By Ioana Cozma

Last updated: 31 July 2023 & medically reviewed by Morgan Blair

Sobriety is a lifelong process focused on substance-free living and the tools necessary to maintain this healthy, fulfilling life. This article discusses multiple techniques to achieve and sustain sobriety and the distinctions between sobriety, abstinence, and recovery.

Key takeaways:

  • Sobriety encompasses abstinence and the tools to achieve it.

  • Sobriety relies on acknowledging the negative effects of substance abuse.

  • Recovery involves sobriety, potential relapses, and harm reduction techniques.

  • Support systems are a crucial indicator of maintaining sobriety in the long term.


Definition of sobriety

Sobriety can be defined by focusing on its results and the means to reach them. As such, it implies mastering customized techniques to stop substance abuse and improving one’s physical and mental health.

Sobriety is perceived as a process of personal growth with developmental milestones, not a mere state.[1] From this perspective, individuals who want to become sober make conscious and intentional choices leading to personal growth and improved overall health.

All sobriety definitions gain individual connotations in the context of addiction recovery. Individuals looking to become sober also want clarity of thought and purpose, breaking substance dependence. Sober people learn their triggers, gain coping mechanisms, develop beneficial habits, and learn new skills.[2]

Sobriety can also be defined in relation to harm reduction. The harm reduction approach focuses on safe substance consumption, minimizing its negative psychological, physical, and interpersonal effects. Conversely, sobriety entails all those results, along with abstinence from substance use.[3]

How do you become sober?

Achieving sobriety involves substance abstinence, therapy, long-term support, and possibly medication. The mix of addiction treatment methods is established based on addiction severity, individual goals, and available resources.

The first step is acknowledging the existing addiction and the need to move away from it.[4] Practicing recovery meditation helps individuals learn self-reflection, so they are more likely to understand the consequences of substance use.

A necessary second step is consulting with an addiction specialist to craft a recovery plan. The healthcare professional evaluates the addiction severity and other personal circumstances, recommending appropriate treatment options, including therapy, 12-step programs, and, if necessary, inpatient and outpatient care.

The third step is managing potential relapses. Acknowledging this step depends on understanding sobriety as a process instead of a state.

Some research postulates that relapses have three stages, and becoming aware of them helps you choose the best methods to maintain sobriety.

The first stage is emotional relapse, during which people forget to practice self-care, though they are not actively thinking about substance abuse. Mental relapse entails actively thinking and planning a subsequent use, minimizing the past consequences of substance abuse. The third stage of physical relapse entails using the drug once, followed by compulsively consuming that substance.[1]

Using positive techniques like meditation and support groups helps break the cycle of relapse, continuing the sobriety process.

What's the difference between sobriety and recovery?

Sobriety and recovery are often used interchangeably but are distinct, though related, concepts.

Sobriety entails abstinence from substances causing harm or addiction and learning specific tools and skills to overcome substance abuse and prevent relapsing.

Recovery also entails working toward overall well-being and personal growth. However, sobriety is one facet of recovery, which may subsume multiple phases of sobriety, harm reduction, and relapsing.[5]

Sobriety vs. abstinence

The definition of sobriety includes abstinence as a first step to addiction recovery. Abstinence is a state of being substance-free. Sobriety is the process that encompasses all the tools needed to maintain the state of abstinence.

Abstinence entails consciously refraining from substance use. Sobriety entails maintaining abstinence, reducing the negative effects of alcohol and drug consumption.

Sobriety also involves learning to overcome emotional reactivity that can lead to substance use disorder. Controlling negative emotions like shame, which have shown a positive correlation to drug abuse in numerous studies, can prevent relapses.[6]

The sobriety process includes different treatment options that help addiction patients manage their symptoms. It also implies learning triggers, practicing self-care to avoid relapses, fixing broken relationships with loved ones, and learning healthy coping mechanisms.

While the purpose of abstinence is being substance-free from a physical standpoint, sobriety also entails avoiding emotional and mental relapses to rebuild one’s life.

Tips for staying sober

There is no quick fix for achieving long-term sobriety and for many it requires daily work. Ashley Loeb Blassingame of Lionrock Recovery had this to say;

Additional tips for staying sober

  1. Admit to the presence of addiction in your life instead of minimizing its effects.

  2. Set a quit date related to a major milestone, such as a special event.[7]

  3. Ask for professional help to receive an addiction recovery plan.

  4. Set specific and achievable goals for your recovery journey.

  5. Review your past sobriety attempts objectively to avoid repeating errors that have led to relapsing.

  6. Change your environment or at least avoid the places tied to drug consumption.

  7. Create a support system of family, friends, or peers going through sobriety.

  8. Cut back toxic people from your network.[8]

  9. Structure your days with activities to minimize idle times, which are shown to be strongly correlated with relapse.[9]

  10. Be prepared to experience withdrawal cravings.

  11. Throw away things connected with your addiction, such as liquor bottles or corkscrews.

  12. Learn healthy coping strategies, such as meditation recovery, that help manage your triggers.

  13. Practice physical, mental, and interpersonal self-care to prevent emotional relapses. Focus on nutrition, proper sleep, and nurturing personal relationships with honesty.

  14. Do not mentally entertain cravings or minimize the past negative consequences of addiction.

  15. Follow your recommended treatment plan.

  16. Read sobriety quotes to keep you motivated and focused.

  17. Make amends to your loved ones and fix broken interpersonal relationships.

  18. Attend support groups at your local AA, NA, clinic, or church. Participate honestly, sharing all your struggles openly instead of focusing on other participants’ issues.

  19. Stay accountable by evaluating your progress and milestones regularly.

What to do if you break sobriety

Breaking sobriety is a common recovery challenge, often associated with the shame of exiting the state of abstinence.

Shame is strongly correlated with continued substance abuse. Understanding this correlation and the definition of sobriety as a process may increase the likelihood of breaking the negative cycle of sobriety and relapsing.

Stopping the negative behavior and taking action to resume sobriety as part of addiction recovery entails several steps:

  • Acknowledge and accept the setback as part of your recovery journey, taking responsibility for your errors without shame.

  • Ask your loved ones, therapist, or sponsor for support.

  • Reflect on the circumstances that led to your relapse to identify triggers, patterns, and emotions that facilitated your setback—endeavor to learn from your mistakes and hone your coping strategies for future relapse prevention.

  • Review your recovery plan with your healthcare professional or sponsor. If you experience intense cravings or mental distress, ask for specialized help to manage these symptoms.

  • Prioritize self-care, including proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation techniques.

  • Stay committed to your recovery journey.

Getting support to maintain sobriety

Research underlines that the absence of strong support systems is correlated to a lower likelihood of reaching the three-year mark.[10]

Whether from loved ones or specific groups, sobriety support entails numerous advantages.

Connecting with others facing similar struggles can also create a sense of community. This understanding and empathy alleviates shame and other negative emotions leading to relapse.

Support systems entail bespoke help according to specific needs, such as meal preparation to ensure proper nutrition, access to educational resources, or emotional care. As such, support systems prevent isolation as a prominent challenge in addiction recovery.

Group meetings can teach recovering individuals personalized coping and relapse prevention techniques. They are also treasure troves of continued growth and learning through workshops and mentorships. People attending these programs can develop new professional skills, explore their interests and discover new purposes.

Support systems are also accountability systems, instilling a sense of responsibility toward oneself and others. This helps recovering individuals follow their goals, reducing relapse risks.