There’s physical sobriety and there’s emotional sobriety. Physical sobriety is simple enough. It means you aren’t drinking or using. Emotional sobriety involves addressing the deeper reasons you drank or use. When we drank or used, we were largely trying to drown out our negative emotions and avoid feeling our feelings. But it was just that, avoidance. The negative feelings and deeper reasons for use were still there, and when we lose our main coping method, that can be emotionally jarring.
I remember the roller coaster of emotions of my early sobriety. Well, maybe “roller coaster” isn’t the best word, because roller coasters are actually fun. This felt more like bungee jumping into a giant grove of poison ivy. Luckily, through working the program I have been able to get emotional sobriety.
You can get emotional sobriety too, as you might have figured out by now, in this article, we’re going to discuss emotional sobriety and how you can achieve it.
What is Emotional Sobriety?
Put simply, emotional sobriety means that you are comfortable being present with all of your feelings (good or bad) without any one of them defining or controlling you. When you take away the drugs and alcohol, the underlying issues that lead you to drink/use don’t go away, they’re still very much present.
Emotional sobriety allows you to acknowledge those feelings and face them head-on, so they don’t define what you do and who you are. Having negative emotions while in recovery is absolutely okay. You’re going to have negative emotions sometimes because you’re human. The real sign of emotional sobriety is building healthy ways to handle negative emotions.
Why is Emotional Sobriety So Important to Recovery?
As mentioned above, there was more to our drinking/using than just the drinking and using. When we drank or used, we were not handling negative emotions in a healthy way, we were simply trying to drown them out. Gaining emotional sobriety helps you handle emotions in a healthy matter as opposed to drowning all of them in a pool of drugs/alcohol.
Think of it like added layers of protection from the first drink. A common refrain is that while we are sober, our disease is out in the parking lot doing push-ups, just waiting for the opportunity to pounce. A better metaphor might be that there is a full outdoor gym, and our disease is constantly lifting and getting bigger, stronger and working more muscles than push-ups alone work on, but you get my point. Our addiction is just waiting for an opportunity to break-in and get us. Emotional sobriety is another layer of protection from our built-like-an-NFL-linebacker addiction.
How to Practice Emotional Sobriety
There are many ways you can practice emotional sobriety throughout recovery (or, I guess you could say, you can practice these principles in all your affairs).
There’s a reason “dual-diagnosis” is a common thing in recovery. As mentioned above, oftentimes addiction is driven by several deeper, negative feelings and emotions, which can be caused by mental illness. This can require seeing a therapist to work through underlying mental issues. You should take care of an illness in your brain the same way you would take care of an illness in your lungs, stomach, kidneys, etc. It should be taken care of by seeking the help of a professional.
A few resources for finding a therapist are:
When we say “meditation”, we don’t mean traveling to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan and sitting in the lotus position (though you can do that if you want to and can afford it). Mindfulness Meditation in this sense simply means sitting quietly and being extremely present in the moment. You can do it alone or use a guided meditation.
Keep track of the way you’re feeling on a day-by-day basis, get thoughts out of your head and onto paper, or keep a daily list of gratitude. Journaling can be a good way to do all three of those things I mentioned in the previous sentence
Acknowledging how your health (diet, exercise, and sleep habits) affect your mood
Mental and physical health are often connected. Diet, exercise and sleep habits have a massive impact on your mood on a day-by-day basis. Eating a healthier diet, getting exercise and making sure you get enough sleep can do wonders for your energy and your attitude. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to become vegan and train for a marathon. Small moderate steps are key (which, yes, that’s a foreign concept for most addicts and alcoholics).
In general, try to limit the number of fried foods you eat, try to eat less sugary foods, and make sure you have a balanced diet. At the same time, try to get some level of exercise every day, be it walking, running, swimming, weightlifting, biking, hiking, climbing Mt Hood (okay that one probably can’t be done every day), etc. Even the little things, like walking a little more, can have great dividends.
Building Emotionally Honest Relationships
If you’re an addict or alcoholic, then there’s a good chance you’ve either had some unhealthy friendships, lied in a relationship, or both. When you’re in recovery, you can build healthier relationships based on trust and you know, actually liking each other while sober.
This doesn’t mean you have to go to Rishikesh in India or go to Mt Athos to become an Orthodox monk (if you’re male) or go to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan.
Spirituality simply means that you are reaching out to something bigger than yourself. That can be anything, be it nature, the universe, one of the major world religion deities, G.O.D. (Group of Drunks), Odin, etc. As long is it’s bigger than you, it can be a higher power and can constitute spirituality.
Finding Meaningful Hobbies
Find healthy hobbies that make you feel fulfilled. This can mean a million things for a million different people, and can be anything from painting, to writing, to hiking, to mountain climbing, etc.
What is an Emotional Relapse?
Emotional relapse doesn’t mean that you picked up and used again, though it could lead to it. Emotional relapse simply means you are going back into old behaviors that may have led you to use in the past. This can include being dominated by your anger for someone, stewing over multiple resentments, lying to your friends or family about trivial things, etc. While it’s obviously not as bad as a physical relapse, it’s a dangerous place for an alcoholic/addict to be.
How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety
Attitude of Gratitude
Think of the things that you are grateful for. One of the most common ways to do this is to make a gratitude list. The list is exactly what it sounds like, a short list of things that you are grateful for. Oftentimes sponsors will assign this to their sponsees, and with good reason.
Live in the Moment, Not in the Past or Future
What am I going to do with my life? How will I stay sober through personal tragedies? Am I ever going to have my dream job?
Why did I say that to him? Why didn’t I get a different degree in college? Why did I betray so many people in the midst of my addiction? Why would President James A. Garfield’s doctors refuse to believe in germ theory and dig for a bullet with un-sanitized hands after he was shot by a crazy person who was angry because he didn’t get chosen as ambassador to France?
Here’s the thing about tripping out over the past: backwards time travel is impossible, so there’s nothing you can do to change what happened in the past. You can’t go back in time to take back the embarrassing things you said/did in the midst of your addiction, try to save relationships you ruined, go to a high school prom in the 1950s and invent Johnny B Goode, or murder your grandfather before your father was conceived in an attempt to create a paradox.
As far as future-tripping: you don’t know what’s going to happen years down the line. All you can do is take day-by-day steps to reach major goals.
Check-in With Your Feelings
Unsurprisingly, emotional sobriety involves being aware of and acknowledging your feelings and emotions. This involves asking yourself:
“What am I feeling right now?”
“Can I be present to all of my feelings without any one of them defining me?”
“Have I been suffering from extreme emotions lately?”
OTR Can Help
Oregon Trail Recovery can give you a good foothold in sobriety and help you start a journey towards emotional and physical sobriety. Our programs not only give you access to trained counselors and housing, they also help you build a sober community around yourself and help you learn to live life sober and free.