Sobriety, or being sober, can be defined as the state of not being intoxicated. In the fields of addiction and mental health treatment, sobriety typically refers to a person’s decision to maintain abstinence from substance use. Sobriety often, but not always, follows a period of problematic use or addiction.
Though it may seem straightforward, the term sobriety is actually somewhat controversial in the field of addiction treatment. For some people, sobriety has a very narrow definition and refers to complete abstinence from all substances considered to be addictive, though this typically excludes both nicotine and caffeine. Many members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) define sobriety in this way, for example.
However, some people support a more flexible definition of sobriety, suggesting moderate substance use, when it does not interfere with function, may be part of sobriety. Addiction expert Stanton Peele is one individual who has suggested defining sobriety as complete abstinence from all substance use may be dangerous because it leads to an all-or-nothing approach that might effectively prevent individuals from considering alternative ways to be sober. He also believes sobriety should be about more than just the absence of substances and should include a purposeful and meaningful life.
The Challenges of Maintaining Sobriety
Maintaining a sober state can be difficult for many people who have previously abused substances for a number of reasons. Relapse, or the return to substance use following a period of abstinence, is common—an estimated 60% of people who receive substance abuse treatment relapse within a year.
In the early stages of sobriety, an individual may experience uncomfortable or even painful withdrawal symptoms along with the physical craving to use their substance of choice. Anxiety, fear, and sadness are not uncommon emotional experiences in early recovery, especially for people who were using substances as a way to cope with difficult emotions. People in early recovery may also feel isolated and lonely if they choose to no longer spend time with friends who are actively using.
As an individual’s sobriety progresses, physical problems typically subside, but many challenges remain.
- For people who spent most of their time using substances, sobriety can involve a period where it is necessary to rediscover and rebuild life as they previously lived it or find new hobbies and activities that do not involve substance use.
- An individual may need to make amends with people they have hurt or otherwise affected.
- Some people find it beneficial to begin to develop a new network of friends, ones who support their sobriety.
- Many individuals face triggers (cues that remind them of their past substance use) that lead to uncomfortable cravings and anxiety.
Sobriety does not always happen easily, and seeking help and support can increase a person’s chances of getting and staying sober.
Impact of Sobriety on Physical and Mental Health
Frequent and chronic substance use can have significant negative effects on an individual’s physical well-being and in some cases can even lead to overdose or fatal conditions. Fortunately, much of the physical damage caused by substance use can be improved or even reversed with abstinence. An individual who abstains from alcohol may notice improvement in their liver function, for example. Although the specific physical benefits of sobriety depend on a variety of individual factors, people who maintain sobriety generally experience a decrease in substance-related health problems, improved sleep, an increase in energy, improved digestion, and an increase in overall physical well-being.
Substance use affects mental health as well as physical health. Many individuals who abuse substances also experience depression, anxiety, feelings of shame, and other mental health concerns, and some use substances as a coping mechanism when they find it difficult to address these issues. However, some substances are themselves depressants and can interfere with the neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for happiness and mood regulation. Sobriety may help to prevent significant mood fluctuations.
Research also suggests that sobriety can result in improved memory and cognitive functioning. Additional benefits of sobriety include reduced anxiety, increased self-esteem, improved relationships, and an improvement in general life satisfaction. Thus, while sobriety is not without its challenges, it can have significant positive effects on mental health.
Seeking Help for Sobriety
Perhaps the most widely known option for seeking help for sobriety is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a 12-step mutual help group. People who wish to stop using alcohol attend anonymous meetings where they provide support and fellowship to each other. AA currently offers meetings all over the United States and in many countries around the world. Other mutual help groups also available for individuals who use substances other than alcohol and want abstinence support include Narcotics Anonymous (related to AA but designed specifically for people who use narcotics), SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, and Women for Sobriety.
Seeking help from a therapist or treatment program—whether in a treatment center or outpatient facility—can support an individual in achieving and maintaining sobriety. Many trained professionals specialize in treating substance misuse: licensed counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists, among others. These providers can help an individual learn more effective and less dangerous ways of coping with emotions so they do not continue to lean on substances to deal with the stressors of life.
Therapists can also provide support, challenge distorted thoughts that impede sobriety, help individuals identify their triggers, and assist people in exploring any underlying trauma that may have factored into their turning to substances to cope.
- Anderson, J. (2016, July 1). 10 things to expect in early sobriety. Retrieved from https://theaddictionadvisor.com/early-sobriety
- Anderson, L. (2011, August 1). How therapy can help you grow in sobriety. Retrieved from http://mindspirit.org/articles/how-therapy-can-help-you-grow-in-sobriety/
- DeNoon, D. J. (2006, August 28). Fog of alcoholism clears with sobriety. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/news/20060828/fog-alcoholism-clears-sobriety
- Murray-Nag, B. (2016, January 1). The 15 amazing health benefits of going sober for a month. Retrieved from http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/544940/effects-of-alcohol
- Peele. S. (2014, December 17). For the last time: ‘Sobriety’ does not mean abstinence. Retrieved from http://www.substance.com/for-the-last-time-sobriety-does-not-mean-abstinence/17717
- Peele, S. (2014, March 22). The hijacking of sobriety by the recovery movement. Retrieved from http://reason.com/archives/2014/03/22/alcoholics-recovery-and-sobriety-meaning
- Relapse. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.addiction.com/in-recovery/relapse
Last Updated: 02-22-2017
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