Addiction recovery requires much more than staying sober from drugs or alcohol. Substance use disorder is a complex mental health condition that affects your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. To fully recover, you must work through the underlying emotional issues that led to the substance use. Emotional sobriety is a key part of the recovery journey. If you or a loved one is in recovery from addiction, you should understand what emotional sobriety is, why it matters, and how you can achieve it.
What Is Emotional Sobriety?
Emotional sobriety in addiction recovery is the ability to cope with the emotions you once tried to numb with substances. This concept originated with the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, but it is widely acknowledged by many addiction specialists today.
Most people who struggle with addiction start using substances as a way to cope with emotional distress. However, numbing the emotion doesn’t truly get rid of it for good. Learning to acknowledge, accept, and process emotions is an important step in the recovery process. Becoming emotionally sober involves accepting the present, treating your struggles as opportunities for learning and growth, and not ruminating or dwelling on the past.
This does not mean that you’re expected to be happy and optimistic all the time, though. Feeling a wide range of emotions is normal, especially in addiction recovery as you work through the traumas or struggles that led to your addiction. When you achieve emotional sobriety, you allow yourself to sit with both positive and negative emotions without allowing the feelings to control you.
The Link Between Emotion and Addiction
Emotional problems and addiction are closely linked, so emotional management is an essential skill for maintaining recovery. For some people, addiction leads to difficulty processing and accepting feelings. Because they’re so used to using substances as a distraction, they forget how to cope with their negative feelings in a healthy way. If their addictive behaviors or other unhealthy coping skills started at a young age, they may never have learned how to handle emotional situations.
Addiction can lead to the following emotional problems:
- Acting impulsively when feeling a strong emotion
- Inability to self-regulate
- Inability to adapt when unexpected situations occur
- Struggling to connect with others on a deep level
- Pessimistic worldview
For many people with addiction, emotional problems are the root issue, and the substance use is the result. This is a common issue for people who experienced early childhood trauma.
Learning to manage emotion is an important part of development at a young age. Children get their understanding of the world from their surroundings, so they learn behaviors based on what they see. Traumatic experiences can stunt emotional development, especially when those experiences prevent children from observing and learning healthy life skills.
When a child doesn’t learn emotional management skills from their parents or the other important figures in their life, they may turn to unhealthy solutions instead. Unfortunately, the momentary relief these unhealthy coping mechanisms provide has a powerful effect on the brain. The more often kids engage in these behaviors, the more ingrained they become.
As these children become teenagers and adults, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to continue to escape from their stress or trauma. Many adults who had traumatic childhood experiences have a long history of addiction because they never learned another way to deal with hard situations.
Why Emotional Sobriety Is Important
In order to achieve full recovery, you must accomplish emotional sobriety. Staying sober without doing the emotional work is extremely difficult.
Almost everyone with an addiction started using substances as a way of coping with trauma, stress, or mental health problems. People with a history of trauma often feel stuck in the past, and processing the traumatic experiences and associated emotions is critical. This is the only way to truly break the habit of turning to substances to numb pain.
The recovery process requires more than just quitting substance use. Stressful situations and emotional difficulties are a part of life, and there is a high risk of relapse if you don’t have the skills to handle these challenges.
Emotional sobriety also improves your overall quality of life. This is an important skill for everyone, not just those in addiction recovery. Becoming emotionally sober helps you manage the tough experiences that come your way without feeling overwhelmed.
Steps to Achieving Emotional Sobriety
Emotional sobriety is not a skill you can learn overnight. Like the other facets of recovery, this is something that develops over time.
Everyone’s recovery experience is different, so your steps to emotional management may not look the same as someone else’s.
Some of the most popular practices that can help you establish emotional sobriety in recovery include the following:
Mindfulness is the practice of remaining in the present moment and acknowledging your current feelings without judgment. Research shows that mindfulness can help with self-regulation during recovery, which is the foundation of emotional sobriety.
Journaling is a great way to call your attention to your thoughts and feelings and find clarity. Some people enjoy recording the events of the day and how they felt, and others prefer more structured forms of writing, such as gratitude journaling or goal-focused journaling.
While you shouldn’t engage in hobbies to distract yourself from your feelings, it can be helpful to find meaningful activities that help you manage stress and stay active.
Diet and Exercise
Your physical health and mental health are closely intertwined. Following a healthy diet and exercising regularly can decrease stress, improve your mood, and strengthen your overall mental well-being.
Working with a therapist during recovery is very important. It’s difficult to process trauma alone, and a licensed therapist can provide you with tools and resources for a successful recovery.
Therapy for Emotional Sobriety in Recovery
Therapists can use a variety of different approaches to help people work through their emotions in recovery. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy helps you understand the link between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so that you can reassess negative or unhelpful beliefs. Therapists can also help you work on reappraisal and reframing, which are skills that empower you to recognize and change negative thought patterns.
Recovery from addiction takes time and effort, but if you put in the work, you can become sober and face your emotional challenges head-on. Emotional sobriety is one of the most valuable skills you can develop to maintain your recovery, manage stress and trauma, and strengthen your mental health.
You shouldn’t have to recover from a substance use disorder alone. Dr. Howard Samuels is a licensed therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in addiction treatment. If you’re looking for support during your recovery, reach out to Dr. Samuels today.