Is Sobriety The Same As Abstinence?

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.” An individual struggling with addiction will prioritize satisfying his or her cravings (e.g., drugs, sex, gambling, etc.) above all else. Often, this does not only lead to adverse physical consequences, but can also negatively affect one’s relationships, finances, and could lead to legal complications. Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as a chronic brain disorder. Achieving and maintaining sobriety is often thought of as the only way to recover from substance abuse and/ or addiction.  

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a clear distinction between abstinence and sobriety. Abstinence refers to a voluntary restraint from engaging or indulging in activities or substances. On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines sobriety as “the condition of not having any measurable levels or effects from alcohol or drugs.” Abstinence-only focuses on a drug-free lifestyle without factoring in other aspects of life such as addressing behaviors, emotions, mental health, etc. Sobriety not only focuses on a drug-free lifestyle but also takes into consideration other aspects of life. 

Alcoholics Anonymous

The abstinence approach to addiction recovery was introduced as a component of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Alcoholics Anonymous is an international, nonprofit organization that was founded in 1935 by Bill W. and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio and was the first addiction program that encouraged complete abstinence. According to Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book the lifelong recovery process includes admitting complete powerlessness over addiction, believing in a power greater than oneself, admitting past mistakes, making amends to people that have been harmed through one’s alcoholism, and continuing to focus on the spiritual path. It is based on a twelve-step program, with each step building upon the previous, which aims for complete abstinence. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition contains no abstinence criterion for recovery, also known as remission, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), abstinence-based treatment is the safest approach to treating drug addiction. 

For Information and Support 

If you are concerned for yourself or a loved one regarding substance abuse and/ or addiction, we recommend reaching out for help as soon as possible. If left untreated, substance abuse can result in long-lasting and potentially life-threatening consequences. Keep in mind: you are not alone! There is an entire network of professionals that are available to help and support you and your loved one throughout the recovery process. The earlier you seek support, the sooner your loved one can return to a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.

Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions regarding our specific program at Haven House Addiction Treatment and/ or general substance abuse and/ or addiction treatment-related information. Our highly trained staff is readily available to discuss how we might best be able to help you and your loved one. We can be reached by phone at 424-318-3777. You are also welcome to contact anytime us via email at 

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