How do people cope with negative emotion? Philosophers and scientists have long speculated on the psychological, emotional and physiological factors that underlie how people regulate their emotions.
Tian Dayton author of Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, explains that emotional sobriety refers to a person’s ability to self-regulate, to discover and maintain emotional balance when they get out of sync, to re-adjust his or her “*feeling rheostat.”
A term first coined in 1953 by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founder Bill Wilson in a letter for AA’s publication the Grapevine, Wilson wrote that if we look very closely at every imbalance we have, big or small, we’ll find at the root of them some form of dependence. Yet, by giving up and surrendering these dependencies “we may then be able to gain emotional sobriety.”
Plagued with bouts of depression for years despite his personal success overcoming addiction and the world-wide success of his 12 step program, Wilson ponders the emotional hurdles that seem to haunt not only the “neurotic,” but also people who have overcome dependencies and still continue to battle emotional turmoil. “Why can’t the twelve steps work to release depression?” he asks himself.
Through introspection and prayer, Wilson concluded that despite believing as his beloved St. Francis did, that in order to be comforted, to achieve genuine inner peace and joy, one must give love and comfort, it wasn’t until someone stopped his “faulty emotional dependencies upon people” that they could love others freely, become emotionally balanced, and re-orient their lives.
Yet Ingrid Mathieu author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice, has a somewhat different view. In an online article for Psychology Today Mathieu explains that achieving emotional sobriety is less about doing something such as prayer or meditation, and more about acknowledging your feelings in the moment then giving yourself permission to work through the negative emotions.
To achieve emotional sobriety, writes Mathieu, people must allow the existence of seemingly opposing emotions to co-exist such as happiness with regret or joy with disappointment. Achieving emotional sobriety isn’t about feeling good all the time; it’s about someone being able to feel their emotions, to be in the moment whatever that happens to be, “What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?” she writes.
Emotional Sobriety Checklist
Whether viewed from Wilson’s spiritual and philosophical perspective or Dayton and Matheiu’s psychological lens, emotional sobriety is essentially defined as a person’s ability to re-calibrate their emotions, and in the process avoid harmful substances and behaviors. Dayton believes in order to achieve emotional sobriety people must:
- Develop strong self-regulation skills
- Regulate their mood and strong emotions such as rage, anger, despair
- Maintain perspective on circumstances in life
- Regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors
- Live in the present moment
- Regulate their activity levels, avoid being chronically under or overactive
- Learn to live with both social and intimate connections
- Become resilient, roll with the punches
- Regulate their personal behavior
- Develop skills for emotional mind and body self regulation
- Resolve wounds from childhood so they don’t sabotage their self regulation efforts
- Learn healthy and effective self-soothing strategies
- Learn how to manage stress
- Maintain a healthy body, exercise, rest, proper nutrition
- Process emotional ups and downs as they occur, live in the moment and consciously shift their feelings
- Learn to live comfortably with intimate relationships
Distraction Sometimes Healthy Coping Skill
Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, explains in an article for the Huffington Post that there are two types of emotional regulation strategies, distraction or engagement and reappraisal.
Distraction Herbert explains, is essentially unthinking, doing whatever it takes to disengage from cognitive thought such as a person trying not to think about alcohol or chocolate cake. Yet, to achieve long-term emotional sobriety a person must slowly and deliberately rethink all the people, places and things that once threw them out of sync, re-visiting and processing their triggering cognitions in order to work through them.
Programs designed for addiction recovery aim to teach people the core principles behind regulating emotion because addicts don’t instinctively know how to, while healthy people, suggest findings from Stanford University, do.
Researchers from the study showed volunteers two different types of photographs, low intensity pictures and high-intensity. A low intensity photo might have a woman with her head in her hands in an ambiguous state of distress, while a high intensity picture might have a woman with blood streaming down her face. The volunteers were then asked to narrate for five seconds how they processed their emotions when they saw the photos. Researchers categorized the volunteers’ emotional regulatory strategies as either distraction or engagement reappraisal.
The results were clear. The volunteers were much more likely to use cognitive engagement when they viewed the low-intensity photo, and distraction when viewed the high-intensity photo. The results suggest that changing strategies may be a healthy way for people to deal with negativity in their life.
Researchers also administered a “surprise” memory test at the conclusion of the experiment and as expected they found that volunteers were less likely to remember the emotional photographs when they used distraction and disengagement. The researchers believe distraction may help people regulate their emotions because it keeps the emotional information out of their memory altogether.
In another phase of the experiment the scientists hooked volunteers up to electrodes and told them they would receive 20 electrical shocks in increasing intensity. Before each shock they were given a short written description of the intensity level coming up and allowed about 12 seconds to choose a coping strategy. The results were similar to the photo experiment. Subjects about to receive a low intensity shock were more likely to use a reappraisal strategy, but when they were about to receive a more intense shock they used distraction.
Writes Wray, “In short, people have the cognitive flexibility to adapt their regulatory choices for the situation at hand.” Reinterpreting emotional events may be an effective way for people to cope. These findings contradict the long held view that it’s healthier for people to face head on, intense emotional challenges. Disengaging, at least for a period of time, might be a better strategy for some people such as for victims of a major disaster, for someone experiencing severe, ongoing depression, or for alcoholics who are early in their recovery.
Regardless of the approach a person uses to reach emotional sobriety, the goals are the same, to learn to regulate negative emotions caused by either past or present circumstances and to re-calibrate emotional balance.
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