Most healthy adults cycle through stages of learning, reflection, and growth. Those cycles are how humans continually improve. They also help explain why some traditional knowledge about addiction and recovery is no longer considered valid. Addicts do not achieve emotional sobriety any more than otherwise healthy people achieve maturity, strength, or wisdom. These are pursuits that evolve, not destinations where people arrive. With the right tools and support, the lifelong journey of a recovering addict does not have to be peppered with setbacks that lead to nowhere. It can be as healthy, positive, and empowering as any journey toward self-improvement.

Physical Sobriety is a Goal; Emotional Sobriety is Life

“Personal growth isn’t like checking to-do items off of a list. We carry who we are from one item to the next, and we stay who we are throughout our entire lives.” — Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D, Psychology Today

Addiction recovery begins with physical sobriety. It is a linear process, explains Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. for Psychology Today.

The elimination of the addictive substance creates a sober body over time. This period of recovery can be quite intense, but it is temporary.

Emotional sobriety, on the other hand, is not linear; it is cyclical. Mathieu explains that it is a path that spirals and grows outward to larger and larger degrees over time. “In this view, there really are no wrong turns when it comes to emotional sobriety,” she says. There are only opportunities to return to a challenge and redefine it with what you have learned.

Setbacks may occur on any emotional journey, but every experience adds another layer of knowledge on which you can build.

Addiction Impairs Emotional Development, Recovery Restarts It

“Emotional sobriety is a crucial part of the addict’s growth – necessary not only to stay sober, but also to catch up on emotional development.” — George Joseph, LCDC, for Dr. Oz.

George Joseph, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, for the Dr. Oz site, says addiction is typically a “young person’s disease,” not because all addicts are young, but because addiction often sets in during youth. Emotional recovery involves a reprogramming, of sorts. Where addiction stalls development, emotional sobriety lets the learning begin again.

Addicts avoid withdrawal by choosing a substance over something healthier, even basics such as food and water. A lack of decision-making skills overrides healthier choices. The addicted person’s brain is “hijacked,” says Joseph.

Emotional sobriety takes time, patience, and dedication. Just as a healthy person learns both positive and negative life lessons and acquires coping mechanisms through experience, so must an addict.

Attention and Meditation Support Emotional Sobriety

“Long-term emotional sobriety requires the slow, steady rethinking about all the people, places and things that once did—and could again—throw us off kilter.” — Wray Herbert, Scientific American.

People tend to manage stressful situations by either distracting themselves or focusing on the problem. Distraction is an effective technique for physical sobriety, partly because it is an attainable goal and the experience is strong. For long-term emotional sobriety, however, distraction denies the addicted person access to important tools for learning, processing, and growth.

Scientific American  columnist, Wray Herbert, calls distraction “unthinking.” Cognitive disengagement helps the addicted person ward off the intense cravings that accompany physical sobriety. Emotional sobriety takes attention. Fortunately, humans appear to be hardwired for it.

Engaging with mildly negative emotions helps you process and interpret them. Joseph explains that over time, coping skills emerge through learning, not avoidance. In early stages, avoidance can help get you through rough times. As emotional recovery continues, exposure helps you defend against relapse.

Physical and emotional sobriety are two vastly different things. A person can eliminate the addicting substance and achieve physical sobriety, but remain emotionally addicted. Fortunately,  recovery is not a pass-or-fail endeavor.

Emotional sobriety opens doors for you to learn from experience. Just as the journey toward good health or even spiritual enlightenment is never finished, the journey toward freedom from addictive substances is ongoing. Emotional sobriety is a lifelong pursuit.

If you or someone you care about struggle with addiction, there is help. Contact us to learn how support and a caring staff can restart growth and help you begin a lifetime of recovery.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.