Additional authors: Erica Lee and Kelly McClanahan
If you’ve ever struggled with intense negative emotions, you probably value emotional stability. Not being able to manage your emotions can really put a damper on life and cause problems at home, work, and, well, just about anywhere.
For those who are recovering from an addiction, whether it be alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, or what have you, emotions are often at the heart of the matter. Often it is a person's inability to regulate strong emotions (both positive and negative) that underlies their desire to use alcohol, drugs, or other substances. Therefore, for people in recovery, the concept of 'emotional sobriety' is a critical step in healing.
Emotional sobriety goes beyond abstaining from one's substance of choice and becomes about one's ability to manage emotions. Emotional sobriety gives people a way of experiencing their feelings and, therefore, can offer more freedom and happiness than abstaining alone.
What is Emotional Sobriety?
What exactly is emotional sobriety? First introduced in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the concept of emotional sobriety has become a cornerstone of the addiction recovery process and is spoken about throughout the recovery community (not just in AA). It is a stage in one's recovery when you move beyond abstinence and address the feelings that may have been underlying your desire to drink or use drugs in the first place. It is a state of maturity characterized by an ability to regulate your emotions in a positive way.
From the time we are very young, we begin maturing emotionally as well as physically. As people grow into adolescents and then adults, many start using alcohol or drugs in a recreational way. While it may start out as a bit of fun, the numbing effect of alcohol and drugs can quickly become an alluring and socially acceptable way of cushioning ourselves from unpleasant feelings such as frustration, overwhelm, anxiety, sadness, or anger. When young people begin using substances (usually subconsciously) to soften their feelings, the process of maturing emotionally is slowed or paused, often until the person stops using.
If you see yourself in these descriptions, fret not; healing and exciting new ways of living are well within your reach. Emotional sobriety occurs when you decide your emotional health can be better, and you embark on a growth journey to learn how to contend with your feelings. Emotional sobriety means letting go of immature ways of dealing with life, such as numbing out with alcohol or drugs, and other behaviors like pouting, screaming or shutting down.
Instead, emotionally sober individuals learn how to sit with their feelings, process them, and then let them go. Rather than becoming victims of their emotions, emotionally sober people take their power back and learn to feel their feelings.
How to Develop Emotional Sobriety
Here are some ways to move toward emotional sobriety:
Mindful Meditation: The average person will have about 6,200 thoughts a day, research suggests. That's relevant because our thoughts are the genesis of our emotions. Meditation is a practice wherein you can use a technique such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on the breath, to achieve calm and gain control over your thought life.
Regularly practicing mindful meditation can help you become good at feeling your emotions, processing them, and then letting them go. To be mindful means to be aware of the present moment; to keep in mind what is going on in each moment as it arrives. As you begin to practice meditation and mindfulness, you will start to view your thoughts and emotions as separate from you. You are not your emotions, nor your thoughts. As you become aware of this separateness between you and your feelings, you become able to manage strong feelings such as anger, sadness, anxiety, shame, and fear more easily.
Journal: Begin journaling about your life and your emotions. As you write down how you’re feeling, you release pent-up energy. Releasing this energy brings a sense of relief and also moves you toward emotional sobriety. There is no right or wrong way to journal; do what feels right for you.
Get Counseling: Processing your emotional life with a trained counselor is a great way to bounce ideas off of someone who understands how emotions work and who can help you learn how to manage them. Sometimes people need help to learn how to experience their feelings without becoming overwhelmed, and a trained counselor or therapist can help with this.
Have a Handful of Tools in Your Emotional Wellness Toolbox: Whether in counseling or on your own (or both), learn some coping skills that you can throw in your toolbox to use as life throws you curve balls. Maybe you need some help communicating your feelings to others in a healthy way. Read up on the topic. Ask others for their suggestions. Attend therapy to learn new communication skills. There are plenty of tools and techniques available to help you become emotionally sober.
Hang Out With Positive People: Your friends and associates do influence you, so be sure to have a positive, supportive, sober network that you hang out with. Spending time with positive people can inspire and motivate you greatly. You might even want a mentor to be accountable to and to learn valuable tools from.
A Word About Emotional Sobriety in Early Recovery
"Early recovery" is generally understood as the first 90 days to a year of sobriety, a time when abstaining can be hardest. In early recovery, emotional sobriety may not be the number one goal. After all, "first things first," as the AA motto goes. While emotional sobriety should be the primary goal of long term addiction recovery, one does first need to give up the substance that has been blocking their emotional development in the first place. Therefore in early recovery, some would say that abstaining is the only goal. There are other tricks and techniques outside of emotional work that people use to abstain from alcohol or drugs. Distracting yourself with new hobbies, for instance, is a powerful way to avoid drinking in the early days of recovery.
Eventually as one moves into the middle and later stages of recovery, abstinence alone can lead to what those in recovery refer to as "white-knuckling," when you rely on your willpower alone to stay sober. This can be an uncomfortable way to live. Eventually, doing the emotional work and attaining emotional sobriety will make your sobriety more sustainable and open your life to new happiness.
How to Start Finding Emotional Balance
Feelings are especially rampant in early recovery when you can experience general free-floating anxiety about what will come, what has happened during active addiction, and what will happen as a result of these situations. The feelings you experience during recovery can also involve:
It may seem that all of your emotions are present at once, making themselves known in different ways. Sleeplessness and tension may manifest because medication's calming influence is eliminated in recovery. So how does one get through the emotional roller coaster that is part and parcel of early recovery?
Stop Running from Your Feelings: An Essential Step in Developing Emotional Sobriety
Learning to identify and talk about your feelings is the first step toward living with them. You may have found it necessary to subdue your feelings with alcohol or drugs in the past. Talk therapy (even with an understanding and compassionate friend) is the beginning of welcoming feelings back into your experience. There is tremendous freedom in admitting that feelings are new to you and uncomfortable, even pleasurable ones. Learning to identify what is being felt can be an empowering and exciting new way of beginning.
Common sayings in recovery settings, such as "feelings are not facts," indicate the need for allowing feelings to come up and through our experience. But feelings don't need to dictate how you behave or respond. They come and they go if you allow them to. When we ignore or deny our feelings, they tend to build up inside until we are forced to acknowledge that we feel something.
How to Be With Difficult Emotions: Start Small
Begin with the most prevalent of your feelings. Identify one or two, such as anger and fear. You could say to yourself, "I am feeling anger right now. I am not sure what to do about it, but I will allow it to be my feeling right now. I am also feeling afraid. I am going to talk to someone about this feeling. Perhaps they can help me get through them."
This is the tiniest of beginnings but will make a huge difference in your life, as you learn to look at your feelings and hold them as not being a part of you. You are not your angry feelings, nor are you those feelings of fear. They are just feelings, not a piece of your identity. The chances are good they will pass after acknowledging and feeling them.
Getting a Handle on Emotions: When to Seek Professional Help
Sometimes self-treatment alone isn't sufficient to recover emotionally. In these cases, professional counseling can help you understand yourself better and develop emotional clarity. While a stigma still surrounds mental health treatment, it has never been less so, and mental health awareness has never been higher.
As more people become comfortable investigating their minds and emotions, the stigma will become less, and society as a whole will become empathetic and aware.
It can be difficult to decide when to go to therapy. Signs of emotional distress are not always easy to identify. Can you differentiate fleeting feelings of anxiousness from a general anxiety disorder? How does one separate sadness and depression? How long can one let emotional, physical, and behavioral signs of mental strife manifest before deciding it’s time to seek help?
Here are some signs that professional help may be beneficial:
Sadness and Anger: Emotional and mental signs that professional counseling might be beneficial include experiencing unusually intense and fervent feelings. Among these feelings are sadness and anger—the latter associated with heightened irritability or a short fuse. Interestingly, the opposite—emotional numbness—can trickle into an unusual indifference toward activities that used to be enjoyable and fulfilling. Emotional numbness is often considered a sign of depression—which definitely warrants a check-in with a therapist. Other signs that professional help may be beneficial are feeling obsessive, forgetful, and/or helpless.
Physical Signs: There are also physical signs that can signal mental health in need of healing. Some of these are headaches, stomach aches, and a run-down immune system. Sleep anomalies—oversleeping or difficulty falling/staying asleep—are also common, as are chronic fatigue and dramatic weight change (loss or gain). The key commonality between all these physical signs—they are recurrent, unusual for the person experiencing them, and their cause is unknown.
Behavior Patterns: Changes in behavior patterns often emerge as a way to manage symptoms of emotional anguish. One such pattern is abusive behavior, be it with a substance (drugs/alcohol), person (family/friends), or activity (like sex). This means that the sufferer is subconsciously seeking extra support—which is another behavior pattern that can develop along with emotional distress. Someone experiencing emotional distress might suddenly avoid social situations, start acting impulsively, begin obsessively critiquing themselves, start receiving poor feedback at work, or start taking responsibility for other people’s problems. Like both the emotional and physical signs, the behavior patterns that coincide with serious emotional trouble are typically new and unusual for the person experiencing them.
External Forces: While it is not always the case, external forces and events can cause mental health crises. Oftentimes, these events are significant hardships—deaths, breakups, separations, divorces, and so on. Any of the aforementioned events can be traumatic for the person experiencing them. It is important to pay attention to your body and mind if you have recently experienced significant hardship in order to discover if your trauma leaves a trail of negative effects.
Emotional Sobriety: There is Hope
Working toward emotional sobriety is a worthwhile endeavor, so if you feel like your emotional life is less than ideal, keep in mind that there is hope. You can begin working toward emotional wholeness and sobriety today. You do not have to struggle emotionally any longer. Take these tips into consideration and take some steps forward to begin your emotional sobriety journey.