When defining recovery from substance abuse or addiction, it is natural that you would think about sobriety. Getting sober and staying sober, which usually means abstinence from drugs and alcohol, are the obvious goals for anyone in recovery.
In the early stages of recovery, detoxification and breaking the grip of the abused substance necessarily takes priority. But some feel that focusing on the initial challenges of “putting the plug in the jug,” so to speak, may overshadow another essential aspect of the recovery process, namely, emotional sobriety.
Some addiction experts point out that a lack of emotional maturity may actually be one of the major causes of relapse. If emotional dependency is not properly addressed, it may hinder the ability to live productive, satisfying lives free from substance abuse.
The process of achieving physical sobriety is not an easy task, but the desired goal is fairly straightforward: giving up drugs and/or alcohol. Emotional sobriety is more difficult to define and harder to achieve.
Emotional sobriety refers to regaining the ability to feel and cope with emotions, particularly those attached to using drugs and alcohol. Being emotionally sober involves being aware of your emotions, the good and the bad, and allowing yourself to feel them.
Many in recovery are good at ignoring their feelings and covering them up with drugs or alcohol. But true, lasting sobriety requires that you acknowledge your emotions, even when they are terrible.
The goal of emotional sobriety is to enable you to handle a whole range of feelings in a positive way, without turning to substance abuse as a method to cope. It means achieving emotional balance and being able to remain calm and steady in the face of difficult times.
This doesn’t imply that an emotionally sober person will always be happy or joyful, but they will no longer be victims of their own emotions. Emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling ("good" or "bad") and more about the general ability to feel one's feelings or to tolerate what you are feeling, even if it is negative or unpleasant.
For many working toward recovery, detoxing often seems like the most difficult step in reaching sobriety. However, the real challenges come later when trying to stay clean. Since the future success of recovery hangs in the balance, working to achieve emotional sobriety is of the utmost importance.
Temptations will come, along with cravings that put you to the test; they are part of a lifelong battle. Without the emotional stability or maturity to handle such situations, even if you achieve physical sobriety, you will most likely relapse again and again. Emotional sobriety is the key to lasting physical sobriety.
As one psychological expert described it, the nuts and bolts of long-term emotional sobriety involve at least two types of emotional regulation. The first is “unthinking,” which is emotional distraction or disengagement from the thoughts of drugs or alcohol and the anxiety of cravings. The second is a slow, steady “rethinking” of all the people, places and things that once did—and may again—cause an imbalance.
Even if your therapist or facility doesn’t use the term “emotional sobriety,” the concept will be a part of any effective addiction treatment plan. Trained therapists will be able to teach you how to recognize, acknowledge and express your emotions and how respond to them in a mature and appropriate way.
Your recovery program also will help you develop strategies and activities that you can use in place of substance abuse. When certain emotions trigger a desire to turn to drugs or alcohol, you need other options ready to go, and working to achieve emotional sobriety provides those options.
Physical sobriety is a huge and important aspect of recovery, but it’s only the beginning. Emotional sobriety makes up the real bulk of the work you will do in rehab and afterward, as you learn to feel and manage your emotions, instead of running from them.