Many people equate the concept of being sober with being in recovery. While sobriety, the act of abstaining from drinking or using drugs, is an important step in the recovery process, the decision to stop drinking or using drugs doesn’t mean a person has adopted the mindset required to sustain a long-term lifestyle change. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, our treatment program helps people to not only get sober but also build a life that is solidly rooted in recovery.

Emotional Sobriety

In the recovery community, “emotional sobriety” is a term that is often used to describe a person who has moved beyond giving up substances and is doing the work to change their mindset into one that is more healthy and focused. “Dry drunk” is a potentially hurtful and outdated term you might have heard applied to people who have stopped using alcohol but who haven’t yet reached emotional sobriety. 

Just as it is difficult to stop using, entering emotional recovery is also challenging, as it requires a lot of self-reflection and hard work, as well as change. It can be a scary, lonely process, and sometimes it takes time for a person to get there. There may also be times when a person who was making strides toward recovery has setbacks and needs to make changes to become emotionally sober again.

Developing New Ways to Cope

Substances can become the sole coping skill people use while they are in active addiction. Entering recovery means learning new ways to handle difficult feelings and situations. This is often accomplished through therapy, recovery groups, and working with a sponsor who is further along in their recovery process. Some of the coping skills people in recovery develop to replace substances are:

  • Distraction – focusing on something else until the feeling passes
  • Mindfulness – allowing yourself to feel the emotion without judgment and then consciously releasing it 
  • Journaling – writing about how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing, as a way to process
  • Reaching out – talking to a friend, family member, sponsor, therapist, spiritual leader, or other person you trust
  • Prayer – taking your concerns to your higher power
  • Exercise – going for a walk, running, hitting the gym, or otherwise getting your blood pumping 

What Emotional Sobriety Looks Like

Each person in recovery came to addiction in their own unique way, and they also have to come to sobriety and recovery through their own choices, on a path that makes sense for them. For some people, spirituality may be a hallmark of their recovery process. Attending church is just as important for them as going to AA meetings and talking to their sponsor. For other people, their recovery requires them to work on their mental health, so attending individual and group therapy may be a key factor in staying solidly in recovery. 

Emotional Sobriety as Relapse Prevention

When a person doesn’t move beyond simply getting sober, they have a higher risk of relapse than people who have developed additional strategies for managing distress. Over time, they may begin to show signs that they are sliding toward old habits:

  • Emotional relapse – weeks or even months before they take a drink or use again, the person may begin to experience an emotional relapse characterized by:
    • Bottling up emotions
    • Isolating
    • Skipping recovery meetings, therapy, church, or whatever it was that they felt helped them get and stay in recovery, or attending but not fully participating
    • Focusing attention outward instead of inward
    • Ignoring self-care needs like sleep, diet, exercise, and spiritual growth
  • Mental relapse – if the person does not make changes during the emotional relapse stage, they may begin to experience worsening signs of imminent relapse:
    • Cravings
    • Reminiscing about and glamorizing the people, places, and things associated with their prior use
    • Lying to themselves and others
    • Trying to think of ways that they can use without losing control
    • Looking for opportunities to relapse
    • Making plans to return to high-risk situations and use
  • Physical relapse – at this stage, the person returns to using alcohol or other substances. The person may have convinced themselves that they will be better able to control their use this time or that they will not get caught.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we recognize that relapse is sometimes part of the recovery journey, which is why we build individualized treatment plans that seek to not only prevent relapses but also help people return to recovery as quickly as possible when relapse occurs.