find long-term recovery success. To achieve that, they reasoned, one must also gain control over the negative emotions that could trigger a relapse. Emotional sobriety takes time, therapy, support, and commitment as the tools to help manage our emotional state are learned and practiced.

About Emotional Sobriety

Individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD) understand how much their emotional lives played a role in the SUD. Negative emotions associated with adverse life events often drive substance abuse, as the substance becomes a salve for the emotional strife. Once in recovery, adverse life events and difficult emotions will still be part of life. It is the human condition. So learning how to regulate emotions in recovery is essential in order to maintain sobriety.

The concept of emotional sobriety addresses this piece of the sobriety puzzle as integral to achieving success in recovery. Learning how to manage difficult emotion states becomes a daily effort, just like staying sober is a daily effort. The emotional sobriety becomes the glue form maintaining physical sobriety.

Steps to Attain Emotional Sobriety

Because people are so varied, and respond to life’s ups and downs in unique ways, there will be a learning curve involved in attaining emotional sobriety. Some techniques will resonate and be extremely useful, where others not so much. Each person is different, so finding the tools that will help you better manage negative emotions does not fit neatly into a one-size-fits-all box.

Here are some helpful suggestions for discovering which coping skills work for your emotional sobriety journey:

  1. Make Recovery Your #1 Priority. While this may seem obvious, it isn’t uncommon for your motivation to prioritize your recovery to wane over time. To strengthen your emotional sobriety it will rest on an ongoing commitment to abstinence. By prioritizing recovery you will be supporting all other emotional sobriety efforts. These actions are supportive of both abstinence and emotional sobriety:
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. When you feel good physically, your state of mind will also benefit. Restore health with a regular exercise routine and adopting a nutritious diet. Together these help improve overall health, boost mood, and improve sleep quality.
  • Grow your sober network. Expand your social network in recovery for added sober support. Discover sober meet-up groups in your area that gather for hikes, water sports, sporting events, music events, and other social outings. Attend A.A. events for opportunities to make new sober friendships and participate in volunteer activities. The stronger your sober network is, the more confident and secure you become in recovery, which feeds into emotional sobriety.

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is the gold standard for helping individuals overcome substance use disorders. This is because it is a short-term therapy that focuses on helping the person change dysfunctional thought patterns that keep them in the addiction cycle. A CBT therapist will help you identify thought distortions that can trigger substance use. These negative emotion states can drive the disease. By shifting the thought/behavior patterns toward positive self-messaging and productive behaviors, you slowly acquire new thought habits. This equates to emotion regulation in recovery.

3. Practice Recovery Skills. While rehab teaches the basics, it is in active recovery that these skills must be accessed and regularly practiced. By using these essential recovery strategies often, they will eventually become new behavioral habits that improve overall emotional sobriety:

  • Communication skills. Learning how to become a better listener, how to respond respectfully to others in conversation, and to engage people with thoughtful discourse helps keep discussions productive. This can help you avoid negative emotions and drama.
  • Conflict resolution. Conflict resolution techniques help you to work calmly through conflicts, whether they are with a spouse or family member, a work colleague, or a perfect stranger.
  • Distraction. Learning strategies for distracting yourself from cravings, such as engaging in exercise, a hobby, calling a friend, or going to meeting, is a technique for avoiding relapse. By choosing these positive actions to distract from cravings, you keep yourself in a healthy state of mind.

4. Stay Connected to Your Sober Support Network. Social support is an important aspect of emotional sobriety. Actively participating in a recovery community provides fellowship and peer support in a safe space. In these meetings you are able to share and process negative emotions or setbacks. Because your sober network can relate to these events they can provide an outlet for working through any negative emotions.

5. Practice Relaxation Methods. Stress can destabilize your emotional state and become a significant threat to sobriety. Learn how to manage daily stress by practicing holistic relaxation methods. These might include mindfulness, yoga, journaling, meditation or prayer, and art therapy. Mindfulness in particular can help you train your thoughts away from ruminating over negative events and toward the present moment.

Things that Prevent Emotional Sobriety

Everyone in recovery understands the need to remain abstinent from substances, but they may not be aware of things that can sabotage their efforts. This is why it is so important to not only know how to attain emotional sobriety, but to also to be able to recognize the things that undermine that effort:

  • Negative self-talk. Emotions are powerful. One of the surest ways to keep a negative emotion state is through negative self-talk. What you communicate internally to yourself can have a powerful impact. Avoid putting yourself down all the time or castigating yourself for mistakes made. Access your CBT coping skillset to help shift negative self talk to positive affirmations and you will become stronger in your recovery.
  • The company you keep. If you are around negative people their negativity will rub off on you. Some people look for daily drama and reasons to stir up negative, caustic emotions. These are toxic people that will not help you in your recovery efforts. Instead, find some positive people to hang out with and that will help you stay in a healthier state of mind.

Emotional sobriety is second only to abstinence in its importance to recovery. You start the journey by quitting the substance, but you stay on the path through accessing your emotional sobriety toolbox.

About the Author

Patty Bell is the Interventionist and Family Relations Manager of Capo by the Sea, a luxury addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program located in South Orange County, California. After her own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Patty joined Capo and their unique program that was individualized for each client’s specific treatment needs. Patty’s passion to share her own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates her to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.