James Haggerty Recovery
Sober Life

The SOBER Breathing Space Exercise and Mindfulness

December 8, 2021
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The SOBER Breathing Space Exercise

Recovering from addiction is a journey toward balance and sobriety. On this critical journey, it’s important to seek out helpful techniques to help keep us on the right path. 

Over the years, I’ve found that those of us in recovery from our experiences with addictive substances can truly benefit from practicing mindfulness—a way of thinking that has recently become popular for many communities who struggle with overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

As the popularity of mindfulness and knowledge of its benefits continues to grow, people have created more and more techniques designed to help us practice mindfulness. For me, practicing mindfulness in my day-to-day life has changed the way I approach the onslaught of thoughts and feelings that could overwhelm me and threaten my sobriety. I truly feel that mindfulness is an essential tool for anyone on the recovery journey.

Could Mindfulness Help You?

I’m certainly not alone—techniques to practice mindfulness are more prominent than ever as a part of the most successful recovery classes and groups. One technique that has been gaining momentum is the SOBER breathing space exercise, which focuses particularly on relapse prevention.

If finding a way to handle racing thoughts or a flood of emotions and navigating relapse prevention have been weighing heavily on your mind, take the time to learn more about how mindfulness could help. Here’s what you need to know about mindfulness, the SOBER breathing space exercise, and addictive behavior relapse.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be tough to describe and even more difficult to understand at first. It’s often confused with the practice of meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind to achieve mental clarity. Mindfulness, however, is the practice of remaining aware of something rather than focusing on nothing. More specifically, mindfulness is the process of focusing your thoughts on the present moment.

While anyone can experience intense thoughts or emotions, those of us in recovery know how thoughts can sometimes run wild, especially when faced with obstacles throughout the recovery journey. Practicing mindfulness can help us acknowledge these thoughts, good or bad, before learning to regulate them. Simple tactics such as reminding yourself that these feelings of helplessness are only temporary or acknowledging how good you feel when you are sober are common instances of practicing mindfulness.

How Can Mindfulness Help for Those in Recovery?

Practicing mindfulness during recovery has proven effective for many individuals on the journey, especially those actively pursuing relapse prevention. Using techniques that help you practice mindfulness in situations of stress or chaos can be extremely helpful to manage the thoughts that lead to recurring addictive behaviors or relapse.

I’ve found mindfulness particularly helpful because I can acknowledge my thoughts and feelings—no matter how intense—before deciding how to react. So often, relapse occurs as a response to a highly emotional situation or a time of high anxiety. By practicing mindfulness, you can manage your reaction, react to these situations more productively, and avoid potential harmful behavior.

The SOBER Breathing Space Exercise

The SOBER Breathing Space Exercise is a technique that has become quite well-known throughout recovery communities—and for good reason. This exercise has its roots in mindfulness practices and helps many people avoid relapse by taking a step back to acknowledge their thoughts and their situation. The SOBER breathing space exercise has been found to be useful for breaking addictive behaviors and even managing panic attacks.

The SOBER Breathing Space Exercise

The acronym SOBER was created to help us remember the different steps of mindfulness to practice in high-stress situations that may cause us to react too quickly.

SOBER stands for:


S represents the concept of stopping instead of acting. In high-stress situations, the first thing we need to do before making any decisions is to stop and take a step back. Often, we find ourselves on ‘autopilot,’ causing us to react to situations without thinking first. For me, if I take a step back and stop before acting, I can remember to continue with the SOBER process to manage my thoughts and feelings.


O represents taking time to observe. One of the most important things you can do in a stressful situation, or before making a big decision, is to observe your own thoughts and feelings first. Are you uncomfortable? Do the people around you support your recovery? How do you feel in this situation right now? 

These are all questions to ask when you find yourself in a situation where you might react too quickly or are unsure how to proceed. Stress or anxiety can cause us to make snap decisions before we even have time to process them. That’s why taking a step back to practice these different components of mindfulness is so helpful to battling relapse and addictive behaviors.


Next, direct your attention to the breaths you are taking. Notice how quick or slow your breaths may be. Focus on a slow, deep inhale and hold it in for a few seconds. Then, switch to a slow, long exhale for three to five seconds. Repeat ten times. Focusing on your breathing is a simple technique that has been found to help anyone in stressful situations, regardless of what they are dealing with. That’s especially true for those of us on the recovery path—focused breathing is one of the simplest, yet most effective steps towards practicing mindfulness.


E represents expanding from your focus on breathing. Make a conscious effort to expand your awareness outward, from your breathing to your current situation, and try to stay in the present moment without fear. Notice how you feel now versus when you first started this process and see if your thoughts or feelings have changed. Do you believe in yourself and your ability to handle this?


The final letter of our SOBER acronym stands for ‘respond’. After taking yourself out of the situation, observing your thoughts and feelings, focusing on your breathing, and then expanding your awareness to the situation at hand, you now have the tools to respond to this situation responsibly. 

Ask yourself some questions of reflection to help you respond. How will you feel if you stay in this situation? Do the people around you respect your sobriety? What decision will make you feel the best? Each of these questions can help you further evaluate the situation and help you formulate a response that was not a knee-jerk reaction.

More Mindfulness-Based Treatment to Prevent Addictive Behavior Relapse

Of course, mindfulness is not limited to the SOBER breathing space exercise. Mindfulness-based treatment, commonly referred to as Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), is a form of addictive behaviors prevention that has helped thousands of people in recovery. MBRP has developed many different techniques in an effort to help people find a method of mindfulness that works for them. Two I have found effective include urge surfing and focusing.

Urge Surfing

‘Urge surfing’ is a strategy used commonly in MBRP that helps individuals ride out an urge instead of giving into it. This helps you learn how to acknowledge your urges and let them pass like a wave. Urge surfing also emphasizes the ups and downs that you might feel during recovery and validates them. The ultimate goal of urge surfing is to help you deal with your negative emotions without acting on them and develop the understanding that they will pass. Many people experience fewer negative emotions since they are no longer making decisions that lead to turmoil.


At its core, mindfulness can be described as the process of teaching yourself to focus. Whether we need to focus on thoughts and emotions or on the situation at hand, mindfulness teaches us to acknowledge both fully. That means that suppression is one of the worst things you can do when you’re on the road to recovery, whether you’re suppressing your feelings or your cravings. 

Of course, in the end, anything we suppress returns to the surface. Simply acknowledging and focusing on feelings, cravings, anxiety, and more can help us to let them pass. In this way, focus ultimately teaches us control.

Tips on Staying Sober

Tips on Staying Sober

While mindfulness techniques such as the SOBER breathing space exercise can help us navigate difficult situations, staying on the recovery journey is much more than the most difficult decisions. Here are a few more tips on staying sober that can guide you through the entire journey.

1. Focus on Your Mental Health

One of the biggest things you can work on during your journey of recovery is your mental health. Learn to be kind to yourself, to remain optimistic, and above all, learn how to take care of yourself. I know firsthand just how easy it can be to let worry and anxiety take over your life. If you put your mental health first—whether that requires going to therapy, practicing mindfulness or even beginning an exercise routine—both your mind and body will thank you.

2. Prioritize Your Happiness and Your Health

While it sounds pretty simplistic to just prioritize your happiness, take it from me—the process can be quite difficult, especially for those of us in recovery. However, learning to prioritize your happiness and health is a major step in healing. Do healthy things that make you feel good and do them for no other reason than the fact that they make you happy. You might find a new hobby or pick up an old one. Spend time with people that make you happy. Above all, remind yourself that it’s okay to put yourself first.

3. Be Present

Being present is an immensely important part of recovery. Being present is also a form of mindfulness that helps us to focus on the current moment and how we feel, rather than letting our anxieties or worries take control. Those worries about the future can make us miss out on moments that we could be enjoying. In my experience, it can be difficult to let go of past behaviors and past mistakes. However, working on being present and letting go of those worries about the past and the future can help you enjoy your life and live more freely. Let yourself experience the moments as they come.

4. Nurture Relationships

Another crucial aspect of staying sober is nurturing relationships with those that make you happy and support your recovery. Too often, addiction can make us push away the people we love, even if we don’t truly want to. Focusing on people who want to see you happy and putting energy into relationships that make you feel good is what is truly important.

5. Know How to Cope with Triggers

Another important aspect of staying sober is learning how to deal with potential triggers in your life. Sometimes, being around a trigger or obstacle is unavoidable. When this happens, it’s critical to have a plan in place to deal with the situation at hand. By using tools such as mindfulness, the SOBER breathing space exercise, and more, we can combat triggers when they present themselves without fear of succumbing to them.

Practice Mindfulness While Maintaining Sobriety

Practice Mindfulness While Maintaining Sobriety

Ultimately, mindfulness can help those of us in recovery in many more ways than one. While maintaining sobriety is a long journey of ups and downs, mindfulness can help us ride those waves and continue to live our lives happily. Mindfulness methods such as the SOBER breathing space technique, urge surfing, and focusing are tools that we can use throughout our journey of

recovery to deal with any kind of difficult situation. Learning to avoid reacting immediately and instead identifying and acknowledging how I feel about it to make a responsible decision is a primary way I’ve maintained sobriety and continued to heal. I—and those positive people in your life like counselors, friends and family—want the same for you, too.

Remember, you’re not alone.

Continue your journey, every day one day at a time.  

As always, stay strong,




James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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