What Is Emotional Sobriety in AA?


Abstinence is obviously an important aspect of overcoming addiction. It’s vital to breaking the cycle and physically recovering from the ravages of substance abuse. However, getting the drug out of your system is only half of the battle. You must also eventually gain control over your psychological relationship with alcohol to ever truly be considered recovered. Alcoholics Anonymous has a term for this called emotional sobriety. Learn what AA says about emotional sobriety in the Big Book, why it’s so important, and how to achieve it for yourself. 

The Meaning of Emotional Sobriety in AA

Let’s start off with an example. Say that you and your significant other just broke up. You fill every moment of every day with distractions so that you don’t have an opportunity to think about them. You proceed like this during the first few weeks or months of the breakup, which is pretty normal and even healthy to do. If you gave yourself permission to think about them, you might end up caving and reaching out to rekindle the relationship. 

Then, imagine that 1, 5, or 10 years from now, you still refuse to acknowledge thoughts about them because any time you do, you feel tempted to go back to them. That approach isn’t looking so healthy, is it? You may have stayed away from a person that wasn’t right for you, but you never fully got over them either. This is essentially the core concept of emotional sobriety. 

What’s a Dry Drunk?

The topic of emotional sobriety in the Big Book refers to individuals who give up alcohol without making any internal changes as dry drunks (this is different from a dry drunk syndrome which is a medical condition). These individuals may not physically consume alcohol or another drug, but they still have the same unhealthy patterns of behavior that led to substance abuse in the first place. 

Red flags of dry drunk behavior include:

  • Failing to acknowledge that their alcohol consumption was problematic
  • No attempt to understand what drove them to drink
  • Still has unhealthy reactions to stressful situations (and no attempt to find new coping methods)
  • Attends 12-Step meetings but doesn’t participate
  • Refuses to be around alcohol/Can’t be around people drinking
  • Does not hold themselves accountable for their actions
  • Harbors bitter feelings toward themselves/Unable to forgive themselves

Practicing Emotional Sobriety 101

We’ve covered what emotional sobriety is and why it’s essential to alcoholism recovery so now let’s discuss ways to practice and maintain emotional sobriety.

2. Mindfulness

This simple practice is about staying in the present moment; acknowledging your feelings and sensory observations without judgment. Research has shown that it’s effective for lowering stress, improving emotional regulation, focus, and memory, and even boosting the immune system. Many of its benefits are a perfect match for the precise way that substance abuse can harm a person. The most common method of practicing mindfulness is through meditation. 

3. Find a support network

Addiction is a very isolating disease. Finding a support network is crucial both to holding yourself accountable, but also breaking down the walls that may have contributed to alcohol abuse in the first place. Research has shown that having social support can play a significant role in predicting the outcome of successful addiction treatment.

4. Go to therapy

There’s no substitute for professional psychological help. They can help you unravel the cause of your drinking problem and help you develop realistic coping strategies in the face of triggers or cravings. They can also help you identify if there’s a mental illness that may have contributed to addiction and provide appropriate recommendations.

5. Attend AA meetings

Free and with minimal commitment required, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is a low-stakes way to meet and hear from others who have been in your exact shoes. Realizing that you’re not alone in your struggle with alcohol addiction is both comforting and empowering. It’s important to go with an open mind and with the intention of fully participating. Otherwise, going to an AA meeting is an empty gesture that’s unlikely to provide you with any real benefit. 

Simply giving up booze doesn’t mean that you’re recovered. You need to be able to address why it happened and more importantly, be able to have thoughts about alcohol that don’t send you back to the bottle. A lack of emotional sobriety means you’re never far from relapsing. A particularly bad day can send you back to square one if you don’t have the correct means to work through triggering situations. Learn more about the definition of emotional sobriety and find an AA meeting near you today.

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