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How to Achieve and Maintain Emotional Sobriety

My Personal Epiphany

After having months of crisis after crisis this year, I began learning how to achieve and maintain emotional sobriety. For me, emotional sobriety is showing up for myself emotionally each day. I do this through the following:

  1. I write about my feelings in my journal.
  2. I sit with my feelings, especially the most painful and uncomfortable ones.
  3. I take at least one small step towards forgiving someone.

Am I consistent with this? NOPE! But I’m making a proactive effort to be more consistent each day; progress NOT perfection.

Through this process of showing up for myself emotionally each day, my depression, anxiety, and obsessive thinking have become much more manageable.

This new paradigm in my recovery is teaching me more about myself an a faster rate than ever before.

What is Emotional Sobriety?

When you think about how to achieve emotional sobriety, your first question should be – well, what is it, anyway?

As I said before, term “emotional sobriety” is often used in conjunction with physical sobriety, where you throw away the bottle or the pills, and you get clean. Promises Treatment Centers defines emotional sobriety as:

“[A] term that describes the more complex transformation a recovering addict makes beyond attaining physical sobriety. … Achieving emotional sobriety is more complex because it involves the ability to feel and cope with emotions, particularly those attached to drug and alcohol use.”

For a person struggling with an addiction, feelings are to be tamped down, smothered, and drowned. The old expression, “drowning your sorrows,” is all too accurate. People struggling with an addiction ignore their feelings; they’re good at that.

The term “emotional sobriety” is most often associated with recovery from addiction and substance abuse. The choice to associate it with my mental health challenges has given me three things:

  1. The perspective of seeing my thought patterns as a form of addiction.
  2. An empowering vision to strive for in my mental health recovery.
  3. A renewed sense of hope.

Why Emotional Sobriety Matters

Let’s take a look at a potential real life example of where the importance of emotional sobriety comes to the forefront.

An Example from Real Life

Consider the death of someone very close to you. The person experiencing emotional sobriety will recognize that grief is an entirely appropriate emotional response to such a loss. They might not scream about it to everyone they know, but they won’t hide it, either. There is no reason to bury or avoid these emotions. They may be unpleasant, but they are valid.

The addict will push the sadness away and self-medicate, whereas the emotionally sober individual will allow themselves to feel grief. And they should be experienced, because they will come out, sooner or later.

Avoidance and Bypassing

This kind of avoidance behavior is what Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, calls “spiritual bypass.” Dr. Mathieu adds that when people confront a painful emotion and “pray it, meditate it, service it, spiritually distract themselves from it, thinking that this means they are working a good program,” that these are all acts of bypassing.

Emotionally sober people face their emotions and deal with them, without doing an end run around them.

The Characteristics of Emotional Sobriety

Tian Dayton, Ph.D., adds these specifics about the features of a person who is emotionally sober:

“Ability to regulate strong emotions
Ability to regulate mood
Ability to maintain a perspective on life circumstances.
Ability to regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors
Ability to live in the present
Ability to regulate activity levels.”

This ability to roll with the punches gives emotionally sober individuals a perspective that people who don’t have emotional sobriety just do not have. Emotionally sober people self-regulate, and they stay in balance, or they actively work to return to a place of equilibrium.

How to Achieve Emotional Sobriety

Dr. Dayton offers some insights into how to come into (or back into) balance and achieve emotional sobriety. One of the most important is to create and maintain a robust and healthy relationship network. That is, have people to turn to when you are struggling. Self-soothing is also important, to be able to understand how to make yourself feel better and also how to ride the emotional waves without turning to drugs or alcohol. It also means cultivating your inner resources to process emotional highs and lows as they happen.

Another path to emotional sobriety is to achieve and maintain physical health. Focusing on your physical health means proper nutrition, consistent exercise, enough rest, and making time for fun. A bonus to this is that the acts of achieving and maintaining health can often make us feel better. It’s not just about a runner’s high or the satisfaction of knowing we are eating healthy. It’s also the feeling of well-being we get when we go outside and move our bodies, and when we take care of ourselves. Practicing self-care works.

Resolving early childhood wounds is another way to achieve emotional sobriety. These wounds can, potentially, be explored with a mental health professional or even through a 12-step program. This kind of resolution is a powerful step to help us move ahead with our lives.

And our emotionally sober lives should be filled with meaningful, pleasant activities, too. Life is not just about your work and family obligations, but also your hobbies and your passions. If cosplay is your thing, then do it joyously and with no half-measures. If horseback riding or writing or sales are your passion, then jump in with both feet and don’t hold back.

How to Maintain Emotional Sobriety

Now that you’ve got a framework to explore achieving it (or at least, open to considering it), how do you maintain emotional sobriety?

Dr. Dayton feels that keeping it up it includes learning from our mistakes. The ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself off’ in itself is a characteristic of emotional sobriety.

how to achieve and maintain emotional sobriety by mike venyAs Mathieu says, you need to allow yourself to feel all of your feelings. And those feelings are not just the feel-good ones. “… experiencing all of our feelings is true emotional sobriety.”

No one is suggesting that the mourner in the above example should wallow in self-pity and cry every day for the next 50 years. But anyone who tells that mourner, on the day of the funeral, to ‘snap out of it’ is being unnecessarily cruel. We would never accept that kind of insensitive ‘hurry up and get over it already’ mentality from others. So why do we accept it from ourselves?

What does emotional sobriety look like for you?


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