Emotional Sobriety: What It Is and Why It Matters

Being sober is more than just “white knuckling” it, or barely making it through each day just trying to avoid use of drugs and alcohol. Being sober for the long-term, and building a solid and new kind of life for oneself in recovery, requires therapeutic growth and emotional wellness. Termed emotional sobriety, this process is not something that happens overnight, but something that occurs over time with steady and continued work in different types and styles of therapy and with a strong support system.  

Emotional sobriety requires making changes in your life and lifestyle – some big and some small – that will last for a lifetime. Essentially, these changes are all made with the goal of reducing the experience of negative feelings (e.g., anger, bitterness, jealousy, frustration, sadness, anxiety, etc.), which in turn can make it easier to avoid relapse. In many ways, this requires truly creating an entirely new lifestyle, one habit at a time.  


woman in rehab is working on emotional sobriety to reduce the experience of negative feelings and relapse potential

In early recovery, reducing negative feelings means nothing more complex than distracting yourself from the source of the emotion. In essence, that is the same purpose that drug and alcohol use once served: a way to numb uncomfortable emotions rather than address them. 

Early in recovery, when emotions can come swift and hard, there may not be time to learn and implement a host of complex new coping mechanisms. At first, your sole responsibility is to do what you have to do to avoid relapse. Many advise not to think too deeply about any issue that causes uncomfortable emotions in early recovery but instead to simply distract yourself with anything that doesn’t increase the risk of relapse. For example, if you are feeling angry about an incident at work, then go to a 12-Step meeting and listen to the shares of other people in the group. Take your mind off your own problems, read a book or go to a movie, exercise, or take a class that requires you to focus. The idea is that when you focus on something else, the originating issue loses its power, and you will no longer feel the uncomfortable emotion so significantly.  


As you feel stronger in your recovery, it will become increasingly appropriate to begin to address the personal structures that define your perspective in life and may be contributing to your experience of different emotions. In a pinch, you can always fall back on distracting yourself but when you feel more calm, it will serve you better in the long run to investigate why you react a certain way to certain situations or people. 

For many people, the biggest part of the problem is not the situations that develop around them but their assumptions and perspectives that cause those situations to be experienced as negative. For example, if it irritates you that you buy a pack of gum at the gas station every day and the cashier not only never remembers your name but never says thank you, consider the assumptions that support your emotional response. You expect that the cashier should behave in a certain way. You believe that, at this point, the cashier should know who you are and that, in any case, a simple thank you is the bare minimum in courtesy. Because of these assumptions, your response is to feel irritated, offended, disrespected, ignored, and invisible – justifiably so, right?  

Maybe not. Maybe you don’t have to assume that there is a right way or a wrong way for the cashier to respond. Maybe there are other things going on with the cashier, it has nothing to do with you at all, and compassion is a more appropriate response. Or maybe there are other stores you could go to and buy a pack of gum every day that will not provide you with the same experience. The assumptions that you have to choose this store and that a response from someone – or lack of response – is needed are assumptions you can challenge and change. The end result can be that you no longer experience negative emotions and your emotional sobriety will be stronger. 

Start Small

Even if you identify certain assumptions that may be making your life more difficult emotionally, it is not always an easy thing to simply shift gears. Emotions often arise unbidden, and it can take time to “retrain your brain” and change the underlying assumptions. Patience with yourself is key, as is starting small. As soon as you notice irritation, frustration, or jealousy beginning to surface, stop and take a look at the situation. Ask yourself what it is that you are assuming that is creating your reaction. The idea is to:  

  • Identify the negative emotion in its earliest stages 
  • Have someone (e.g., a therapist, sponsor, close friend, etc.) who you can call and discuss the issue with right away 
  • Consider what may have led up to or contributed to these feelings, both the specifics of the situation itself and how you feel (e.g., hungry, tired, etc.) 
  • Determine how you can change course mentally and/or physically to decrease or eliminate the negative emotion 

Start with Treatment

If you are working toward both physical and emotional sobriety, the place to begin is professional treatment. No matter what the drug of choice, a unique combination of therapeutic services can help you to create a solid foundation in recovery and start the process of working toward the emotional sobriety that will carry you through. 

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