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Emotional Sobriety: What It is and Why It is Important

In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using an illicit drug in the prior month.1 In 2009, there were 23.6 million people living with alcoholism or drug addiction in the U.S., and of those, only 10% received treatment at a rehab facility.2 For people recovering from addictions and those just contemplating seeking professional help, sobriety is typically the foremost goal. Everyone in recovery hopes to attain and maintain sobriety, which usually means complete drug and alcohol abstinence. Unfortunately, some people with addictions focus too much on this singular goal and forget about emotional sobriety, which enables one to live a substance abuse-free life that is productive and satisfying.

What Is Emotional Sobriety?

Emotional sobriety is a term that describes the more complex transformation a recovering addict makes beyond attaining physical sobriety. The latter refers to giving up drugs and alcohol, a highly challenging yet fairly straightforward pursuit. Achieving emotional sobriety is more complex because it involves the ability to feel and cope with emotions, particularly those attached to drug and alcohol use. As a defense mechanism, every human being is susceptible to an unconscious drive to protect themselves from painful realities.3 The difference between the general population and addicts is that the latter are very good at ignoring their feelings by masking them with drugs or alcohol. Being emotionally sober means getting in touch with your emotions, whether positive or negative, and allowing yourself to feel them.

The Importance of Emotional Sobriety

The importance of working toward and achieving emotional sobriety cannot be overstated. Initially, addicts in recovery may feel that detoxing is the most difficult step in getting clean. However, avoiding temptations and refusing to give in to cravings is an arduous, lifelong battle. There may be the temptation to use spiritual bypass — though this is actually a barrier because it acts as a crutch between a person and their emotions. The concept involves an individual wearing a “mask” or embracing a false spiritual self that represses aspects of their true self. Instead of bolstering humility, spiritual bypass reinforces defense mechanisms, thereby encouraging avoidance instead of acceptance.3

Achieving Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety should be an integral part of all addiction treatment plans. Some therapists and/or rehab facilities may refer to this as emotional rehab or another term. Regardless of the term used, it is key to work toward this goal in therapy. Emotional treatment centers focus on helping clients be present in the moment, whatever that looks like – good or bad. Most people in recovery want the ability to access all of their feelings. Being fully cognizant of reality enables choices, and it is choices that propel people toward finding their authentic self and achieving a fulfilling sober life.3

Emotional sobriety means something a little different to every person in recovery, however, it generally comes down to maintaining a healthy emotional balance. It means accepting reality as it is today, in the moment, and not dwelling on past regrets or future wishes. Achieving this involves learning how to leverage proper mechanisms to deal with emotions in a healthy way.4

If you achieve physical sobriety but never work on taking control of your emotions, it is likely that you will relapse. Coming to terms with the fact that addiction recovery is a lifelong process can help put things in perspective. Although there may be a step backward now and then, stick to the goal of living in the present and being in control of your emotions. Give yourself permission to experience all of your feelings without surgical precision. It is human nature to feel disparate emotions simultaneously. However, be aware that major ups and downs could signal a co-occurring mental health issue such as bipolar disorder.

If you have been through rehab, are contemplating rehab or struggling with daily temptations after recovery, seek professional help as soon as possible.

  1. Drug Facts: Nationwide Trends. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/nationwide-trends Updated June 2015. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  2. Drug Facts: Treatment Statistics. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-statistics Updated March 2011. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  3. What Is Emotional Sobriety? Psychology Today website. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-sobriety/201107/what-is-emotional-sobriety Published July 21, 2011. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  4. What Is Emotional Sobriety And Why Does It Matter? The Fix website. https://www.thefix.com/what-emotional-sobriety-and-why-does-it-matter Published March 11, 2016. Accessed July 22, 2016.

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