Is Sobriety The Same As Abstinence?


Sobriety and abstinence are both important for recovery from addiction. While they share many similarities, sobriety and abstinence differ in several ways. To better understand how these concepts work together to support recovery from addiction, we need to look at each individually.

Abstinence vs. Sobriety

So, the first thing to understand about sobriety and abstinence is that they impact different states of your being. Sobriety refers to the state of mind, while abstinence refers to the state of your body. Abstinence is something you do; sobriety is a feeling you have. Secondly, people can be sober without abstaining from drugs or alcohol—and vice versa. 

What is Sobriety?

The definition of sobriety is said to be a personal one. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as the quality or state of being sober. In 12-Step programs, sobriety refers to people who have achieved and maintained a positive state of mental health. 

However, most people define sobriety as achieving stability in recovery. It focuses on attaining sustained life balance. Some sober people also abstain, but not everyone needs to remain abstinent to practice sobriety. 

What is Abstinence?

The definition of abstinence also varies from person to person. Mostly, it’s a decision not to engage in or avoid substance use or behavior. The promise of abstinence means the person is committed to a lifestyle without access to drugs, alcohol, or other medications that could affect their recovery. 

People might choose to practice abstinence for many reasons, including health, social, religious, psychological, traditional, or even a change in preferences. Abstinence is a self-chosen and self-control decision that’s not forcefully enforced. 

The Differences Between Sobriety and Abstinence

When you look at the definitions of sobriety and abstinence, they are pretty similar. However, they have specific differences, particularly from an emotional standpoint. 

Sober people may still go out drinking with friends on Saturday nights; they might choose not to drink that night because they need their wits about them for some reason. 

On the contrary, someone who practices abstinence may still go out with friends but will not drink alcohol because they don’t want to engage with the substance. 

Sobriety is a state of mind.

Sobriety is a state of mind that can be measured by how well we control our thoughts, actions, and behaviors around substances or behaviors that might lead us back down the path of addiction or relapse. Sobriety also means being honest with ourselves when we struggle with specific triggers or situations that could cause us stress, such as being around people who drink heavily. 

Abstinence is about self-control.

Abstinence is a moment-to-moment decision. Each time you engage in a substance or are tempted to use a sense, you must make an active choice to do so. If someone offers you a drink and says yes, this would be abstaining from a substance. Likewise, if someone asks if it’s okay to invite some friends who will be drinking, that’s also abstaining. 

Sobriety requires more than abstinence.

Even though someone remains abstinent from drugs and alcohol, they might still have difficulties reaching sobriety. Those who stay abstinent might struggle to find a job, get their life back together, or leaving the challenges of addiction behind. Despite not having the substances in their lives, their life in recovery still mirrors their life as addicts. 

The Importance of Defining Sobriety in Early Recovery

Understanding the difference between sobriety and abstinence is essential, especially when it comes to addiction recovery and treatment. While we don’t want to downplay the value of abstinence, it is essential not to get caught up in a single definition of sobriety.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, addiction recovery includes:

  • Abstinence from drugs and alcohol
  • Improved wellness
  • Improved health
  • Continuous growth
  • Improved quality of life (sobriety)

As you can see, addiction recovery involves both abstinence and sobriety. Nonetheless, defining sobriety and abstinence in rehab is critical for early recovery. If someone agrees that sobriety is a state of calmness, drinking every so often might be part of their sober lifestyle. However, if, on the contrary, that person doesn’t feel alcohol or drugs have a place in their lives, abstinence might need to be part of their sober lifestyle. 

It’s important to discuss these topics with your addiction counselor or sponsor. Keep in mind that your relationship with the definition of sobriety and abstinence might change over time. That’s fine as long as your new take on recovery is serving you for a healthier tomorrow.

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