There are two kinds of sobriety:

  1. ​​Physical
  2. Emotional

Physical sobriety is the act of completely abstaining from drinking and using substances. Emotional sobriety is the process of learning how to feel and cope with all the difficult emotions and challenging relationship dynamics that most people experience after they achieve physical sobriety.

Emotional sobriety skills are vitally important to the recovery process because emotions and interpersonal conflicts are the leading causes of relapse. According to research conducted by Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, here are the top four conditions that make people vulnerable to relapse:

  1. Negative emotional states—many people use drugs and alcohol to manage difficult emotions. Physically abstaining from substances— especially after long-term use—frequently creates a flood of challenging, unfamiliar emotional states.
  2. Interpersonal Conflict—this includes conflict with both individuals and groups of people. According to Marlatt’s research, reasons 1 and 2 account for 50% of all relapses.
  3. Social Pressure—this includes: direct pressure from peers and indirect pressure that comes from “exposure” to risky people and places. A common example of indirect pressure occurs when people in early recovery decide to “test” themselves by going to risky places like bars and social events where people are drinking. Most people are able to avoid relapse during the actual exposure, and they mistakenly see this as a major success. It's very common, however, for anger, resentment and other negative emotions to build up days after; leading to relapse further down the line.
  4. Positive Emotional States—it might seem odd that people would relapse when they feel good, but the problem with positive feelings is that many people associate them with drinking and substance use. In fact, many people have almost been “trained” to use substances to enhance positive feelings that arise during celebratory situations like parties.

All four causes of relapse identified by Marlatt's research are especially challenging in early recovery because they're driven by a normal, highly-adaptive function of the human brain called habituation.

Habituation is a form of learning that helps us sort out stimuli that we can ignore, in order to reduce complexity in our daily lives. Driving is an easily understood example of this. When we first learn to drive, we’re hyper-sensitive to all the stimuli coming at us on the road and in our car. We notice street signs, pedestrians, signals from other drivers, our hand on the wheel, the pressure of our feet on various pedals, etc.

After an extended period of time, we stop consciously paying attention to much of this stimuli and we begin to respond in an automatic, habituated fashion. With something like driving, habituation is amazing because we no longer have to consciously think about all the stimuli coming at us. Our subconscious brain manages it and our body automatically does what it needs to do to get us where we’re going.

Habituation is obviously useful for repetitive tasks such as driving and riding a bike, but automatic, habituated responses to unconscious stimuli become extremely problematic for people who struggle with addictive behaviors.

Like a new driver who notices all the street signs when they’re first learning how to drive, people who are at the very beginnings of an addictive behavior will probably notice the stimuli that cause them to use. For example, people who experience social anxiety might notice that their anxiety level goes way down if they drink. Other people might notice that the pain they experience when their parents scream at them becomes much less intense if they take some Vicodin.

In both cases, there’s a stimuli (social anxiety, screaming people) and an  action in response. Through the process of habituation, the stimuli becomes unconscious and the action becomes automatic. This means that once people have been habituated to an addictive behavior, their use becomes automatic and no longer reliant on any kind of conscious awareness of triggering stimuli.

Going back to the reasons that people relapse, some people are habituated to drink when they feel anxiety or fear.

Some people are habituated to use substances like Meth when they feel sexual or powerful because Meth can enhance these feelings and allow them to feel even more powerful.

Some people are habituated to use Opiates when they’re relationships become chaotic and people around them are agitated. Opiates bring energy and emotions down to a more manageable level.

After extended periods of addiction, the initial stimuli that led to substance use is no longer important and the addictive behavior becomes automatic. To address the automatic nature of habituated behaviors, we must find ways to slow the entire process down so we can start to examine the unconscious connections that have developed between triggering stimuli and habituated behaviors.

Emotional Sobriety is a process of interrupting habituated responses by slowing them down and identifying tools to change them. In my work I focus on both emotion management and interpersonal relationships because these are the two most common reasons that people relapse.

Please see Mindfulness  and  Relationship resources on this site for additional tools and information.

Copyright © 2020 Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.

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What is Emotional Sobriety?

How Does it Help to Prevent Relapse?

By Dario Martinez
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Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist