5 Key Signs of Emotional Sobriety

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There’s a lot you learn during the rehabilitation process. You learn about addiction, but also what it specifically means to you. We all find our own way with recovery, even though the actual treatment is often the same. Recovery is part what is provided for you – detox, education, support, medical care – but part of it is what you bring to it, especially when it comes to your emotional sobriety.

With physical sobriety, your body is free of drugs and alcohol and you’ve chosen to abstain from use in the future. But what is emotional sobriety? One definition describes it as being able to feel your feelings. What this means is you aren’t numb to them and you don’t have to use any kind of substance to alter them either. This can take months or even years to fully achieve after you’ve reached your physical sobriety, but each step of your journey is meaningful.

The way to emotional sobriety can be painful at times, because in the past, you may have been used to dulling pain or hurt. But sobriety is about learning what it’s like to live without alcohol or drugs in all aspects of the term. How do you know if you’ve reached that level of your sobriety path? Or, what you can do to get there? There are five key signs of emotional sobriety you’ve built over time through your recovery, strength, and growth.

The Ability to Regulate Negative Feelings

You can’t get rid of negative feelings, but you can learn to regulate them. Part of sobriety is learning about what you can and can’t control and taking action on the things you hold power over. Negative thoughts or feelings are inevitable and may pop up when you least expect them to. However, when you’re able to be thoughtful about your reaction rather than lashing out or when you’re able to switch your perspective for the better, you’ve reached an important milestone in your sobriety. Your feelings don’t handle you; you handle your feelings.

This same control is applied to your sobriety. It’s not always easy to train your mind to constantly be in charge of your feelings and it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to keep them reined in either. There are two ways typically to approach regulating negative feelings.

One way is to block them from the mind and keep them from taking up space and causing negative thoughts. Although this may work temporarily, if the issue is never addressed, it may linger only to creep back up at a different time. But the other options is to take time to evaluate the situation. How will you handle it? How can your reaction or non-reaction serve as the best possible outcome?

Negative feelings can spawn from strangers on the street, injustice in the news, or painful reminders of hurtful times in your life. They aren’t always ignited by people you know. And they can feel overwhelming, especially if you feel helpless about doing anything about the situation that’s causing them. By having power over a situation by learning how to regulate negative feelings before they take over your life, you are both acknowledging what’s happening for what it is, but also making the conscious choice of how you want to approach it without the crutch of drugs or alcohol.

The Ability to Live in the Present

Living in the present is tough for a lot of people, not only those in recovery. Too often we look back and regret choices we’ve made or things we’ve said when the reality is, we can’t take them back. We can only move forward. Of course, we can learn from the past and use it to help shape the future, but dwelling on days gone by doesn’t promote growth.

It can feel comforting and in some ways, empowering, to be present in the now. It makes you face each day with a fresh start and ask yourself what you liked about the day, what you might do differently tomorrow. Rather than feeling resentful about things you haven’t done, you can plan now for what you want to do. Rather than feeling guilty for past behavior, you can change that in the present day by calling an old friend, writing a letter to a family member, or connecting with someone in a way you may not have done in the past.

Living in the present is also about practicing gratitude. What are you grateful for today? Are you grateful for your sobriety? Your family? Your friends? A new adventure? When you take time out of your day to acknowledge what you’re grateful for, it can help put your life into perspective.

Finally, when you live in the present, it gives you the opportunity to fully embrace your new sober life. It can make it seem less overwhelming because you’re not constantly keeping track of all the things you have yet to do. You’re living for now.

The Ability to Say No to Temptation

Once you leave treatment, that’s not an automatic cue to the rest of the world to steer clear of you with its problems and temptations. Although, it’d be nice if once you reached sobriety all other messiness of life would just slip away, but that’s simply not the case. Despite the damage it’s done, addiction was still the center of your life and there may be remnants of that life as you start the next part of your life.

What’s helpful is taking the tools you’ve learned for coping with temptation and knowing how to handle your cravings. In treatment, you can get the resources you need to make healthy choices and seek help if the temptation is ever becomes too strong. It’s not realistic to think you’ll always be able to avoid situations that may cause you to relapse, but there are ways to keep you accountable if you have to come to face-to-face with an intense situation.

Often, people who have not gone through treatment or struggled with drug dependency themselves, don’t fully realize that addiction is a disease. It can creep back up in a second, if you don’t attend to it with the proper treatment. That means focusing on a healthy lifestyle, surrounding yourself with positive influences and supportive people, but also having the ability to turn away from temptation or sidestep situations that could put you in a compromising position.

The Ability to Go with the Flow

Addiction can cause you to constantly feel on the defensive. Whether it’s hiding your addiction or trying to making excuses for your behavior, there can be a constant push and pull between you and others. Treatment is a time for acknowledgement of your actions, but also in the letting go of what might be preventing you from moving forward in the way you want to.

Recovery can be a stressful period because it’s a transition to a new way of life. You may feel there are a lot of expectations from loved ones who want to see you healthy, but also pressure from yourself to stick to your sobriety. It may take awhile to feel in a rhythm, but once you start gaining confidence, you’ll find you’re able to go with the flow much easier.

Going with the flow doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion or have lost focus on your goals. It means you don’t have to feel on the defensive anymore. You can have reactions that make sense for the situation. When people ask you about your sobriety, you can have the insight as to whether they are truly engaged and interested in your health or if they are questioning your intentions. Maybe before you would’ve felt like flying off the handle when any mentioned your addiction. However, now you might let comments roll off your shoulders more easily.

Going with the flow means not getting caught up on one bad moment that happens in a sea of several good things. It means accepting the temporary road block for what it is, temporary, and continue to be adaptable to the situation. No one says emotional sobriety is easy, but it definitely is something to aspire to achieving.

The Ability to Form Deep Bonds

There are a lot of emotions that come with recovery and sobriety. It’s valuable to have others who can lean on for support. Sometimes with working through addiction, the friends you make aren’t long lasting. After your common bond of addiction is eliminated, it’s interesting to see what remains. In some cases, there are deeper bonds present (beyond drug use) to help maintain close ties, but in many cases, you may realize you don’t have much in common anymore. And, that’s ok.

By forming deeper friendships and relationships, you have people you can turn to talk through the stressors or challenges of life without having drugs be your first choice to cope with a situation. You also have a chance to really get to know people and have people get to know you beyond your addiction, which doesn’t have to define your life.

You can also form a stronger relationship with yourself. It’s your time to learn what makes you happiest, what kind of goals you want to achieve, and what kind of person you want to be. Self-reflection is a big part of emotional sobriety and it can help you start to form the types of relationships that will prove valuable in your life.

Once sober, you may have the capacity to form closer relationships to loved ones and friends you may distanced yourself from during your days fighting your addiction. It gives you a chance to make new connections or reconnect with those dearest to you.

Why Emotional Sobriety Is Important

When you are pushed to the edge by your emotions, this is when it becomes all too easy to give into cravings or resort to old habits. But when you reach a state of emotional sobriety, you learn how to deal with emotions in a way that doesn’t have to involve relapse. It means you’ve found other outlets or areas of support to help you through tough times rather than avoiding it or allowing it build up and become something bigger and usually, messier than it needs to be.

Unfortunately, sobriety doesn’t come with a life set on cruise control. There are still everyday struggles, including the constant focus on being sober. But when you learn to accept this and work through it, you’ll see why emotional sobriety is such a key part of the journey.

The constant work of self-care is something millions of Americans struggle with and work toward on a daily basis. It’s important to be active about it because the more you gain strength emotionally and mentally, the easier it will become to “feel your feelings” and be the best possible version for yourself. How good does that feel?

Stuck in a Rut?

Have you gone through the steps and still feel an emotional void? Have you had a hard time transitioning into your sobriety and have anger, frustration, or worry you don’t know what to do with? You’re not alone. There’s no magic timeline for when you’ll reach this higher emotional state; it’s different for everyone.

If you’re feeling lost or unsure if you’re on the right path in your sobriety, connect with others who have supported you in the past. Remember the tools and sobriety tips you were given in recovery or don’t be afraid to go back for a refresher life planning program to continue learning and growing. Some days you’ll feel like you have more momentum than others and that’s normal. But always know you have people on your side who want you to succeed in your sobriety.

Addiction has its ups and downs and so does sobriety. The good news is that with sobriety you have the opportunity to become healthier and more confident every day. Everything you put into your sobriety will create more positivity in your life and set you up for more happiness in the future. If you or a loved one are currently struggling with sobriety know that there is help and there is no shame in reaching out to others or a treatment center for support with relapse prevention.

Find hope. Find recovery. Begin a commitment to lifelong recovery today – for yourself, your friend, or for your loved one.
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Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Sep. 2016, Accessed March 15, 2016.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Revised July 2018, Accessed March 16, 2016.

Addiction Center. Relapse Prevention:Know the Triggers and Warning Signs. May 2015, Accessed March 16, 2016.

Child Welfare. Parental Substance Use and The Child Welfare System. October 2014, Accessed March 15, 2016.

DHHR. Relapse Prevention Plan. Accessed March 14, 2016.

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