“Emotional sobriety” is a term in recovery described as the ability to face and deal with unhealthy emotions neglected during active addiction. These feelings may act as triggers for relapse, so managing them is vital for sustaining long-lasting sobriety.
The Concept of Emotional Sobriety
Emotional sobriety is a concept that began with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the most well-known support group program for persons who suffer from alcoholism. People who participate in AA work through twelve steps that help them attain long-term abstinence.
The last step urges participants to spread the message of Alcoholics Anonymous to others while also following the steps daily and practicing its principles in every aspect of their lives.
The first paragraph states as follows:
“Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety.”
Importantly, emotional sobriety is not limited to AA and can help anyone struggling with substance abuse.
Beyond Physical Sobriety
Before modern, research-based treatments were developed and widely adopted, AA’s founders recognized that cessation of substance use and relapse prevention, while essential for recovery, was not sufficient for those with addictions. They believed it was crucial to address the unhealthy thoughts and feelings that were repressed and neglected during substance abuse. Only when these are confronted and managed can an individual say they have genuinely achieved sobriety on both a mental and physical level.
Among the most important reasons to confront unhealthy emotions and learn to deal with them properly is to prevent relapse. Negative thoughts and feelings are major triggers for substance use, and if they are not managed constructively, relapse may be imminent. The less obvious but equally valuable reason to strive for emotional sobriety is that it promotes overall mental wellness and improved quality of life.
Emotional sobriety is a somewhat complicated idea and not exactly easy to explain fully. In general, however, it is characterized by the ability to experience, confront, and accept all emotions, including ones that are particularly painful. To do this does not mean that one must adopt a panglossian attitude, especially in the face of extreme hardship or adversity. Being positive realistically—not excessively optimistic—should be the goal.
Instead, achieving emotional sobriety requires an individual to foster a healthy relationship with one’s own emotions—both positive and negative—and employ healthy strategies to cope with them. This process can be lengthy and sometimes challenging to navigate.
On Achieving Emotional Sobriety
How an individual works toward achieving emotional sobriety is going to be unique to each person. Some approaches are more beneficial for certain people than others, and the time it takes to effectively manage emotions may vary depending on the person and their circumstances.
Currently, comprehensive addiction treatment programs include several strategies for assisting individuals in learning to deal with their thoughts and feelings and develop emotional sobriety gradually over time. There are also some techniques that anyone may use to establish improved, albeit not always perfect, emotional balance.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), focus on practical strategies that can be learned and performed daily. These techniques help people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the present and change or manage those that are unhealthy. Such therapies provide tools that can be used in everyday situations outside of therapy to confront and cope with negative feelings more constructively.
Research suggests that those with healthy emotional coping tools commonly use a reappraisal strategy to confront mild-moderately negative emotions. Moreover, these individuals face their feelings, rather than avoid them, and positively reframe them. For example, a person experiencing fear over an upcoming job interview will identify the anxiety and lessen it by instead focusing on the positive potential outcomes of being hired.
Becoming emotionally healthy includes being aware of feelings as they are experienced and not dwelling too much on the past or future. This practice is also known as being mindful. Mindfulness can be effectively practiced using time-tested techniques such as meditation and yoga.
Having a supportive social network to lean on is another effective way to control adverse thoughts and feelings. Engagement in conversations with a trusted person is an essential factor in confronting and dealing with problematic emotions. An individual does not have to possess many social connections, but they need to be significant and meaningful rather than superficial or shallow.
For example, AA members are encouraged to find sponsors—senior members who have been sober for an extended period—within their fellowship. Sponsors have already achieved emotional sobriety and understand how to do so. They can offer advice and help others find constructive ways of working through their emotional issues.
Resolving Problems With Loved Ones
Another objective of emotional sobriety should be to attempt to mend relationships with loved ones that have been damaged. In some cases, scars from previous relationship conflicts may have contributed to a person’s vulnerability to addiction, and in other cases, it may have been the result of it. It may not be possible to fix all relationships, but making amends whenever possible can help all parties deal with the negative emotions associated with them.
A Different Perspective
One study that examined this subject found that reappraisal techniques could indeed be effective coping mechanisms. However, this was usually only applicable in a situation when emotions were mildly unpleasant. Subjects tended to avoid or repress particularly painful emotions, suggesting that perhaps some emotional disengagement may be beneficial. This may be especially true for those who have experienced trauma or extreme mental illness, such as deep depression.
Moreover, this finding suggests that is may okay for people new to recovery to repress or sidestep some feelings as they are making their way through uncharted emotional territory. Over time, the person may or may not get around to dealing with the worst of these. Still, they should indeed learn to cope with normal daily stresses and moderately intense emotions and do the best they can to manage them using whatever therapeutic techniques they find helpful.
In working toward emotional sobriety, people should, ideally, begin to allow themselves to re-experience some trauma, and in doing so, are better equipped to resolve them. That said, as noted, this may not be beneficial for everyone regarding every painful experience. Sometimes we have to simply do our best, trust our instincts, and deal with things in due time—however long that takes.
Getting Help for Addiction
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer integrated, evidence-based addiction treatment programs. We provide those we treat with the tools, resources, and support they need to stop abusing substances and begin to experience long-lasting wellness and sobriety.
We employ caring medical and mental health staff who are highly skilled in the field of addiction. Using a combination of behavioral therapy, counseling, and group support, we teach patients how to achieve emotional sobriety, prevent relapse, and improve their mental health and overall well-being.
Contact us today to discuss treatment options and learn how we help those who need it most reclaim the healthy and fulfilling lives they deserve!