When you think about the word “sobriety,” what comes to mind? For many people, the concept of sobriety is firmly planted in visions of a life free from substance abuse. However, this impression only addresses one aspect of sobriety, physical sobriety, where the body is rid of substances and the physiological effects of drugs and alcohol use. But, in order to remain sober, a person must also address the emotional and psychological elements of addiction that can lead to cravings and relapse. This second aspect, emotional sobriety, is an important and often overlooked part of recovery, and includes coping skills to maintain sobriety.
Numbing the Pain with Substances
Many people who abuse alcohol or other drugs do so in order to disconnect from experiences and emotions that overwhelm them. They often do not possess the tools to regulate emotions that come up in various situations. Alcohol and drugs serve to numb users and help them avoid emotional pain. Substance abuse may initially provide escape from discomfort; however, when emotions are continuously avoided or suppressed they can worsen over time, eventually negating the relief originally provided by substance abuse. And the fact that tolerance builds and drugs or alcohol are no longer able to relieve pain can lead to an increase in substance use. Prolonged substance abuse can lead to addiction and medical and mental health problems, and may conceal issues that require treatment.
Coping With Life
Unlike numbing which suppresses or ignores emotion, coping skills help people manage feelings so they can handle life challenges. Coping can be difficult for people who are used to using alcohol and drugs to numb their emotions. People are required, maybe for the first time, to be present in the moment, feel their emotions and then deal with them in a healthy manner. Generally, emotions fall into one of four categories:
- Usually positive thoughts about something gained, feeling peaceful or smiling.
- Usually accompanied by crying, thoughts of loss or negative past experiences, and feeling tired.
- Usually with muscle tension, increased heart rate, and feelings that you or your principles have been attacked.
- Usually accompanied by feelings of fear that things will go wrong in a specific situation or the future in general. Anxiety also manifests physically in muscle tension and elevated heart rate.
Mental health practitioners propose three initial steps in order to effectively cope with emotions:
- Identify which emotion you are feeling.
- Identify the message that emotion is sending.
- What has been gained?
- What has been lost?
- How was I attacked?
- What am I afraid of?
- Determine if there is any action you can take to remedy the situation, and if so, devise a plan to solve the problem. And if not, find a way to accept the emotion, cope with it and move beyond it.
Emotional sobriety focuses on coping mechanisms and teaching substance abusers new ways to think about and control their emotional responses to experiences so they can stay drug-free long term. People who are able to put new coping skills into action and attain emotional sobriety generally have better recovery outcomes. Sources: The Nuts and Bolts of Emotional Sobriety: When to engage with negative feelings and when to ignore them “To Numb Out and Start to Feel Nothing”: Experiences of Stress Among Crack-Cocaine Using Women in a Midwestern City