Emotional Sobriety: What is its Importance to Staying Sober

emotional sobriety aa
Emotional Sobriety

One of the most vital aspects of recovering from addiction is emotional sobriety. An emotionally sober person can confront and deal with the negative feelings he suppressed or ignored using addictive substances. These emotions can trigger relapses, so recovering addicts must manage them carefully so they can stay sober. 

Physical Sobriety Is Not Enough

The concept of emotional sobriety originated from Alcoholics Anonymous. AA’s founders recognized that refraining from taking substances and avoiding relapse is inadequate. Though it is the most urgent part of addiction recovery, a person needs to do the deeper work of addressing the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that contributed to the drinking or drug use. When they succeed in this, they can achieve true sobriety.

Negative feelings are a trigger for substance abuse. Left unchecked, they inevitably cause relapse. Managing these feelings and regulating emotions will make a recovering addict more capable of facing their triggers. In turn, this improves their mental health and quality of life.

It can be challenging to define emotional sobriety. Generally, it means the ability to confront and experience all emotions, from the affirming to the painful. An emotionally sober person uses positive strategies for coping with emotions they find unpleasant. It is common for people with substance abuse issues to self-medicate using drugs and alcohol. Since this is unavailable for recovering addicts, they have to learn how to soothe their distress in other ways.

How Are Emotions Linked to Addiction?

A person with substance abuse problems has trouble with intense negative emotions like anger or grief. They could make dangerous or impulsive decisions, especially in highly emotional situations. They are also unable to “roll with the punches” when things get tough and struggle to have close relationships. Overall, their outlook on life is pessimistic.

Often, the inability to regulate oneself emotionally comes from traumatic childhood experiences. In a study by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found strong links between adult depression, anxiety, addiction, and childhood trauma.

A child creates mental and psychological patterns to cope with and understand their world. When a child grows up in a traumatic environment, they develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. The lack of exposure to nurturing and positive influences means they cannot always identify the emotionally healthy response to a given situation.

Also, gender expectations can make it challenging for individuals to maintain emotional sobriety. Boys are particularly vulnerable to tamping down their feelings because society conditions them to choose heteronormative displays of bravery and strength. As such, men are more likely to abuse substances than women.

Achieving Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety can be challenging for recovering addicts, but they can succeed with the help of mental health and addiction recovery specialists. Here are four things that help people achieve sobriety.

aa emotional sobriety
What is Emotional Sobriety

Open Communication

The ability to clearly express feelings is a fundamental aspect of emotional balance. Many people do not know how to articulate feelings, having grown up in emotionally repressive environments. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, people can understand how their feelings and thoughts affect their actions. Supplemental treatments like art therapy can foster mental health.

Lack of open communication can also affect a person’s ability to stay in a committed, intimate relationship. A man or woman accustomed to sex under the influence can find it unthinkable to be intimate while sober. Also, since recovering addicts must prioritize working on themselves, AA and similar groups recommend that people undergo recovery and treatments for at least a year before getting back into dating.

Stress Management

People get into stressful situations all the time. From dealing with challenging work assignments to having endless to-do lists or being stuck in traffic, stress is unavoidable in today’s society. Recovering addicts can prevent stress from triggering a relapse by developing healthy coping mechanisms. Exercise, hobbies, journaling, mindfulness meditation, and prayer are good ways of keeping stress in check.

If the stress is from having too many things to do, one thing that can help is keeping in mind that healthy boundaries are part of living a balanced life. It is fine to refuse projects, social commitments, and volunteer work that could hinder addiction recovery. 

Anger Management

Alcohol and drug abuse can be a way for people to cope with anger. When this happens, it can turn into a vicious cycle of negative emotions triggering the need for substances and vice versa. Alcohol or drugs can provide temporary relief, but they also impair judgment and cause people to act in ways they regret. When you are under the influence, your actions can cause you to feel angry and helpless afterward, which makes you turn to alcohol for comfort.

People suffering from substance abuse need to keep in mind that anger is a natural human emotion. It is normal for people to get angry, and it’s not something that needs treatment. However, it does need management—people have to keep in mind that using anger as an excuse to hurt themselves or others is never acceptable.

Controlling one’s anger is a cornerstone of emotional sobriety. People who have issues with addictive substances are easily triggered. They can get angry out of fear, insecurity, frustration, perceived disrespect, or pride. When you dig deeper, you’d often find that their triggers are related to the issues that caused them to develop a dependence on drugs and alcohol—for example, insecurity makes them angry at themselves, which causes them to drink. Addressing these deep-seated issues is a vital part of recovering from addiction.

Also, mental health experts note that men and women experience depression differently. In men, depression can manifest as anger or aggression, leading to substance abuse problems. A medical professional might prescribe antidepressants or recommend that the person suffering from depression undergo talk therapy.

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Recovery can be tedious, and people undergoing addiction treatment might find that their family or friends are reluctant to trust them because of their past mistakes. Loneliness or other difficulties at present could even cause them to experience a relapse. It is why one of the crucial aspects of recovery is developing resilience.

A resilient person learns from past struggles and challenges. They do not dwell on the negative things that happened to them or wallow in self-pity for the things they failed to do. Instead, they look for opportunities to affect positive change in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Often, people think of resilience as an inborn trait. However, it is something you can nurture. To become more resilient, the first thing you could do is to set clear and purposeful goals to improve your quality of life. Building solid relationships with friends and family, journaling, and working with a therapist will also build your resilience.


No two people have the same journey towards addiction recovery. However, people with emotional sobriety generally accept struggle and grief as parts of life and a way to build personal growth. They do not dwell on the past, choosing to accept the present for what it is, and they don’t let others’ perceptions define or affect their behavior. Emotional sobriety can be challenging to achieve; recovering addicts need a treatment program and addiction professionals to keep them on track.