Defining Sobriety: What Does It Mean To Be Sober?

Sobriety is often defined as abstinence from drugs and alcohol, but there is more to it than merely avoiding substance use.

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If you asked the average person to define sobriety, you would mostly get descriptions of complete abstinence from drugs and alcoholic beverages.

While abstinence is certainly a major part of the sobriety journey for most people, this definition fails to encompass the full meaning of sobriety for people who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

To fully appreciate what sobriety means, it’s important to consider the medical and psychological aspects of sobriety and how they impact the lived experience of people with substance abuse disorders.

Common Definitions Of Sobriety

There are several definitions of sobriety that are accepted by the scientific community based on peer-reviewed research.

These definitions include the abstinence-based model, the medical model, and the psychological model.

Together, these definitions of sobriety can help to create a layered and more flexible understanding of what sobriety is and how it affects people living with alcohol or drug addiction.

Abstinence-Based Definition

The abstinence-based definition of sobriety is the most common definition used by the general population.

This definition is based solely on an individual’s behavior and refers only to the physical resistance to alcohol and drug use following detoxification.

While this is an easy version of sobriety to apply to other people, the reality is that this definition does not account for the physical and mental changes that accompany detox and addiction recovery.

Medical Definition

The medical definition of sobriety refers to a natural state of physical health in which a person’s brain and body are unaffected by the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For many people recovering from a substance use disorder, medical sobriety is not something that can be instantly achieved even with a treatment program.

Medical sobriety is a long process that requires a person to allow their body to heal from the effects of drugs or alcohol, including organ damage and changes in brain chemistry that cause cravings and other signs of dependence.

Psychological Definition

The psychological definition of sobriety is similar to the medical definition but with some clear differences.

While restoring balanced brain chemistry is important, psychological sobriety also requires that the affected person is able to resolve the underlying issues that contributed to their initial substance abuse and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

Evidence suggests that people who pursue psychological wellness during their addiction recovery are better able to maintain sobriety or manage moderate substance use.

Modern Perspectives On Sobriety

For much of the history of addiction medicine, experts believed that total abstinence was the only answer for people who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

While abstinence still has the highest rate of long-term success for many people, experts have recently realized that it isn’t a practical solution for every single person.

For many people, harm reduction and the moderate use of less-volatile substances are an important aspect of their own long-term sobriety following an initial period of refraining from substance use.

In fact, researchers are actively exploring the therapeutic possibilities of drugs like marijuana and mushrooms to see if they can be used in a healthcare setting to support psychological health, especially for those who have experienced trauma.

Due to these changes, our modern definitions of sober life are constantly adapting to encapsulate moderate usage that does not detract from our physical, social, or psychological well-being.

Supporting Modern Sobriety

In order to support modern sobriety, many rehab centers operate under the assumption that a client may engage in moderate usage even after years of sobriety.

To help clients manage that usage, addiction treatment centers are careful to teach coping skills and provide them with support networks that they can access if they need help protecting their long-term recovery.

These support networks are formed through aftercare programs, support groups, and outpatient treatment opportunities that help to support the initial work done in inpatient treatment.

Start Your Addiction Recovery In Massachusetts

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, our addiction treatment facility in Massachusetts is ready to help. Contact us at Bedrock Recovery Center today.

  1. National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA)
  2. Psychology Today
  3. Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  4. The New York Times

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

Published on: February 21, 2024

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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