What Is ‘Emotional Sobriety’?

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If you’re reading this, it’s possible you’ve heard the term “emotional sobriety” before and are wondering how to achieve it. At Monument, we empower you to change your relationship with alcohol, whatever that means to you. You may have alcohol-reduction goals like sustaining lasting sobriety or drinking in moderation. You may also have lifestyle and wellness goals like improving physical health, showing up more fully for friends and family, or getting ahead at work. All of those goals are valid and something to be extremely proud of. 

So, where does emotional sobriety come into play?

Some define emotional sobriety as no longer feeling the emotions that trigger alcohol cravings. For others, it represents the progress that comes from long-term sobriety.  At Monument, we don’t believe emotional sobriety is a box you check off or a finite milestone. We recognize sobriety is a non-linear journey and that there’s no single moment of achieving either sobriety or ’emotional sobriety.’ However, the concept can be helpful in understanding the psychology of recovery and providing actionable insights about coping with cravings and tolerating intense emotions. I’m here to share a bit about the origin of this term and why emotional regulation is a crucial component of building healthier habits. 

Why do we hear about the difference between emotional and physical sobriety?

As you explore the meaning of sobriety, you’ll notice that making the distinction between emotional and physical sobriety is common in traditional recovery programs. These programs often describe ‘emotional sobriety’ as the ability to manage  the emotions that lead to a desire to drink in order to eliminate cravings and remain abstinent. 

Under the traditional definition, this would mean that if you haven’t consumed alcohol for an extended period of time, you are physically sober. However, if you were still experiencing cravings, you may not have achieved ‘emotional sobriety.’ This definition may motivate some because it encourages them to address the emotional influences on their drinking. However, focusing only on emotion-based cravings overlooks all of the other biopsychosocial factors involved in alcohol use. 

There are many other dimensions of your wellness outside of your physical and emotional wellness, including environmental, social, spiritual, vocational, and many more. While emotional sobriety acknowledges one dimension of our wellness, recognizing the other influences gives us a more complete awareness of our relationship with alcohol and the path towards changing it. 

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Also, traditional concepts of ‘emotional sobriety’ often don’t fully encompass that recovery is a non-linear journey. For example, you can be meeting your goals in reducing or eliminating alcohol from your life and still experience alcohol cravings. There is absolutely no shame in that. In fact, there’s a scientific reason why we crave alcohol, which is more complex than being in tune with your emotional needs. 

Alcohol releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that create associations between alcohol and pleasure in your brain. While this may sound positive, this chemical interaction can ultimately reduce the levels of these neurotransmitters and intensify negative feelings. Gradually readjusting your body’s natural production of its pleasure neurotransmitters is a complex process. Regulating alcohol cravings isn’t a matter of sheer willpower, and it often involves both an environmental and medical approach based on your unique needs and goals. 

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How can we get more comfortable with our emotions? 

While emotional regulation isn’t the sole driver behind building healthier habits, it is a very important component. When my clients ask me how to get more comfortable with their emotions or address emotional pain that they cope with using alcohol, I begin with this advice: start small. I encourage them to take note of how they embody their emotions and feelings via their word choice. Phrases like “I am anxious, angry, sad…” all assert a permanent emotional experience. What if we looked at it from the lens of fleeting truths? For example, “anxiety, anger, sadness are here”? Or “I feel anxious, angry, sad right now…” It may initially feel like such a slight difference in our dialogue, but it can serve as a helpful reminder that these feelings are just guests in our body, trying to help us adapt to the situations in front of us.  

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Why is it important to address negative emotions?

There’s a phrase I often use in my therapy practice: what is suppressed gets expressed.”

When our sympathetic nervous system (commonly known as for the  ‘fight or flight response’) is activated in moments of stress, we typically don’t feel safe to fully explore our emotions. Instead, we tend to distract ourselves with external sources of soothing. While this strategy may work temporarily, the reality is that tension is still stored in our body and will likely show up again when similar triggers arise. Suppression is like any other defense mechanism: valuable in the short-term, but unsustainable and unhealthy in the long-term. This is especially relevant in the relationship between PTSD and alcohol use and the suppression of past traumas. To build long-term healthy habits, we have to learn to manage and process our negative emotions. This concept is known as “distress tolerance.” 

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Exploring negative emotions doesn’t mean you have to revisit all of your past negative experiences or trauma or take constant inventory of what is going on in your body. It means developing an ongoing practice of checking in on yourself: accepting the presence of unwanted emotions, noting where they are embodied in your physical state, and releasing the physical tension as much as possible so that it’s not harbored over time. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, Qi Gong, and any other form of bilateral movement are helpful tools for resetting the nervous system in moments of stress. These activities can increase awareness of your experiences and activate the flow of energy needed for developing emotional regulation in sobriety. If you’re interested in learning about mindfulness in the context of emotional regulation, I’d love for you to join my free support group on the topic. 

It’s also important to note that you’re not expected to learn how to process negative emotions on your own. Online alcohol treatment is a powerful tool for developing these skills, building new coping mechanisms, and so much more. Therapy can also help address mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, which very commonly co-occur alongside alcohol use disorder. Like other health conditions, mental health conditions and alcohol use disorder can be treated with evidence-based care. 

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Whatever your journey looks like, it is valid, and you are deserving of support. Whatever labels (or lack thereof!), goals, and definitions feel most empowering for you is what you should take with you along your journey. Emotional sobriety is defined individually based on what increases your sense of curiosity, freedom, and peace as you distance yourself from alcohol. When you acknowledge what you are facing as fully as possible, you will be able to make the health decisions that align with your truest self. Reflecting on and sharing your emotional experience can cultivate a recovery journey of empowerment and accountability. And as a result, you will get to experience all of the emotional benefits of sobriety. Learning about this topic today is a meaningful step in itself, and I’m cheering you on.  

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Sabrina SpotornoSabrina Spotorno, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with an affinity for working with children, adolescents, individuals, and families. She is a therapist on the Monument platform, and is trained in several modalities, including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Narrative Therapy. She’s passionate about empowering her clients to recognize their strengths amidst their life transitions to optimize their sense of efficacy and alignment of their actions with their beliefs and dreams.