What is the Meaning of Sobriety for People in Recovery?

Written by Theresa Valenzky

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD

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Last Updated - 08/09/2023

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Updated 08/09/2023

Sobriety and recovery differ in that sobriety means not drinking, whereas a person in recovery is committed to a program to remain sober.

The concept of “sobriety” is popular in the addiction recovery community, but several definitions of sobriety exist, and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is engaged in recovery. Learn answers to questions like “What is sobriety?” and tips for staying committed to recovery.

What Is the Meaning of Sobriety?

Based on the primary dictionary definition, sobriety refers to a state where a person is sober rather than intoxicated by a substance. This simplistic definition may help conceptualize sobriety with the growth of the brain disease model of addiction, which is based on the fact that chronic drug and alcohol exposure disrupts the functioning of critical brain regions. As such, addiction is considered a relapsing disease because brain changes can make it difficult to resist the urge to use drugs, even after periods of sobriety.

Is Sobriety More Than Just Not Drinking?

Sobriety refers to remaining sober rather than intoxicated, but sobriety can mean more than just not drinking for people in recovery. Each person has their own sobriety definition, but for many in recovery, sobriety extends beyond abstaining from alcohol. It also means actively participating in recovery because relapse may occur if a person is not engaged in services to help them remain sober.

Sobriety vs. Recovery: What’s the Difference?

In the most simplistic terms, sobriety means refraining from drinking so that one is not intoxicated. Unfortunately, without a commitment to recovery, sobriety can be a temporary state. When a person is in recovery, not only are they refraining from becoming intoxicated, but they are also committed to a program that helps them remain sober. This can involve attending support group meetings, counseling or taking medications to prevent relapse.

In a study of people participating in a 12-step program, results indicated that sobriety goes beyond simply being abstinent and addresses the mental and emotional aspects of staying in recovery. Being in recovery means participating in a relapse prevention program, which involves:

  • Attending support group meetings
  • Practicing self-care
  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Correcting negative thinking patterns
  • Repairing relationships harmed by alcohol misuse

How to Stay Sober for the Long Haul

Staying sober over the long term requires a commitment to recovery. These strategies can help you to make sobriety more than a temporary state.

Find Motivation for Change

Recovery requires giving up substances and creating a new life in which substance misuse is simply not an option. Without changing your life, it’s difficult to commit to lasting sobriety. To achieve full recovery, consider your motivation for change, including being a better parent, improving your marriage or simply leading a healthier lifestyle.

Get in Tune With Your Emotions

Staying in tune with your emotions is essential for remaining sober. In fact, emotional relapse, which occurs before a person returns to physically using drugs, is the first step in relapse. If you are bottling up your emotions and isolating yourself from others, you’re at increased risk of returning to substance use.

Instead of bottling up emotions, it’s important to seek support when you need it and practice proper self-care, including making time to relax when you’re feeling lonely, angry or tired.

Safeguard Against Triggers

A quality relapse prevention plan helps you to identify and learn to manage your triggers. To maintain your commitment to sobriety, it’s critical to avoid triggers whenever possible and learn to cope when you are exposed to them. This often means reducing stress and avoiding people, places and things associated with your substance use.

Check Into an Inpatient Rehab Facility

If you’re having difficulty maintaining sobriety in the community, you may benefit from checking into an inpatient rehab program. These programs require you to live on-site at a facility, so you’ll be removed from the triggers in your daily environment. Participating in inpatient rehab can help you to establish a period of sobriety and learn to manage triggers before returning home.

Find Sobriety at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake

If you or someone you love is seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is here to support you. We offer a full continuum of treatment options, including inpatient, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient care. Located between Denver and Colorado Springs, our facility has breathtaking mountain views and features 110 inpatient beds. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to learn more or begin the admissions process.

View Sources

Dictionary.com. “Sobriety.” Accessed April 30, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “NIDA and NIAAA commentary strongly suppo[…] model of addiction.” July 29, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts.” June 2018. Accessed April 30, 2023.

Helm, Paula. “Sobriety versus abstinence. How 12-stepp[…]overy across groups.” Addiction Research & Theory, 2019. Accessed April 30, 2023.

Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2023.


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