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How Mindfulness Helps With Emotional Regulation in Sobriety

When I started my sober journey, I quickly realized it wasn’t just about removing alcohol from my life; it was about understanding and managing the emotions that drove me to drink in the first place. 

Mindfulness became an important tool in my toolbox, not as a cure, but as a way to live with these emotions without being overwhelmed by them. 

It’s a practice I’ve woven into the fabric of my daily life, one that has offered me clarity and calm in moments I used to meet with a drink.

In this article, I want to share how mindfulness can help you too, not just to stay sober but to navigate the emotional ups and downs of recovery with a steadier hand.

The Challenge of Emotional Regulation

In sobriety, we’re often confronted with the raw, unfiltered emotions that alcohol used to help us escape. 

Emotional regulation is about understanding and managing these feelings in a healthy way. It’s a skill that becomes crucial when the numbing effect of alcohol is no longer in the picture.

And by the way – this is true for a wide range of people, not just those who struggle with problematic or gray area drinking.

Even if you’re someone who just drinks occasionally after a hard day or as a way to take the edge off a bad situation, this applies to you, too.

A woman relaxes on her couch with eyes closed and arms behind her head focusing on her breathing
mindfulness and emotional regulation in sobriety

The Role of Alcohol in Emotional Dysregulation:

When you drink, you might feel temporarily uplifted or relaxed, but this is often followed by an emotional 180 heightened aggression, depression, or anxiety. This is the rollercoaster effect of alcohol on our emotions at play.

Over time, reliance on alcohol for emotional management can lead to a cycle of dysregulation, where your ability to handle emotions without a drink becomes weakened (or nearly impossible).

The Importance of Emotional Regulation in Recovery:

Learning to regulate emotions is not about suppressing them but understanding and navigating them without being overwhelmed. 

In sobriety, this means recognizing triggers, understanding the roots of our emotional responses, and finding healthy ways to cope. 

It’s about shifting from a reactive state to a responsive one, where we can acknowledge our feelings without letting them dictate our actions.

This is where mindfulness can really help

The Basics of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

In the context of sobriety and emotional regulation, it’s a tool we can use to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Instead of reaching for a drink to escape discomfort, mindfulness teaches us to sit with our emotions, understand them, and respond thoughtfully rather than impulsively.

Mindfulness Principles:

  • Present-Moment Awareness: This is the heart of mindfulness. It’s about tuning into the here and now, experiencing this moment fully, and not getting lost in thoughts about the past or worries about the future. By the way, my brain does the opposite of this naturally, so I had to work really hard against these tendencies. It can be done!
  • Non-Judgmental Observation: We often judge our experiences as good or bad, which can lead to a cycle of craving or aversion. Mindfulness encourages observing thoughts and feelings without labeling them or reacting to them. This helps in understanding our patterns without getting caught up in them.
  • Acceptance: Mindfulness involves accepting whatever arises in the present moment. It doesn’t mean resignation or passivity but recognizing things as they are. This acceptance can reduce the struggle we often feel when experiencing unpleasant emotions. There’s a little of this built into the 12 steps. Remember the Serenity Prayer? Sometimes things suck and that’s just what it is. We have to learn how to be with the sucky moments.
  • Compassion: A key part of mindfulness is being kind to ourselves. Sobriety is challenging, and it’s easy to become our own harshest critic. Mindfulness fosters a compassionate attitude towards ourselves and our experiences.

That self-compassion part is key, by the way.

Sometimes we think we have to beat ourselves up as penance for all the bad stuff we did when we drank. And to be fair, there are probably some folks out there who would like to see us walk around with our tails between our legs. We hurt them a lot.

But that’s a difference between taking responsibility for your behavior and wallowing in the past. Mindfulness can help us make the distinction and move forward with our lives.

Benefits of Mindfulness for Sobriety:

There are so many benefits to adding some sort of mindfulness practice to your sobriety. Please note – it’s not a magic bullet. You aren’t going to practice it for a week and notice an earth shattering change. 

This takes time, so it’s important to know that going into it. That being said, if you stick with it for an extended period of time, trust the process, and keep at it, you’re likely going to experience a number of benefits. 

Here are a few.

  • Enhanced Emotional Regulation: By observing your emotions without judgment, you can better understand their origins and triggers. This awareness can reduce the intensity and impact of negative emotions.
  • Reduced Cravings: Mindfulness helps you recognize cravings for what they are: transient thoughts and feelings – not permanent, just little temporary alarms in our head trying to lead us astray. Understanding this can diminish their power and help you make conscious choices rather than succumbing to impulse.
  • Stress Reduction: Mindfulness is known for its stress-reducing benefits. Less stress can mean fewer triggers for relapse and a more balanced approach to handling life’s challenges.
  • Improved Relationships: As you become more aware of your thoughts and reactions, you can communicate more effectively and respond to others with understanding and empathy.

In short, mindfulness helps pull you out of your own BS and into the real world happening around you – you know, that place we drank to escape.

Mindfulness Techniques for Emotional Regulation

Okay, so that’s the pitch for mindfulness and the many benefits it has for emotional regulation in sobriety. But where do you start? Here are a few suggestions. 

Breathing Exercises:

In the early days of my sobriety, when anxiety felt like a constant companion, I turned to a simple yet powerful ally: breathing exercises. The 4-7-8 method became my go-to strategy. 

Here’s how it works: breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8 seconds. This technique isn’t just a distraction; it’s a way to physiologically calm your nervous system and bring your focus back to the present. 

It was particularly helpful during those moments when a craving hit, and my mind raced towards the false comfort of a drink.

Here, give it a go!

Observation and Acknowledgment:

Acknowledging and observing your emotions is like turning on a light in a dark room. Suddenly, what seemed menacing becomes manageable. 

Early on, I’d catch myself in the throes of a craving and start a dialogue with myself: “Okay, I’m experiencing a craving. My mind is racing. I feel jumpy and agitated.” 

This wasn’t about talking myself out of the feeling but rather acknowledging its presence and understanding its transient nature. 

Journaling was a crucial tool here. Writing down what I was experiencing helped me see patterns and, over time, notice the diminishing power of those cravings.

Mindful Response vs. Reaction:

There’s a significant difference between reacting and responding. Reacting is impulsive, driven by the immediate desire to alleviate discomfort. It’s what I used to do when I’d reach for a drink to quell anxiety or stress. 

Responding, however, is mindful. It’s about taking a moment to notice the craving or emotion, acknowledge it, and then choose an action that aligns with your long-term goals and well-being. 

This shift from reaction to response doesn’t happen overnight, but with practice, it becomes a powerful tool in maintaining sobriety.

Practical Application:

Let’s talk about how to apply these techniques in real-life scenarios. Imagine you’ve had a stressful day at work. You’re on your way home, and the urge to stop by the bar is overwhelming. 

Here’s where you employ your mindfulness techniques. 

First, use the 4-7-8 breathing method to center yourself. As you do this, observe your craving. Note its intensity, where you feel it in your body, and any thoughts racing through your mind. Acknowledge that while the craving is strong now, it’s temporary and will pass. 

Then, respond mindfully. 

Remind yourself why you chose sobriety, the progress you’ve made, and how you’ll feel tomorrow if you give in to the craving. Maybe you decide to call a supportive friend or go for a walk instead of stopping at the bar. 

Each time you do this, you’re not just avoiding a drink; you’re reinforcing a new pattern of mindful response.

Again, incorporating these mindfulness techniques into your daily routine doesn’t mean you won’t face challenges or that cravings will magically disappear. 

But what it does mean is that you’re equipping yourself with a set of tools to navigate those challenges more effectively. 

It’s like working out a muscle.

I can’t do regular pushups. But I know if I practice modified pushups every day, eventually I’ll be able to do a regular pushup and it will feel seamless because I gradually built up the muscles necessary to do them. 

Your brain is like that. 

Incorporating Mindfulness into Daily Sobriety Routine

So how can you get your mental pushups in with regards to mindfulness? I’ve got a few ideas. 

1. Establish Daily Practices:

Incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine doesn’t have to be daunting. It can be as simple as starting your day with a five-minute meditation. Honestly, that’s how I started and then worked up from there.

Sit in a quiet space each morning, focus on your breath, and when your mind wanders (as it will), gently guide it back. 

This isn’t just about calming your mind; it’s about setting a precedent for the day ahead. 

On days when sitting still feels impossible, try a mindful walk. As you walk, really focus on the sensations – the feel of the ground under your feet, the sounds around you, the rhythm of your breath. 

This isn’t just exercise; it’s about being fully present in the moment. 

One caveat – do this before you reach your phone and invite all kinds of whirling thoughts and triggers into your mind. Literally start your day this way before anything else (okay, maybe go pee first and grab a drink of water). It does help!

A sober man sits outside in the nature practicing breathing exercises
mindful strategies for emotional regulation in sobriety

2. Set Mindfulness Reminders:

In the hustle of daily life, it’s easy to forget to be mindful. Setting up reminders can help. (Hell, most people’s Apple Watch will do this for them.)

Use sticky notes with mindfulness cues like “Breathe” or “Be Present” and place them where you’ll see them throughout the day – on your bathroom mirror, the fridge, or your computer monitor. 

You can also use smartphone apps that send you periodic notifications to pause and check in with yourself. These little nudges can be powerful prompts to bring you back to the present moment.

3. Build a Mindful Environment:

Your environment plays a big role in supporting your mindfulness practice. Create a small, dedicated space for meditation or quiet reflection in your home. 

It doesn’t have to be elaborate – just a corner with a comfortable chair or cushion.

Fill it with things that promote calm and focus, like a plant, a soothing piece of art, or a simple object to focus on during meditation. 

Beyond physical space, cultivate relationships that support your mindfulness journey. Connect with others who are walking a similar path, whether in person or through online communities. 

Sharing experiences and tips can be incredibly reinforcing. This is why we talk about the importance of community so much. 

It matters!

Common Obstacles:

Even with the best intentions, obstacles in maintaining a mindfulness practice are inevitable. One of the most common is the feeling of ‘not doing it right.’ 

Many of us get caught up in the idea that there’s a perfect way to practice mindfulness, and when our minds wander, we feel like we’ve failed. 

Another hurdle is the misconception that you need a lot of time to dedicate to the practice. In our busy lives, carving out even a few minutes can seem daunting. And let’s not forget the challenge of emotional discomfort. 

Facing our feelings head-on, without the buffer of alcohol, can be intimidating and sometimes overwhelming.

Strategies for Perseverance:

When you feel like you’re not ‘doing mindfulness right,’ remember, the act of noticing your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back is the practice. 

There’s no perfect way to do it. It’s about the effort and intention, not perfection. 

For the time constraint, integrate mindfulness into your daily activities. Practice deep breathing while doing dishes, or observe your thoughts without judgment as you walk to your car. 

These small moments add up and can have a significant impact. 

Start small. 

If sitting with difficult emotions becomes too much, gently redirect your focus to something neutral like your breath or the sounds around you. 

With time and consistent practice, your capacity to sit with and understand your emotions will grow, making them less daunting and more manageable. 

Remember, mindfulness isn’t about eliminating discomfort but learning to approach life’s challenges with a steadier, more grounded perspective.

And look, I’ll be honest with you: I couldn’t do it consistently at first. That’s how unbearable I found my inner emotional world. I struggled mightily with PAWS and wasn’t able to DIY my way out of it.

It’s why I reached out to get help via counseling. I need additional support and guidance. If you find yourself in that boat, don’t be afraid to get help, too. 

Even if every fiber in your being is saying, “No, you can do this yourself. You don’t need help.” Just do it. 

Your ability to succeed in this is too important and precious to let ego get in the way. 

Need support? Join us on Facebook! Check out our private Soberish Facebook group

When it comes to sobriety and learning how to manage emotions in healthier ways, in the immortal words of Oleta Adams, “I don’t care how you get here; just get here if you can.”

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