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Emotional Sobriety: What It Is & Why It Matters For Your Recovery

Let’s talk emotional sobriety. 

What you never fully appreciate until you do it is just how much goes into NOT drinking that has nothing to do with alcohol. 

It’s wild. 

Quitting alcohol is one of the hardest, most confusing experiences, but it’s also one of the most rewarding decisions you can make for yourself.

In the past six years of sobriety, I’ve learned that sobriety requires much more emotional work than I expected. 

It’s not just about avoiding alcohol. 

(Although that’s a huge part of it.)

In this article, I’ll share some insights about emotional sobriety, debunk common misconceptions, and offer practical advice to help you cultivate emotional sobriety in your daily life. 

Whether you’re new to recovery or a seasoned veteran, I hope you’ll find value in this discussion. So, let’s get started!

What is meant by emotional sobriety?

Emotional sobriety refers to the ability to manage and regulate your emotions in a healthy way without relying on drugs, alcohol, or any other addictive substances or behaviors.

It means dealing with life’s ups and downs head-on and not retreating into avoidant behaviors.

Contrary to what some may think, it doesn’t mean life is sunshine and moonbeams, or you don’t have difficult days.

It just means you can manage it without drinking or falling to pieces.

Without this skill, staying sober becomes extremely difficult.

A sober woman wraps herself in a blanket and smiles out at the sea enjoying her newfound emotional sobriety
What is emotional sobriety?

Who coined the phrase emotional sobriety?

The term “emotional sobriety” is often attributed to Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Wilson used the phrase in a letter he wrote in 1958, in which he discussed the importance of emotional sobriety in long-term recovery.

In the letter, Wilson described emotional sobriety as the next frontier of AA, beyond physical sobriety, and emphasized the need for individuals in recovery to achieve emotional balance and maturity to maintain sobriety.

And thus, here we are, talking about it and trying to achieve it.  

Emotional Sobriety vs. Physical Sobriety

While physical sobriety focuses on freeing yourself from the grip of addiction by avoiding substances, emotional sobriety targets your inner world.

It forces us to address the emotional challenges that may have contributed to our addiction in the first place.

Personally, I found the latter to be the most challenging.

Most of the physical symptoms have passed within the first month of sobriety. It’s the emotional and psychological impacts that tend to linger. 

And that’s when we shift into the next phase by tackling the emotional stuff. 

Unresolved Emotions in Addiction

Unresolved emotions, such as trauma, grief, or feelings of inadequacy, often contribute to addiction. 

Getting drunk is a quick way to change things we can’t or won’t deal with. 

These emotions can create a void you might have tried to fill with substances, leading to a cycle of self-destructive behavior.

And it is a cycle. 

Alcohol alters our brains and body systems, making us more stressed, less emotionally resilient, and more inclined to drink. 

It is insidious that way. 

When we quit drinking, the emotional aftermath can feel overwhelming.

All of those unresolved emotions are still there, in need of tending. At the same time, our brain chemistry is trying to heal from drinking. Chances are you’re walking around in a dopamine deficit state, miserable and on edge. 

By working on your emotional sobriety, you’ll address the underlying issues that may have fueled your addiction, a critical step in healing and moving forward with your life. 

You don’t want to be stuck walking around in a depressed, emotionally reactive state, white-knuckling your way through life. Believe me. I’ve tried it. 

Emotional sobriety can help you avoid that fate and (hopefully) relapse.

A stressed woman grips the front of her hairline in frustration. She is struggling with emotional sobriety.
emotional sobriety and unresolved feelings

How Emotional Sobriety Improves Mental Health and Resilience

By learning to regulate emotions in a healthy way, we can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

Working on emotional sobriety involves things like learning strategies for managing stress and exerting more control over your emotional reaction to things. 

You’ll also learn how to communicate your needs and emotions to others effectively. 

This helps you process and work through trauma, feelings of guilt, and other things that keep us tethered to the past and unable to deal with life more broadly. 

I don’t know about you, but this was an enormous growth area for me when I quit drinking.

I felt like I was made of glass near the end. Everything just set me off, and I felt like I was constantly cycling through feelings of anger, resentment, regret, and hopelessness.

I was constantly stressed out, and even when I knew my physical reaction to something was over the top, I couldn’t get my body to chill out and relax. Everything literally felt like an emergency. 

By removing the alcohol and working on strategies to regulate emotions more effectively, I was able to break free of that cycle, which is my hope for you, as well. 

Signs You’re Struggling With Emotional Sobriety

Most of us are at least mildly aware when we don’t handle things well or are in an emotionally reactive state. But sometimes, we go so long being terrible at emotional regulation that we don’t even realize how bad of shape we are in. 

In that case, there are some signs to look out for:

1. You feel overwhelmed by negative emotions and cravings. 

If you find yourself frequently experiencing strong emotional reactions and cravings, this may be a sign that you need to focus on your emotional sobriety.

Both are very normal when you quit drinking, but if it’s a constant battle, that’s a sign that you need additional support. (AND THAT IS OKAY!)

This might include feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions, having difficulty expressing emotions, or experiencing mood swings.

If you’re over a month into sobriety and still feel like you’re thinking about not drinking more often than not, that’s another sign that you may need to work on things. 

Again, it’s all fine if that’s your experience.

My primary goal is to help you get to the other side of the tough stuff, no matter how long that takes. 

For more on this point, I highly recommend this video:

2. You’re struggling with codependency and maintaining relationships. 

If you are in a codependent relationship where you constantly prioritize someone else’s needs above your own, your recovery will be jeopardized.

Emotional sobriety will teach you to set healthy boundaries and build a high sense of self-worth to maintain them. 

But healthy relationships can be challenging in recovery.

It’s why many programs discourage people from dating until they have at least a year sober. But if you’re already in a relationship, it does present an added layer of challenge. 

Or maybe the emotional volatility of your sobriety is causing a rift in your personal life. It’s all another sign that your inner world needs more attention. 

It’s also why groups like Al-Anon exist – to help family and spouses of alcoholics get through this really rough period in their lives. 

3. You’re struggling to find meaning or purpose in your life. 

This was one of the hardest things for me when I quit drinking, and something that I hear from a lot of people. They’ve got a few months of sobriety under their belt, maybe even more. 

But life kind of sucks.

Nothing is fun.

All their friends drink, and they don’t feel like they fit in anymore. They try to find fun things to do, but it’s just not working. 

They’re suffering from boredom and feeling like sobriety isn’t fulfilling its promise of a better, happier life. 

If you are feeling this way, it is okay. You are not alone. I had no idea what to do with my life for the first year and a half of sobriety. I was also a new mom, which occupied a lot of space in my brain.

Beyond that? I had no clue. 

But I felt a lot of pressure to figure it out quickly because I was staring down the end of my 30s feeling like I was starting over, and I couldn’t get excited about anything. 

And although it’s normal to experience some depression in early sobriety, you shouldn’t be stuck in a rut for months or years after you quit. That’s a sign that more intervention is needed. 

4. You feel stuck in your recovery. 

Another sign that it’s time to invest more into improving your emotional sobriety is feeling stuck in your recovery. 

This is related to #3 in a lot of ways. 

If you feel like you’re not making progress or like you managed to quit drinking but nothing else is improving about your life, you might need additional support. 

Whether you join a program or work with a recovery coach or therapist, asking for help is important.

A lot of us get stuck. 

It’s not like we don’t want to snap out of it and feel happy and fulfilled. But sometimes, it’s not that simple, and we need someone to help us unpack those unresolved emotions holding us back. 

If you don’t, you risk falling victim to #5 on this list. 

5. You’re angry and resentful. 

This is also known as being a “Dry Drunk” (although you don’t hear this terminology used as much anymore). 

The American Addiction Centers describes the dry drunk as someone who “feel(s) overwhelmed, as though they are white-knuckling through life without their substance of choice.”

The dry drunk isn’t drinking, but beyond that, they haven’t changed a bit.

She doesn’t go to therapy because she believes therapists don’t know anything. The dry drunk quit AA after one meeting because it’s just a bunch of weirdos, and he knows it’s never going to work, so why bother?

Dry drunks walk around life pissed off and cynical.

They hold onto emotional baggage from their drinking days, wallow in old grudges, and are bitter creatures. Dry drunks romanticize their drinking days and struggle to take responsibility for how they got into trouble with alcohol in the first place.

Everything is unfair, including the no-drinking part. 

And listen, we’ve all been angry, bitter, and resentful at our situation, I’m sure of it. But if you stay stuck in this emotional space, there’s nowhere to go. 

So it’s okay if you feel pissed off at the beginning that you have to quit drinking while others get to carry as usual. But if you’re still giving that energy months or years later? No bueno. 

How Do You Get Emotional Sobriety?

Alright, so you’ve come this far. The next question is, “How do I achieve this?” What steps can we take, both independently and with the support of others, to address the emotional challenges inherent to sobriety?

1. Actively work on developing more self-awareness and emotional intelligence. 

This is a great life skill, so you’ll reap many benefits from this one. 

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, understand, and manage one’s own emotions, as well as to recognize and influence the emotions of others. It involves skills like self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills.

There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Keep a journal: Regularly writing down your thoughts and emotions can help you better understand your feelings and recognize patterns in your behavior.
  • Practice self-reflection: Set aside time daily to reflect on your emotions, experiences, and personal growth. This will help you build self-awareness and learn from your successes and challenges.
  • Seek feedback from trusted friends or family members: They can provide valuable insights into your emotional patterns and behaviors, helping you better understand yourself. This one isn’t easy because you’re making yourself vulnerable to others, so make sure you’re prepared for that. 
  • Practice observing your feelings: We’ll talk about mindfulness a few times, but make a habit of slowing down and observing your emotional reactions in real-time. You’ll start to notice patterns and ways of behaving that you can work on pretty quickly. 

2. Establish healthy coping mechanisms. 

Gone are the days of nursing a bad day with alcohol. So what now? Because those bad days are still going to be there. This is why you need to set up healthy coping mechanisms. Examples include:

3. Build a strong support system. 

Having good people on your team is critical. Sobriety can feel really lonely, especially if your friends are all old drinking buddies. Who do you turn to now? That’s where building a strong support system comes into play. 

  • Join a support group: Connecting with others who share similar experiences can provide encouragement, understanding, and accountability. There are plenty of online support spaces you can join as well as in-person groups. Don’t be afraid of the in-person groups. I know we’re all very online these days, but that person-to-person connection really does make a difference. 
  • Cultivate healthy friendships: Surround yourself with positive, supportive individuals who respect your sobriety and emotional well-being.
  • Stay connected with your family: Rebuilding and maintaining strong family relationships can be crucial for long-term recovery. I know this can be tricky for some people because a lot of us burned some bridges on our path to sobriety. And some people have family members who are detrimental to their recovery. But if you have a good support system there, take the initiative to nurture those ties. 

4. Get therapy or counseling. 

I harp on this a lot, but it really does help. There’s only so much a stranger on the internet (me) can help you with. It’s essential to work with someone who is qualified to help you and gets to understand your particular struggles intimately. 

  • Work with a therapist or counselor: A mental health professional can help you explore and address underlying emotional issues, teach you coping strategies, and guide you in your emotional sobriety journey.
  • Consider group therapy: Sharing your experiences and learning from others in a group setting can be a powerful way to develop emotional sobriety skills and foster personal growth.
  • Explore different therapeutic approaches: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and trauma-informed therapy are just a few of the many therapeutic approaches that can help you build emotional sobriety. Don’t be shy about participating in your own recovery. Learn about these approaches and what they can do. Be invested in your own healing. It really does help with buy-in. 
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5. Practice mindfulness and/or meditation. 

This is the other thing I’m constantly harping on and will bring up in 90% of posts on sobriety. Meditation and mindfulness really do help.

Not only will you restore more emotional balance to your life, but both can help you heal the parts of your brain that were negatively affected by drinking. It’s not a quick fix, but over time, you will see the benefits. 

  • Begin a daily meditation practice: Meditation can help you cultivate self-awareness, reduce stress, and enhance emotional balance.
  • Try mindfulness techniques: Mindfulness exercises, such as mindful breathing or body scans, can help you stay present and more effectively manage your emotions.
  • Attend mindfulness workshops or retreats: These events can deepen your mindfulness practice and connect you with a supportive community.

Stick with it:

Emotional sobriety is an ongoing endeavor, like exercise and anything else we do to live a healthy life. So this is the beginning of a lifestyle change for you. 

You may even think emotional sobriety is a bit of a misnomer. Isn’t this just all in service of good mental health? 

It is, but we have to pay special attention to a lot of these symptoms and solutions in sobriety because when we don’t, we don’t just risk having a bad day. We risk throwing our sobriety in the bin and drinking again. 

And I don’t want that for you. 

Want more resources for staying sober?

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  1. I loved every word in this blog. You are hands down, a genius writer. Love being part of your FB group too. Day 355. Emotional sobriety will continue to be key is sustaining my sobriety.

  2. I…absolutely….LOVE…this….thank you …I’ve got 81 days sober and it’s hard for me to find things that I relate to AND are feasible for me to do…I love my AA family bit this is a great addition to my journey

    1. Thank you! And congrats on 81 days!! We’ve also got a really good private facebook group if you ever want additional support. Lots of supportive, amazing people in there, but we’re not so large that you get lost in it. Just a couple hundred with a handful of really active members. It’s been great!