Emotional Sobriety: Why Giving Up Drugs and Alcohol Isn’t Enough

A sober man practices mindfulness in hopes of achieving emotional sobriety

Although often used interchangeably, getting sober isn’t quite the same as being in recovery. When we think of being “sober,” we immediately think of quitting alcohol or drugs. However, putting down the substances is only the first step. If you don’t figure out the “whys” of what contributed to your addiction or substance abuse disorder (SUD), then you increase your chances of relapse. The drug, or alcohol, is only a symptom of the “problem.” Recovery is much more than physical sobriety. It is also about mental and emotional health and healing and feeling at peace with who you are. So, how can you take the next step from being sober to being in recovery? The answer is – by practicing emotional sobriety.

What is Emotional Sobriety?

Emotional sobriety is a core concept of 12-step programs and is closely linked to the physiological part of being sober. However, to be successful with one, you have to be successful with the other. You can also work toward emotional health through other avenues as well, such as a private therapist or SMART Recovery.

If you are someone working toward long-term recovery and sober living, you must learn to regulate the negative feelings that come up in your everyday life which may lead to discomfort, craving, and—ultimately—relapse. Becoming comfortable with your emotions requires cultivating a whole new way of thinking about life’s ups and downs.

While practicing emotional sobriety won’t prevent you from experiencing negative thoughts or emotions, it will allow you to feel and honor your emotions, rather than being consumed or directed by them.

Signs of Emotional Sobriety

There are certain signs and traits a person will display when they stay sober, their recovery is solid and they have worked on outside issues that contributed to their addiction. Some of the signs displayed in an emotionally healthy person could be

  • Self-awareness
  • Strong communication
  • Ability to recognize triggers
  • Healthy boundaries
  • Stable relationships
  • Stress management
  • A positive outlook on life
  • Ability to live in the moment
  • Loss of interest in drugs and alcohol

If it is hard for you to relate to the above signs, then you may be lacking in emotional sobriety.

Some people may also call this “white knuckling” or “dry drunk syndrome,” which is when you abstain from substances but don’t do the deep, inner work to experience true change.

A few common indicators are if you often blame others for your problems, have rapid mood swings, try to push your emotions away, and find it hard to stay in the present. Fortunately, anyone can develop emotional sobriety, no matter who you are, what you’ve been through, or how long you’ve been in recovery. Remember – recovery is a journey, and you build on it over time. It’s okay to feel emotionally shaky in the beginning; in fact, that’s completely normal.

Why is Emotional Health Important in Recovery?

Without being emotionally healthy, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain long-term recovery from addictive substances and patterns. While sobriety from drugs and alcohol is the beginning of true life in recovery, learning how to manage the underlying emotions that drove addictive patterns demonstrates a higher level of self-mastery and is key to preventing relapse.

If not managed properly, feelings of loneliness, anger, fear, disappointment, and even boredom can be a trigger to use drugs or alcohol. But emotional sobriety isn’t just important because it serves as a method of relapse prevention; it is also a critical part of recovery because it offers the ability to lead a meaningful life – sober.

The Journey to Emotional Sobriety

Achieving emotional sobriety is an ongoing journey that requires self-reflection, commitment, and a willingness to grow. It involves developing emotional intelligence, cultivating self-compassion, and embracing vulnerability. Being emotionally sober is not about suppressing or avoiding emotions but rather about embracing them and learning healthy ways to express and manage them.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions, as well as empathize with the emotions of others. It involves being aware of our emotional state, recognizing emotions in others, and effectively regulating emotions. Developing emotional intelligence enables us to navigate relationships, communicate effectively, and make informed decisions.

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Self-compassion involves treating ourselves with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially during challenging times. It entails acknowledging our imperfections and mistakes without judgment or self-criticism. Cultivating self-compassion allows us to embrace our emotions with gentleness and support, fostering emotional well-being and resilience.

Embracing Vulnerability

A surprising aspect of emotional sobriety is vulnerability. It is often seen as a weakness, but in reality, it is a strength that fosters emotional growth and connection. Embracing vulnerability involves being open and authentic with ourselves and others, even when it feels uncomfortable. It allows us to build deep and meaningful relationships, as well as develop a greater understanding of ourselves.

How Do You Develop Stable Emotional Health?

For many people – with and without diagnoses of substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health concerns – emotional sobriety takes a significant amount of work, self-reflection, therapy, and most importantly, practice and practical applications. Laying down the tracks for a balanced lifestyle with mind, body, and spirit is key to developing emotional sobriety. Some tips for emotional health are listed below.

Practicing Mindfulness

Developing mindfulness skills allows us to get out of the fight, flight, or freeze response to stressors and creates a sense of greater calm. It allows the brain and body to get into a state where they can process and communicate more effectively. Mindfulness also enables us to not dwell on the past but rather enjoy the present. Some great ways to develop mindfulness include yoga, meditation, and prayer.


Start journaling about the different events in your life and your emotions. As you write down how you’re feeling, you let go of pent-up energy and experience a wave of relief. There is no right or wrong way to journal; do what feels right for you.

Distracting Yourself Momentarily

When you have a rush of intense emotions like sadness or frustration, it can be overwhelming to sit with it. Try redirecting your attention to something else lighthearted. It might be calling a reliable friend, watching a funny TV show, listening to feel-good music, or even taking a hot shower. If you attend 12-step meetings, you may hear the phrase, “Move a muscle, change a thought.” That is exactly what this represents. Once you are ready, you can come back to examine the emotion or thoughts with a clearer mind.

Trying Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) help increase self-awareness and emotional regulation by providing us with a better understanding of how our thoughts and emotions influence our behavior.

Making Connections

Establishing a strong peer support network ensures that we have someone we can trust to go to when we are faced with difficult situations or uncomfortable emotions. It also helps to keep someone accountable in recovery.

For many, emotional sobriety is not a consistent state but is instead found in moments and hours. Don’t feel discouraged if you struggle to regulate your emotions. Often, human beings are not emotionally static. What matters is your ability to recognize and manage your stressors and continue working on your recovery. Emotional maintenance work can make all the difference in sustaining sobriety from alcohol and other drugs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.