Why Emotional Sobriety Matters

"You can conquer others with power, but it takes true strength to conquer yourself." – Lao Tzu, Taoist philosopher

"You can conquer others with power, but it takes true strength to conquer yourself." – Lao Tzu, Taoist philosopher

There are two types of sobriety: Physical and emotional. I asked Dr. Jason Powers, the chief medical officer of Right Step – the alcohol and drug treatment center that I run – to help me write on this topic and here is what we came up with:

Physical sobriety is the easy part. Anyone can quit a thousand times, but only the fortunate can quit for good. Emotional sobriety is not automatically rendered with physical sobriety. Emotional sobriety can be defined as resiliency, wisdom and balance. It’s a metaphor of sorts for addicts who develop emotional intelligence over the course of their journeys in recovery.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that involves dysfunctional motivation, reward, impulse-control and stress-response systems. The addict’s changed brain is hijacked. We use this term because the ancient limbic system commandeers the more recently acquired neocortex, leading the addict to use drugs like alcohol, cocaine or pain pills and to avoid withdrawal no matter what – even if that means denying himself water, food and sex. In studies with drug-addicted animals, the animals prefer to use drugs, despite having food, water or mates in heat; in many studies, drug-dependent animals chose drugs over sustenance until they finally died. Truly, then, the term “hijacked” in reference to the addicted brain is apropos.

Since brain changes are profound and take many years to normalize, addicts early in recovery often relapse due to decision-making impairments. Many of our patients cannot answer the question, “What were you thinking?” Triggers, like environmental cues or emotional pain, can change the addict’s behavior automatically because the addiction center lies in the subconscious. Researchers have discovered that we can strengthen the addict’s defense against a relapse by enhancing their overall wisdom, resiliency, equanimity and innate coping skill set – in other words, we can help them achieve emotional sobriety.

The need to reinforce addicts’ emotional sobriety was recognized in the early years of traditional recovery fellowships. In The Grapevine, published by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1958, AA co-founder Bill Wilson realized that emotional sobriety was the next frontier. He was hopeful that veteran AA members would make emotional sobriety an actual movement within the organization.

Emotional sobriety never became a movement at all – nor is it a formally-recognized addition to AA or the 12 steps. Still, 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.

Addiction is a young person’s disease because use of substances usually begins during youth, before the brain has fully matured. The addict becomes arrested at the stage of development when he starts using. So, emotional sobriety is also a fundamental factor in helping an addict catch up developmentally.

Any one article cannot possibly do justice to how one acheives emotional sobriety. But a brief overview is warranted here. Resiliency comes with time, practice and guidance. Meditation can be the most useful tool in developing resiliency because it enhances the neocortex’s ability to rise above the emotional noise of the lower brain structures, allowing addicts to choose to respond to life’s curveballs rather than react to them. Mediators show a decrease in sympathetic stimulation; even when stressed, meditators are not as reactive to that stress as are those who do not meditate.  

We cannot teach wisdom; it must be learned. One of the worst mistakes I see parents of addicts make is that they do not let their children fall down. Without lessons gleaned from experience, there will be no wisdom. If we do not fall down, how can we learn to pick up ourselves up? What is wisdom, if not the perspective of experience? Addiction is one of those inherently traumatic diseases that patients learn many lessons from – but addiction alone is not enough. Recovery is a progressive path, not a perfect one. And wisdom comes with lessons learned the hard way, in and out of recovery. All human beings share this one.

The last component of emotional sobriety is balance. This one is tricky for addicts. It can easily be argued that teaching a fish to ride a bicycle while underwater is easier than teaching an addict balance. But no matter the difficulty, if a blind person can climb Mount Everest, anyone can learn balance, right? The type of balance inherent in emotional sobriety is not the type associated with moderation as seen in moderate drinking. Instead, the balance I direct patients to incorporate is of the multidimensional living variety. Some addicts get sober and throw themselves into work, neglecting their relationships, mental health, physical health and spirituality. In short, the balance of emotional sobriety is in intentionally focusing on all five of those arenas in life, rather than in just one. 

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