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Recovery versus Sobriety: What’s the Difference? Why It Matters.

In the recovery world National Recovery Month is the month of September. It is a time when there is a concerted effort given to mental health and addiction recovery with the goal of increasing public awareness. But for those in recovery, they know that it is much more than a 30-day span on a calendar. For them it is an active and intentional process that occupies every action and engages every part of who they are.


People participating in active recovery whether they are dealing with alcohol or drug addiction, or various mood disorders, are doing more than just walking away from illegal substances or alcohol, or avoiding trauma triggers. They have made a conscious decision to make recovery a lifestyle. But take note that active recovery is actually a redundant phrase! By its very nature recovery is active.

Sobriety on the other hand is passive, indicating abstinence from a substance, and devoid of a supportive community. The isolation of sobriety is a risk factor for relapse. Since willpower can wane from day to day, surrounding oneself with others who are pursuing similar goals provides the boost many individuals need.





For example, when it comes to alcohol abuse those in active recovery take proactive steps to support their recovery. Take Gwen for example, who formerly abused alcohol and came dangerously close to losing her job and her family. She made a conscious decision to pursue activities that supported her ability to be sober. Those actions often involved choices that placed her in the most advantageous position to stay in recovery. She attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group meetings, she stopped going out with a group of friends who barhopped on a regular basis, and she joined a fitness club where she met different friends and enjoyed healthier activities. She even began journaling to help her sort out her negative thinking that would occasionally creep into her mind.


In the world of mental health treatment, we recognize these actions as following the Power Model of Recovery. What a great term!


The Power Model of Recovery has six robust components that accompany each aspect of recovery and help individuals gain power to maintain control of one’s life to build the resilience to weather the storms that will inevitably come.


Ultimately the goal is to prevent relapse, however, the strong will and determination necessary to succeed can often feel like a superhuman feat! But done consciously and all together in a communal way, the Power Model of Recovery supports the recovery journey and is the difference between “being sober” and “achieving recovery.”


At Clarity Behavioral Health, we like the Power Model of Recovery because the principles help to build resilience and help clients get to the other side. We know recovery doesn’t look the same for everyone, so the appeal of the Power Model is that it is a customizable approach that ultimately nets strength in every aspect of life. Strength in relationships. Strength in self-esteem. And strength to resist the wrong path – a path that can threaten to crumble one’s ability to achieve recovery.

That’s powerful, especially when you consider that an unhealthy mental state often results in a pattern of thinking and behavior that can pull us into a downward spiral that undermines success. Summoning one’s own power is the difference between relenting to relapse or rejoicing in recovery.

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Tips on Following the Power Model of Recovery


Practiced diligently, the six powers below will work together to help eliminate many of the potential risk factors of relapse. Utilizing the powers together provides the best chance for success! Check them out:

  1. Relational Power – When you were a teen, your parents may have warned you about choosing friends carefully and to avoid hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” The idea was that their behavior, peer pressure, and opinions could influence bad choices. That same mentality can be applied to us as adults whether we are in recovery or not! Paying attention to whom we surround ourselves with is common sense and vital in recovery! People within your circle not only influence your behaviors but also your thought patterns. Being around like-minded individuals reduces the risk of relapse and can help you stay in recovery. That’s why groups like AA are successful. Individuals attending AA meetings or other similar groups like Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.), and a host of others, are engaging in helping individuals achieve a recovery lifestyle and are actively seeking peer-to-peer support to ensure they remain accountable. If you are thinking about joining a group, but may be hesitant, here’s advice to heed – don’t fall for a preconceived notion that support groups are not for you. Sometime individuals worry that they are too invasive or that they will have to share personal details with strangers within the group. Instead, keep in mind that not all groups are the same and that you can share or not share depending upon your comfort. Often, just being in a room with others going through similar circumstances can provide the boost of support you need. Also remember that groups all have different personalities and their own feel and flavor. Shop around to find what fits for you. Keep in mind that those struggling with addiction are not the only ones who can benefit from support groups. Whether you’re seeking support for depression, anxiety, trauma, or another mental health issue, overcoming your unease and attending a support group can be a valuable step toward healing.

  2. Physical Power – We all know that we are most in control and project our own personal power best when we are physically healthy. Stress can take its toll and attack our wellbeing, including our sleep. Laying awake at night worried about what tomorrow will bring is unproductive and leads to brain fog and short temperedness the next day. The same is true for nutrition and hydration. A healthy diet and a healthy gut play an important role in recovery. There is plenty of research on the gut-brain axis which explores the link between the complex system of communication between the two organs and the role of microorganisms in an individual’s gastrointestinal tract. Because the brain is directly connected to the gastrointestinal system (GI) by the central nervous system, it controls many aspects of digestion. In the gut, the microbiota play an important role in regulating the immune system and digestion. Scientists believe that mental health is also affected. When it comes to stress and depression specifically, those conditions can change the composition of the microbiota in the gut releasing toxins and other neurohormones that can alter not only eating behaviors, but also mood. Studies have also found that inflammation in the GI system is related to symptoms of anxiety and depression.[1] The other part of physical health is exercise. Getting in shape doesn’t have to mean intense workouts. It means moving on a regular basis, whether that is at a gym, or brisk walks around your block. Staying true to your physical health means listening to your physician and taking care of yourself as professionally advised. If you have a chronic condition and need medication as part of your daily routine, don’t skip it.

  3. Emotional Power – Gaining emotional power is one of the most important actions to prevent relapse! Oftentimes, it is the discomfort of painful and difficult emotions in the first place that drives people to substance abuse. It is easy to see how reliance on a glass of wine every night becomes a pattern for taking the edge off a difficult workday. That pattern often is exacerbated when people notice that they need additional amounts to achieve the same feeling of relaxation or comfort they previously could get from a smaller amount. From there, the pattern evolves into a disorder. Our emotional experiences can be a driving force for relapse. That’s why for individuals starting out in recovery, paying close attention to one’s emotions is important. So, what does managing our emotions look like? It may mean mindfulness and meditation, or regularly journaling, or working with a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Being able to tolerate those uncomfortable emotions without seeking to suppress them instantly through substances, especially during the early stages of treatment and recovery, helps to develop the emotional strength and power needed to be successful.

  4. Cognitive Power – Our brains are powerful, so being ever-mindful of our thought patterns can be an important aspect of treatment and recovery. Deciding to change is powerful but realizing that many things need to change to stay in recovery relies on a conscious thought process. It is important to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and know that toxic thinking can influence our risk for relapse. Yet much like the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, there is a cycle to negative thinking – if you can stop negative thinking, you can stop negative habits and if you stop negative habits, you can clear your cognitive energy and promote positive thinking. Substance use can impact memory, attention, focus, and concentration and those things will indirectly heal when someone is in recovery.

  5. Spiritual Power – In AA, participants are encouraged to call upon their higher power to channel thoughts to stay sober. The idea behind the higher power is to help individuals find the purpose that replaces the toxic relationship they once had with substances. With faith in something bigger than oneself, change and forgiveness become easier to accept. The idea of God or a formalized religion may be your higher power. Yet sometimes the idea of spirituality or summoning a higher power can be off-putting for individuals who aren’t religious. But spirituality doesn’t have to mean religion in the traditional sense. For some people they look to nature or the universe. For a parent with a young child, their higher power can be their son or daughter and looking to them as the reason for overcoming their challenges. In that sense I like to think of a higher power as your reason to go on. There’s a feeling of being alone when you are in recovery so understanding that something bigger than yourself is helping you along is a powerful boost.

  6. Willpower -- Knowing and embracing the idea that someone has an active choice in this process and recognizing their own power to influence their decisions is an important driver in recovery. Keeping a forward momentum and the resolve necessary to stay the course, especially when it is something as all-encompassing as recovery, takes the ability for an individual to prioritize their long-term needs over their short-term ones. Yet there are conditions that compromise our willpower, such as being intoxicated, or just overwhelmed with life and feeling busy, stressed, or distracted. Sleep deprivation can also decrease our willpower. Regulating oneself often takes the capacity to look forward and knowing that overcoming a current desire will lead to bigger rewards. According to a Stanford researcher, who studies the neuroanatomy of willpower, the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain behind our forehead and eyes – is where willpower lives, and in that sense, willpower consists of “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want” powers.[2] Thinking of it in terms of recovery, these phrases fit each of those desires: “I will stay true to my recovery goals;” “I won’t go to the pub on the way home;” “I want to stay healthy and substance-free so that I can live a long life with my family.” How do you know when you or a loved one is falling away from recovery? What are some of the tell-tale signs to be on the lookout for:

  • Isolation. Are you pulling back from relationships or commitments? Family is an important relational component of recovery. They are often the first ones to notice if things are slipping.

  • Cognition. Are you noticing an increase in negative thought patterns or unhealthy cravings?

  • Mental health concerns. Are you exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety?

  • Social. Have you found your way back to that old friend group that wasn’t healthy for you before, but now you’re convinced that you can resist their influence?

  • Physical. Sleeping less? Finding yourself not taking care of your basic needs as you once were? Are you eating more junk food or skipping your exercise routine?

  • Meaning/Purpose. Are you finding it harder to summon the reason you began recovery in the first place?



Challenges to staying in recovery are the result of conflicts between your brain and your impulses. The Clarity Approach is to work with clients to help them eliminate as many of the potential risk factors for relapse as possible. The conditions that weaken our willpower are stress, self-criticism, and temptation. The more of these conditions that are not addressed the higher the chances are for a potential relapse. That’s when self-awareness can be your best friend in your recovery journey.


Think about your circumstances. Are you giving yourself the best chance to avoid relapsing?

  • Have you chosen recovery as a lifestyle or sobriety as a solo journey?

  • Are you in it for the long haul?

  • Are you harnessing all the powers in the Power Model of Recovery to help keep you stay focused and on track with your recovery goals?

  • Are you ready for sustainable change?

Our job is to get you ready and to encourage and guide you to continue to move in the right direction. Recovery is a process and not every individual is at the same place in their readiness for change. Not sure you are ready to commit? Keep in mind that you don’t need to be 100% ready to start. We help people get to that point.


How do you take the next step to begin or continue in recovery? One small step at a time is our recommendation! Start by being willing and open to have that first conversation. It can be with a friend or family member, or you might want to start right away with a trained therapist, or perhaps the idea of finding a local support group is the most appealing to you.


Perhaps just doing what you are doing now and researching and reading information is the way you want to start. But then take the next step and then the next! There is no one right way to get started in recovery, it is just important to get started.


We can be your advocate to support you and guide you to get things backs on track. The first step is to reach out. Life is full of hope. Find yours.

[1] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gut-health-and-anxiety#symptoms [2] https://positivepsychology.com/psychology-of-willpower/

[G1]This is my attempt at an infographic...Chellie can do something much nicer so it will NOT look like this. I just wanted you to know!

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