Emotional sobriety, a thought for the New Year.

Emotional sobriety is a term that describes the more complex transformation a recovering addict makes beyond attaining physical sobriety. I have been sober for 295 whole days; though holidays, birthdays, Christmas, New Year. Physically sober. And that’s been good, I see andlive a more peaceful life. But, I’m still struggling to manage my emotions, frustrations and stress. This is not the nirvana I had been hoping for… I think the reason is that I have not yet achieved emotional 

As a defense mechanism, every human being is susceptible to an unconscious drive to protect themselves from painful realities.3 The difference between the general population and addicts is that the latter are very good at ignoring their feelings by masking them with drugs or alcohol. Being emotionally sober means getting in touch with your emotions, whether positive or negative, and allowing yourself to feel the
What are the Signs of Emotional Sobriety? 

• Ability to regulate strong emotions • Ability to regulate mood • Ability to maintain a perspective on life circumstances. • Ability to regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors • Ability to live in the present • Ability to regulate activity levels.
• Ability to live with deep, intimate connection.
• Resilience, the ability to roll with the punches
• Ability to regulate behavior
What are Symptoms of a lack of emotional sobriety?
• Inability to regulate strong feelings such as anger, rage, anxiety, sadness
• Lack of ability to regulate mood
• Lack of ability to regulate behavior
• Not being able to gain a perspective on feelings when they are extreme
• Lack of ability to regulate self medicating use of substances or behaviors.
• Inability to live in the present, preoccupies with past unresolved wounds.
• Lack of ability to regulate activity level. (chronically over or under active)
• Inability to have deeply feeling intimate relationships.
• Lack of resilience or the ability to roll with the punches
What are the Solutions: How Can I Come Into Balance?
• Resolve early childhood wounds
• Learn techniques of self soothing and make them a part of your life
• Develop a strong relationship network
• Maintain a healthy body, exercise, rest, nutrition, sensual pleasure
• Find meaningful activities, work, hobbies, and passions
• Process emotional ups and downs as they happen
• Develop inner resources, quiet, meditation, spiritual pursuits
What is Emotional Sobriety?
• Emotional sobriety is about finding and maintaining our emotional equilibrium, our feeling rheostat.
• Emotional sobriety is tied up in our ability to self regulate . To bring ourselves into balance when we fall out of it.
• Balance is that place where our thinking, feeling and behavior are reasonably congruent; where we operate in an integrated flow.
• When our emotions are out of control, so is our thinking.
• When we can’t bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships show it.
• Emotions impact our thinking more than our thinking impacts our emotions. Our limbic system, which is where we experience and process emotion, actually sends more inputs to the thinking part of our brain, i.e. the cortex, than the opposite. (Damassio)
• The essence of Emotional Sobriety is good self regulation. Self regulation means that we have mastered those skills that allow us to balance our moods, our nervous systems, our appetites, our sexual drive, our sleep. We have learned how to tolerate our intense emotions without acting out in dysfunctional ways, clamping down or foreclosing on our feeling world or self medicating.
• Addiction and compulsive, unregulated behaviors reflect a lack of good self regulation.
• To maintain our emotional equilibrium, we need to be able to use our thinking mind to decode and understand our feeling mind. That is, we need to feel our feelings and then use our thinking to make sense and meaning out of them.
How Do We Learn to Self Regulate?
• Nature and Nurture: Each tiny interaction between parent/caretaker and child actually lays down the neural wiring that becomes part of our brain/body network.
• As the parent interacts with the child, the child learns the skills of relating and regulation which are then laid down as neural wiring.
• The child takes this new learning into his world of relationships, experiments with it, gets continued feedback and continues to lay down new wiring based on what he is seamlessly picking up from his environment and the relationships in it.
• Early experiences knit long lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural network. (Lewis) And these neural patterns form the relational template from which we operate throughout life.
• As children, if we get frightened or hurt, for example, we look to our mothers, fathers and close people to sooth us, to help us to feel better, to bring us back into balance.
• We learn to “tolerate” our intense feelings when we’re young and as we get older, “holding environment”
• When our skills of self regulation are well learned during childhood, they feel as if they come naturally, as if we always had them.
• When they are not well learned, we may reach to sources outside of ourselves to restore the sense of calm and good feeling that we cannot achieve ourselves, namely drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling and so on.
• The ACOA/ACOT syndrome can reflect problems with early attachments or relationships. Children who learn the skills of relating and regulation from unstable parents internalize unstable patterns.
What is the Limbic System?
The limbic system is the body/mind neural network that governs our emotions. Our moods, appetite and sleep cycles are some of the areas of functioning that fall under its jurisdiction.

The limbic system
• “sets the mind’s emotional tone,
• filters external events through internal states (creates emotional coloring),
• tags events as internally important,
• stores highly charged emotional memories,
• modulates motivation,
• controls appetite and sleep cycles,
• promotes bonding
• directly processes the sense of smell and modulates libido. (Amen)
Our emotions circulate throughout our bodies as brain/body mood chemicals that impact how we feel.
Problems in our limbic system may manifest as:
• When we have problems in our deep limbic system they can manifest as moodiness, irritability,
• clinical depression,
• increased negative thinking,
• negative perceptions of events,
• decreased motivation,
• floods of negative emotion,
• appetite and sleep problems,
• decreased or increase d sexual responsiveness or social isolation. (Amen)
• an impaired ability to regulate levels of fear, anger and sadness,and may lead to chronic anxiety or depression.
• substance or behavioral disorders,
• problems in regulating alcohol, eating, sexual or spending habits
All of this is what impacts our emotional sobriety.

How is emotional sobriety undermined?
Emotional trauma can have a negative impact on early development. It can both interfere with our ability to use our thinking brains to decode our emotions and it can create problems in our limbic systems. Our limbic systems get set on “high” we are over sensitized to stress and hence, we over react to it.
Our bodies don’t really distinguish between physical danger and emotional stress.
The natural fear response associated with our fight/flight apparatus will cause the body to react to physical or emotional “crisis,” by pumping out sufficient quantities of what are known as “stress” chemicals, like adrenaline, to get our hearts pumping, muscles tightening and breath shortening, in preparation for a fast exit, or a fight.
But for those where the family itself has become the preverbal “saber toothed tiger”, for whom escape is not really the issue, these chemicals boil up inside and can cause physical and emotional problems. And family members may find themselves in a confusing and painful bind, ie.,wanting to flee from or attack, those very people who represent home and hearth.If this highly stressful relational environment persists over time, it can produce what is called cumulative trauma .
Because the limbic system governs such fundamental functions as mood, emotional tone, appetite and sleep cycles, when it becomes deregulated it can affect family members in far ranging ways.
Problems in regulating our emotional inner world, can manifest as:
Homes that aren’t calm, that are in, what we might, call chronic chaos, undermine our body’s ability to maintain a regulated state. Over time, we lose the ability to tolerate intense emotion so that we can think about what we’re experiencing on a feeling level. At the most extreme level thought and emotion become disengaged. When this happens, our thinking selves and our feeling selves become out of balance, split off from each other. This undermines our ability to use our thinking to understand what we’re experiencing on a feeling and sensory level. At the most basic level, we lose touch with ourselves.


  1. Good post! Balance is going to be a huge focus of mine in 2017. I love what you wrote – “Addiction and compulsive, unregulated behaviours reflect a lack of good self regulation”. That’s exactly what I have been mulling over the past few months.

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