You have probably heard the phrase “dry drunk.” It’s a rather old-fashioned term (we’ve finally realized that calling someone a “drunk” when they struggle with a substance use disorder is neither kind nor accurate), but the concept is helpful. 

The term “dry drunk” refers to a person who is sober from alcohol or drugs but still behaves as if they are addicted. These addictive patterns of behavior have, at their heart, an inability to manage one’s emotions. When your emotions control you, they affect your behavior. You may:

  • Isolate, withdrawing from family and friends
  • Lash out, having tantrums
  • Resort to sarcasm to express anger
  • Belittle people

When emotions are not regulated, they can affect the quality of your work, relationships, and health. 

What is Emotional Sobriety?

The term “emotional sobriety” was coined by Bill Wilson for Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson recognized that being physically sober was just the first step of a lifetime process of learning how to manage the emotions that would normally trigger the desire to drink or use drugs. 

Emotional sobriety refers to the ability to manage emotions in a healthy way that leads to a greater sense of calm. Sometimes this might mean distracting yourself from negative thoughts and emotions, and sometimes it might mean engaging with those thoughts and emotions to discover their source. It also means knowing when either approach is called for

As you can probably imagine, emotional sobriety is the work of a lifetime – for people in addiction recovery and for everyone else. The more you learn about emotional sobriety, the easier it is to understand how ‘addiction’ to intense emotions in our lives is what causes problems for everyone, regardless of whether we choose substances to cope or some other vice or distraction. 

First Things First: Do you Want to be Emotionally Sober?

Most of us when asked would agree that we want to feel better, happier and more content with life overall. We might agree that we’re tired of “drama” – our own and others’ big emotions and the big, upsetting events that seem to keep happening. 

But when it comes down to it, do we really want to change? Drama – whether in real life or in the movies – adds excitement. It fires up the dopamine, keeps the adrenaline pumping. Even though so much of the drama we experience is painful or stressful, we might need to ask ourselves if we’re truly ready for a more peaceful existence. If so, are we willing to do the work it takes to achieve it? 

Let’s look at some ways to work with our emotions in a way that allows and accepts them without letting them control our behavior. 

When Distraction is the Best Tool

“Don’t think, don’t drink,” is an AA saying that is especially emphasized during early recovery. The point is that negative thoughts can quickly send people spiraling toward relapse. Rather than drink or do drugs, it’s sometimes better to distract yourself from your thoughts and emotions. 

This might mean that when you’re feeling really frustrated with your spouse or your job or the car in front of you, you do something to shift your attention. You could go for a walk, call a friend, scroll through funny cat videos, or (if you’re driving, for example) sing to your favorite music. 

It can be humbling to realize how easy it can be to change your mood. It doesn’t take away the initial problem that caused the frustration, but it gives you perspective, lets the emotions ramp down, and makes it easy for you to return to the person or situation with a clear head. 

But if you find that the same person or situation continues to ignite strong emotional reactions, it might be time to investigate what’s going on…

When Engagement is the Best Tool

While distraction is helpful when emotions are running high, engagement is more of a long-term initiative. Once distraction does its work of giving some distance from the painful emotions, it’s easier to take the time to explore the roots of your emotional reactions. 

Perhaps there’s a long-standing problem in a particular relationship, a core misunderstanding or miscommunication that could be addressed. Or maybe there’s some trauma in the past (or present) that certain people or situations remind you of. Maybe you don’t know why you get so angry or cry so easily. 

For all of these situations, several engagements options might be helpful:

  • Sit quietly and observe the feelings and thoughts that are coming up. Don’t judge yourself for having those feelings or thoughts. Just sit with them and allow them to be. As you observe them, you might begin to understand where they’re coming from. 
  • Write in a journal about what you’re thinking or feeling. Again, don’t judge. Seeing your thoughts and feelings on paper can help bring clarity. 
  • Talk through your feelings with a trusted friend who is good at listening to you without becoming emotional or overly invested in finding a solution. 
  • Work with a therapist. This is the best way to figure out where your thoughts and feelings are coming from and what to do about them. Keep trying new therapists until you find one with whom you feel a good connection. 

When a Return to Treatment is In Order

If you’re struggling with strong emotions and negative thoughts that are making you fear relapse, call Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA. We can help you evaluate your situation and determine the best treatment plan. Your emotional health and sobriety matter – together, we can help you resume your journey toward both.