In addiction therapy, we try to identify the underlying causes and issues that led to substance use taking control of our lives. While everyone’s personal history and reasons for developing an addiction are different, one of the most common themes identified is self-medication. Many people with SUDs initially turned to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with painful or stressful situations or feelings they couldn’t handle by other means.
Staying sober goes hand in hand with the development of new ways of regulating and processing our negative emotions and is a cornerstone of what keeps us from emotional relapse – as it’s when we get knocked down by fear, upset, or depression, that cravings and addictive thinking kick into gear. Addiction has a way of programming our brain to respond in a particular way, but emotional sobriety is a different kind of reprogramming that combats this.
Addiction and the Emotional Labyrinth
Because addiction changes the brain, it makes it progressively more difficult to regulate and manage emotions. When in the grip of addiction, you may experience:
- difficulty handling intense emotions like anger, fear, or sadness.
- impulsivity and dangerous behavior in the face of negative emotions.
- emotional dysregulation when obstacles get in the way.
- failure to maintain close emotional bonds with others.
- feeling that everyone is out to get you.
- Being mentally stuck in the past, particularly around negative past events.
- general feelings of hopelessness or helplessness in the face of difficult situations.
What is Emotional Sobriety?
Emotional sobriety refers to a set of constructive thought processes and coping mechanisms that make us more resilient against spirals of negative thinking. It helps us maintain an emotional balance that allows us to feel the bad stuff without being drawn into the dark places that held us in addiction. This often means:
- pulling ourselves out of dwelling on the past and accepting the present.
- no longer obsessing over things we can’t change.
- accepting that struggle is a natural part of life that gives us the chance to grow.
- untethering ourselves from the perceptions and expectations of others when it harms our self-esteem or ability to act with integrity.
How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety
Emotional sobriety does not translate into a need to be cheerful around the clock. Nothing about emotional sobriety means silencing or denying negative emotions when they arise – rather, it means facing these feelings logically and constructively. Gaining control of negative emotions can take many different forms, but many people will engage in the following ways:
1. Speak With a Therapist
Working with a professional to promote mental health is something that nearly everyone can benefit from. This is especially true for people in recovery, who are working to uncover and process the emotions they repressed with addiction, and a therapist can help you work through these highs and lows as they occur.
It is a great idea to set aside some time each day for quiet reflection. Journalling is an effective way of voicing thoughts and emotions and allows us to organize them into something we can understand. You may also want to start up the practice of meditation, either in the morning when you rise or in the evening before you go to bed. Don’t worry about blocking out hours of time to sit in silence on the floor – mindfulness meditation can be done in short sessions. Ten or twenty minutes of simply being in the moment and experiencing your thoughts can make all the difference.
3. Prioritize Self-Care
It is easier for negative thought processes to take control when we’re feeling tired, hungry, overworked, or socially isolated. When these basic needs repeatedly go unmet, we take a huge hit to our emotional endurance as well as our self-esteem. If you try and remember how skipping out on these fronts has affected your mental state previously, you’ll probably realize it wasn’t conducive. Make sure that your physical and emotional health takes priority, and it will be easier to stay on the road to recovery.
4. Open Up To People You Trust
Put emotional honesty at the center of your relationships with friends and family members you trust. The process of learning to be open and vulnerable with the loved ones who support you is a cathartic one. This piece of advice is also crucial to getting the most out of your relationship with your sober sponsor and any support groups you attend. Being open about how we feel and receiving input from others will drive your success in these interactions.