Home » Mental Health » Emotions In Early Sobriety Are Tough. Here’s How To Tackle Them.
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Emotions In Early Sobriety Are Tough. Here’s How To Tackle Them.

Learning to navigate all your emotions in early sobriety is hard.

Some days it feels damn near impossible. I don’t just mean the difficult ones like anger, shame, or loneliness. Even managing extreme joy can be tough without alcohol.

It reminds me of this commercial that aired in the States several years back about quitting smoking. The video showed several people struggling with the most basic tasks – buttoning a shirt, ironing, and driving a car.

The message was something to the effect that learning to live life without cigarettes feels like you’re completely starting over. You have to relearn how to exist as a person without a cigarette, and the people in the video seemed comically inept.

At the time the ad aired (I can’t seem to find a copy of it anywhere online), I was still a smoker and would give a knowing sigh whenever it came on. I completely understood.

The same is also true of drinking.

Learning How To Be A Person Who Doesn’t Drink

Every time I tried quitting smoking in the past, I felt like I’d just woken up from a coma ten years into the future.

How do people drive their cars for longer than twenty minutes without smoking? Or have an argument without smoking? How do people walk outside for longer than five minutes without smoking?

Functioning without cigarettes felt impossible, foreign. I couldn’t understand how anyone ever did it, even as I increasingly became the only smoker in many circles. 

Then there was the alcohol.

How do you go to a party and not drink? How do you celebrate a holiday and not drink? Or get together with friends and not drink?

What about stress? How does someone come home from a horrible job every day and not immediately drink?

Surely you don’t suggest I just handle my emotions without anything to help me!

Raw emotions? Me?

I felt like an emotional toddler (and maybe I was). Without my crutches, I didn’t understand how to react to anything in a healthy way.

In a lot of ways, the things I was feeling felt completely NEW. What is this emotion welling up in my throat right now? Why do I want to cry all of a sudden?

It’s enough to drive a person insane or relapse.

I’ve done a bit of both on my journey.

But first, let’s talk about why this happens.

Three angles to a woman's face all showing different emotions. The title reads how to manage emotions in early sobriety
How to Handle Emotions in Early Recovery

Does quitting drinking make you more emotional?

It absolutely does. In particular, you may notice elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and depressed mood after you quit.

But why?

The reason you feel more emotional after you quit drinking has a lot to do with how alcohol disrupts your brain circuitries and neurochemistry and the inflammatory effects of alcohol in your gut and liver.

If you drink chronically at any quantity, it could be as little as one drink per night or the equivalent, you are at risk of experiencing neurodegeneration and changes to your neural circuitry that have the following effects:

  • Diminished mood and feelings of self-worth
  • Increased levels of baseline stress and anxiety when not drinking
  • A desire to drink more alcohol

When you quit drinking, it takes time for your brain circuitries to get back to normal. That process can feel like an emotional rollercoaster.

Your brain is low on dopamine and serotonin and wrestling with a new absence of alcohol. Additionally, you have everyday stresses that do not care that you’re trying to quit drinking, and it all feels like a bit much, especially in the first month of sobriety.

Although there’s no magical off switch, I hope there is solace in the fact that it is temporary and eventually goes away.

To learn more about the impact alcohol has on your mood and emotional well-being, I highly recommend this video:

Handling Your Emotions Without Alcohol

A term you may have heard bandied about in recovery circles and literature is “emotional sobriety.”

According to Scientific American, emotional sobriety is defined as “(t)he idea…that alcoholics and other addicts hoping to stay sober over the long haul must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse.”

People who use alcohol to self-medicate do not intuitively know how to regulate their emotions in healthy ways. If we did, we wouldn’t have wound up here.

Different Approaches to Emotional Regulation in Recovery

There’s a bit of debate in the recovery world over the best way to handle emotions in early sobriety in particular. Alcoholics Anonymous says, “first things first,” which means no matter what, don’t drink.

This strategy tells people not to spend mental energy analyzing how they got addicted, the mess they’ve made, or trying to understand the emotion. Just don’t drink. Make that your sole focus and push aside the rest for now.

Another saying is, “Don’t think. Don’t drink.”

In early sobriety, high-intensity emotions can easily derail your sobriety. Don’t let them.

Teach yourself not to engage with these feelings and, instead, DISTRACT with whatever tool you use to get through the tough days. These tools could be exercise, prayer, meditation, or AA meetings.

If you allow yourself to fall down emotional rabbit holes early in sobriety, you increase your chances of relapse.

Take the shame, regret, embarrassment, anger, and remorse and put them aside for now. Just focus on not drinking today, this hour, or this minute.

However, there comes a point where you can’t hide from your feelings any longer. Some people find the effort itself harmful and maddening.

So there are other strategies you can try.

Emotional Sobriety and The Reappraisal Strategy

Because you can’t use distraction forever, there will come a time when you do have to confront your emotions and learn how to handle them in a healthy way.

In the same article from Scientific American, the author discusses how people with healthy emotional coping mechanisms use a combination of distraction (mentioned above) and something called reappraisal, which involves thinking carefully about emotions to reevaluate them.

Distraction is often utilized for intense, negative emotions, whereas reappraisal is used to deal with milder, negative emotions. 

What is reappraisal?

It’s a strategy often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Instead of ignoring the emotion or allowing your brain and body to assign meaning to whatever emotion is taking hold, reappraisal involves accepting your emotions and reinterpreting them to understand them better.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Wait, what?” don’t worry. I got you.

How Reappraisal Works

Let’s say you are confronted with a mildly negative emotion like getting cut off in traffic after a long day at work.

A typical reaction to this might be to become flushed and overcome with adrenaline from a combination of being taken off guard and instantly angered. You may hit the break, angrily smack your steering wheel, and curse the driver who did it.

Now you’re pissed. Now your emotions are elevated. You’re angry Dave Grohl:

Instead of flipping out and allowing anger to run wild inside your body, reappraisal requires you to slow it down and actively choose to interpret the emotion differently.

So the moron in the Pathfinder has cut you off. You’ve instinctively hit your brakes. You’re okay. Nobody got hurt. Your heart is racing a mile a minute.

Reappraisal means you stop and reevaluate the emotion before letting it run its natural course (which isn’t going to be healthy). Say out loud:

“Okay, I’m safe. That guy is an asshole. But I’m okay. It just scared me. My heart is racing, but I’m going to take a couple of deep breaths and just keep driving until I’m home safe.”

And then you take those breaths, mindfully examining what’s happening in your body as you do it. You make a conscious decision not to lose your shit at that moment. 

Instead of letting anger simmer, you’re redefining it as FEAR from getting cut off and thinking you could’ve gotten hurt.

If you’d like to read more about reappraisal, here’s a good article to explain it further.

Should You Use Reappraisal Or Distraction?

If you’re reading about reappraisal and thinking, “I’m barely getting through the day as it is. That sounds like too much,” don’t worry.

There is a reason that distraction tends to be the go-to strategy in early sobriety.

It’s very common to feel overwhelmed by intense emotions when you first stop drinking. Now that you aren’t drowning your sorrows in alcohol, you’re feeling things you normally don’t allow yourself to feel.

Shame. Regret. Remorse.

There is also a physiological component. Your brain is trying to adjust. Remember, alcohol changes your brain in ways that make you more susceptible to anxiety, depression, diminished mood, and feelings of low self-worth.

Many of those emotions become amplified in the short-term absence of alcohol as your brain chemistry attempts to get back to a healthy baseline.

It’s important to keep that in mind as you build a narrative around your feelings and experience with sobriety.

Emotions in early sobriety are raw.

Sometimes these feelings pop up out of nowhere. You could be shopping for groceries, perfectly content to plan the side dishes for dinner, and then BAM!

Your brain interrupts with a memory of something particularly awful you said to your mom when you got trashed at Christmas last year.

Now you’re wracked with guilt, feeling like the worst human being in the world. This is exactly the kind of emotion that makes you want to drink.

Don’t. Just don’t drink. That’s the only thing you have to do. You don’t have to fix anything with your mom right now. You just have to not drink.

Distract.

Shake off the memory and continue shopping. Read the labels on the fancy cheese if it helps take your mind off things.

Go home and do some push-ups. Write in your journal. Attend a meeting. But don’t let yourself get swept up in a memory of something you can never change or take back.

Now is not the time.

Looking for additional strategies or inspiration? Check out this Ted Talk:

The Importance Of Therapy

I’ve mentioned the importance of therapy in sobriety before, but I want to talk about it again. There will be days when the feelings are overwhelming like it’s all too much.

Seeing a therapist or counselor regularly can help you confront these emotions in a healthy way when you’re ready to do so. Obviously, you cannot recreate scenes from Flashdance in your living room to distract yourself from emotions forever.

Distraction is what you do to get through that day or minute without drinking, but it is not a long-term strategy.

You will burn out that way.

Practice your reappraisal strategies with incidents that don’t have too much power over you, like coping with a rude lady behind you in line at the pharmacy.

But get thee to a counselor so that you have a safe space with a trained professional who can help you manage your “stuff.”

You abused alcohol. You don’t know how to handle your emotions in a healthy way. You’re an emotional newbie now.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t try to kid yourself by thinking you can white-knuckle your feelings until they magically “get better.”

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist with the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

Beware The Pink Cloud

The “pink cloud” of sobriety is a devilish thing.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “pink cloud” refers to the euphoric feeling some people get in early sobriety. It’s that exciting, overly positive, “I can do anything!” vibe that has you walking with an extra pep in your step.

Sobriety? This is easy! I’ve got this! I just had an amazing green smoothie and did five yoga classes last week.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Okay, this is a bad thing?”

Well, yeah. Kinda.

Maybe a better way to put it is that it is false. A lie.

Have you ever met someone and there’s an instant attraction?  The two of you are in total mind melt, and it’s like you’ve known them forever. You feel high. Obviously, this is your “person.”

Then a few weeks go by, reality sets in, and you realize that you don’t know him or her at all. In fact, they ghosted you, and now you’re left holding the emotional bad by yourself.

The pink cloud can be like that.

People who are riding high on the recovery wave in the early weeks often make the grave mistake of thinking they don’t need to attend their meetings or see their counselor anymore. They’re “fixed.” Life is great. They’ve got it all figured out.

Those people tend to relapse fairly quickly.

The reality is those people are living in a fantasy world. How many of us who’ve tried to quit in the past got back into drinking because we felt a little TOO good?

We think, “Hey, I can have one glass of wine now. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

If you’re on the pink cloud right now, enjoy the good vibes, but don’t trust them too much. You aren’t fixed; chances are if you go back and have a drink, it will lead you down a path you don’t want to be on.

How To Handle Feeling Overwhelmed

If you’re having a hard time right, please know that it DOES get better.

There are going to be highs and lows on this journey. You could feel completely stable for days or weeks and then get hit with an emotional tsunami threatening to throw you completely off your game.

It’s normal.

There’s nothing wrong or broken about you. We all go through it.

Make sure you have your support systems in place. See a therapist regularly, even if you feel fine, and continue attending meetings or whatever program you choose.

The key to long-term success is consistency and humility.

A woman's face is overlayed by her profiles, each image expressing a different emotion. The title reads "how to tackle emotions in sobriety"
Tackling Emotions in Sobriety PIN

Journal Activity For This Topic

It’s important to take time to check in yourself and how you’re feeling early on. Here are some prompts you can use to synthesize today’s information.

  • How have you been feeling? List out the emotions you’ve been experiencing since you started this journey.
  • Do you think you’re on the “pink cloud” or are you struggling with more intense emotions? Write about that
  • Have your emotions been consistent or up and down? What has that been like?
  • Which emotions have been the hardest for you to manage? How are you handling them?
  • What support systems are you using to manage emotions right now? Friends? AA (or a similar program)? Counseling?
  • How have you or will you use “distraction” to manage intense emotions?
  • How have you or will use “reappraisal” to start reshaping milder negative emotions?
  • How have you used alcohol in the past to manage your emotions? 

Additional Resources

Here’s a fabulous talk about addiction, recovery, and managing emotions that I hope you’ll enjoy.

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13 Comments

  1. This is excellent advice for the early days when even the slightest emotion might feel overwhelming.

    But what about situations when reappraisal isn’t appropriate? As you say, “I want to murder that moron in the Pathfinder” is what a CBT therapist would call a “cognitive distortion” and changing that reaction is part of being an emotionally intelligent adult. But being sad because a loved one passed away isn’t something you can reappraise and it’s certainly not an experience you should (or can) try to watch with remote detachment. Being overwhelmed because you work 60-hour weeks just to get by (let’s say for the sake of argument that this is despite lots of work to improve one’s situation, not because of sheer unwillingness to pull oneself up by the bootstraps and pick a better job off the Better Job Tree) and have to keep house at the end of that isn’t “over-reactive” — it IS an awful situation that would make anyone (except maybe the pinnacle of Type A personalities) feel stressed out. What can you do to handle your emotions and avoid relapse in these situations, and any others where distraction or “reassessment” are either unhelpful or inappropriate?

  2. Thanks for this article. It has helped me immensely today by reassuring me that how I currently feel is normal and all part of the process. Been a day of confusion, feeling lost and overwhelmed, yet also weirdly productive. Anyhow thanks and I am going to get a therapist, been debating it for a while now.

  3. Hi,
    I stumbled on your post after delivering a brutal message to my partner that the sober me wants changes. I don’t want to be the person that needs a drink to unwind. I’m on day 28 sobriety. I usually drink twice a week to reward myself. But I really don’t like that person after 32 years her using wine as an emotional buddy.
    My honesty hasn’t gone down well, as its ended in me being shunned. Where this leave our relationship I don’t know. But I owe it to myself at the age of 50 to be the person I deserve without using alcohol as the pat on the back relaxation go to.
    Thanks for your words…..

  4. Thank you Alicia, your content is very helpful and informative.
    Love & gratitude,
    Sharan

  5. I absolutely adore your page. Everything you post just hits home for me, especially the one about self care lol I laughed out loud so many times reading it! How true about saying no to ourselves vs these essential oil bubble baths that I swear consume my entire Pinterest home page every time I open it! Haha! Anyways before I ramble on anymore my point is thank you so much for sharing your experiences and views with others like myself who are constantly looking for advice on people who “get” my life..
    sincerely,
    Kayla xo 🌸

  6. I’m three months sober, and you have helped me in more ways than you can imagine. I’ve been reading a lot of literature that’s helped, but you are by far the person I feel I connect with. I really enjoyed the video resource that dealt with self esteem. I’m past the pink cloud, and depression has really taken ahold of me. I’m thankful for my husband and children who love and support me, but I haven’t been loving myself. After reading the content you wrote and the video, I feel a lot better and I’m going to work on loving myself more. Thank you so very much.

    1. Wendy, this is such a tremendous compliment. Thank you! Congratulations on three months sobriety!! I understand where you’re at right now. It does get better. As you get further along in your sobriety and start doing more positive things, how you feel about yourself will start to change as well. Hang in there and please let me know how I can support you!

  7. I pin so much of your content. You have a real presence when it comes to recovery. You hit the nail on the head every time. My belief is that drinking/drugging is a cover-up for real or imagined trauma in early life, family life, relationships and self-esteem (among others). AA is great for some people, but, having an emotional meltdown and being told ‘don’t drink no matter what’ is like telling a 2-year-old to stop throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, or telling a depressed friend to ‘snap out of it.’ I think the priority is coping skills for the gamut of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that slam the mind in early recovery. Your content is so helpful.

    1. Thank you so much for this! It means a lot to me and I’m so happy that you’re connecting with my content. And YES, coping skills are so key, otherwise, we just end up shifting our “stuff” around onto other things (which I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count). I really appreciate your support!

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