When we talk about sobriety, we’re often referring to physical sobriety, the process by which a person stops using certain addictive substances like alcohol or drugs. But part of the process that’s just as important is often overlooked: Emotional sobriety.
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Emotional sobriety is a core part of 12-step programs and is closely intertwined with physical sobriety: To be successful with one, you have to be successful with the other. But it’s also a complex process that requires help and a lot of work.
To better understand emotional sobriety and its process, we spoke to psychiatrist Akhil Anand, MD, and addiction and substance abuse counselor Amy Fry, LISW.
What is emotional sobriety?
Emotional sobriety, says Dr. Anand, is partly about being emotionally healthy enough to deal with the normal shifting emotions of life. “Emotional sobriety is about freeing yourself from being controlled by your emotional state — no matter how happy or sad you get, you’re able to cope. You will be able to cope with life on life’s terms,” he says. “If a person is struggling with addiction, they will misuse whatever harmful drug or behavior of habit to cope with whatever life brings them.”
It’s a deeper level of work that goes beyond just removing the substances from the equation. “When we look at emotional sobriety, we’re looking at emotional identification, emotional regulation and regulating behaviors related to emotions,” says Fry.
And it’s that regulating behavior tied to emotions that’s such an important step even after becoming physically sober. Dr. Anand points out that there’s something of a phenomenon called “dry drunk,” in which a person is physically sober (or “dry”), but they’ve yet to come to embrace their emotions without substances.
“It can show itself in not embracing that change, in not making improvements to one’s self and even just being angry,” he says. These complex issues make seeking out strategies to embrace emotional sobriety all the more important as someone goes through the sobriety process.
How to practice and achieve emotional sobriety
Approaching emotional sobriety can be incredibly difficult because it’s such a complex process. “It goes beyond simply removing substances,” explains Fry. “It’s asking yourself, ‘How do I live a happier life? How do I make that happen?’”
Be physically sober
Both Dr. Anand and Fry agree that being physically sober is an essential part of emotional sobriety. “A person has to be physically sober, not drinking,” says Dr. Anand. “And they have to accept that they can’t go back to those substances so they can work on themselves.”
“Alcohol is a numbing agent for those emotions,” adds Fry. “If I’m numbing those emotions, I can’t recognize them, I can’t nurture and take care of those feelings in myself the way I need to.”
She adds that just because a substance is removed from your life, success isn’t ensured. “Just because you eliminated a substance from your life doesn’t mean life is going to suddenly become wonderful. Other work needs to be done internally for that to happen.”
Recognize and accept emotions
A big part of emotional sobriety, says Fry, is learning to recognize your emotions. “If I feel angry or anxious, how do I manage that in a healthy way? How do I behave in a healthy way? Those feelings have to be recognized and those questions have to be asked.”
If someone in recovery gets angry, their first sense may be to lash out. But Fry says it’s important for those facing this challenge to learn to slow down for a moment, to pause and reflect on how to better respond. “You ask yourself how you can slow things down and respond in a healthier way for everyone involved.”
She continues, “Managing those feelings and how you respond might mean looking into mindfulness or meditation. Maybe you can look into breathing techniques that give you time to slow down, calm down and respond to them instead of reacting.”
Dr. Anand seconds the idea, saying, “Mindfulness is a great tool because that’s living in the present, accepting everything that happens in the moment.”
For some people, learning to handle your emotions can be really hard. “They may think they know everything, but once they dig deeper, they realize that their emotional development stopped somewhere,” says Dr. Anand. “Some emotional skeletons can come out and it can be a difficult experience. But it’s also therapeutic and can also help bring about the ‘psychic change’ that’s talked about in 12-step programs.”
Join therapy or a support group
Therapy is another large component of emotional sobriety, notes Dr. Anand. “Whether it’s individual therapy or group therapy, having that support in recovery is very important.”
Support doesn’t necessarily always have to come in the form of a professional, he adds. “It can be a sponsor or it can be anyone who’s gone through similar addiction experiences and can offer support and advice.”
Fry adds that it’s important for those trying to achieve emotional sobriety that it’s OK if you don’t rely on specific family members. It’s all about making sure you have people around you who’ll give you the right support.
“Sometimes, a family member can be well-intended but they don’t necessarily do or say the right thing. They may not have the right response,” she explains. “And if a person is struggling with triggers, being around certain people you have a complicated relationship with could be a risk.”
And Fry echoes that seeking support from those who are familiar with your situation is essential to recovery. “Whether it’s a good program like AA, a therapist or someone else from your support program, those are people you can reach out to, to seek help for emotional sobriety.”