Dry drunk is a non-technical term referring to alcoholics who have achieved sobriety and no longer exhibit physical symptoms of dependence, however they maintain attitudes and behaviors associated with addiction. This is usually a result of unresolved psychological and emotional issues that may have fueled or led to the addiction. The term is a colloquialism commonly used in peer support groups such Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). 

Click below to learn more about why drunk drunk syndrome occurs, how to recognize signs & symptoms and more

How to recognize dry drunk syndrome

Drunk drunk syndrome refers to harmful characteristics and behaviors common among alcoholics that persist during sobriety. Dry drunk behaviors can look similar to those of a person in late withdrawal. Both newly sober individuals and those who have been in recovery for an extended period of time can find themselves at risk. 

The National Institute of Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse (NIAA) defines an alcohol use disorder (AUD) as “chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Yet, addiction is a disease that involves more than compulsive drug and alcohol use alone.

dry drunk syndrome

There tend to be several common accompanying emotional and behavioral components as well. These can include:

  • Interpersonal problems and disagreements with friends or loved ones as a result of substance use
  • Continued desire to drink despite negative life, social and interpersonal consequences 
  • Inability to cut down or stop drinking despite the desire to do so
  • Dedicating significant amounts of time to drug and alcohol procurement and use
  • Manipulative, argumentative or secretive behavior in order to continue or hide alcohol use
  • Failing to meet home, work or school obligations
  • Less interest in social, recreational and work activities 
  • Exposing oneself or loved ones to hazardous circumstance in order to obtain or use drugs and alcohol
  • Money problems resulting from spending on alcohol
  • Drinking to avoid difficult situations, emotions or conflicts
  • Prioritizing drinking over important relationships 

Through detox, withdrawal and becoming sober, many of these behaviors can be eliminated. Nonetheless, dry drunks continue to experience and exhibit some of the emotions and behaviors associated with addiction. Without engaging in the recovery process, these problems can persist. 

Differences between sobriety and recovery 

In many instances the terms sobriety and recovery are used interchangeably. Although the two are related, each refers to a slightly different concept. Being sober means eliminating the use of drugs and alcohol from one’s life. Recovery, on the other hand, is a much more complex, life-changing process. Although being in recovery does require sobriety, it involves a much larger commitment. 

Differences between sobriety and recovery, drugs and alcoholism, addiction

During the recovery process, addicts and alcoholics seek to address their substance use as well as the emotional factors and behaviors that may have contributed to their addiction. Recovery programs take a holistic approach to addiction, teaching coping skills in response to emotional hardship. Additionally, addicts and alcoholics are encouraged to address and repair the damage they have caused to loved ones. The process may involve therapy, family counseling, job training, and learning life skills. Comorbid conditions such as depression, anxiety and anorexia may also be addressed during recovery.

Sobriety on its own is less sustainable, as it doesn’t address the underlying issues or help to develop healthy behavioral responses. If a person becomes sober but does not confront the emotional causes of their addiction, they are much more likely to relapse. They also risk replacing their original addiction with new compulsion. Without the emotional skills to deal with hardship in healthy and constructive ways, it becomes challenging to remain sober in the long-term.  

Dry drunks have achieved sobriety, but continue to engage in the same harmful, negative behaviors as they did when drinking. This may be because they have yet to fully invest in the emotional healing of recovery or because they may lack the tools, education and support required.

Controversy surrounding the phrase dry drunk

Although the terms dry drunk or dry drunk syndrome can be helpful in describing certain negative behaviors that inhibit recovery, many hold critical opinions of the phrase. Dry drunk is widely used within 12-step program circles as a pejorative term. It can be hurled as an insult or criticism to describe a person that is selfish and not committed. Critics state that this can be counterproductive to the recovery process by blaming the addict for struggling. Moreover, it can stigmatize individuals who struggling with recovery because of other comorbid mental health conditions. 

Getting sober can be an isolating experience marked by societal and personal judgement. There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding the disease. Support groups like AA are intended to provide community and a safe space for addicts. Flippant use of the term can cause alcoholics to feel criticized and unmotivated. This may lead to further feelings of isolation, only amplifying the challenges of recovery. For this reason, it is important to use caution and avoid judgement when using the term.

Are you a dry drunk? Signs & symptoms 

Are you worried that you or a loved one may be experiencing dry drunk syndrome? There are a number of behavioral and emotional signs and symptoms to look for: 

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Aggression and impulsivity
  • Mood swings
  • Low tolerance for stress
  • Inability to accept help
  • Continuing to engage in unhealthy or unethical behaviors 
  • Skipping peer support meetings, therapy sessions and other activities that are part of the recovery process 
  • Self-criticism, self-blaming, and judging oneself too harshly
  • Frustration with the treatment process
  • Lying, especially about one’s treatment or sobriety
  • Restlessness and trouble sleeping
  • Fantasizing about substance use
  • Romanticizing the “the old days” of drinking 
  • Engaging in other compulsive behaviors to cope, such as gambling, food and sex 
  • Selfishness, self-obsession and an overblown sense of self importance
  • Blaming others for one’s shortcomings while being unable to take personal accountability
  • Rigidity and lack of flexibility in viewpoints 

Emotional symptoms:

  • Irritability 
  • Feeling down or depressed 
  • Self pity
  • Feelings of hopelessness about maintaining sobriety
  • Frequent or intense changes in mood
  • Irritation, anger and frustration towards friends, family and others invested in the recovery process
  • Anxiety, especially related to staying sober
  • Feelings of anger and resentment towards oneself and towards others who still drink
  • Boredom and dissatisfaction with life
  • Coldness and difficulty when trying to express emotions
  • Indecisive feelings about wanting to drink

These issues can have a negative effect on personal relationships and can worsen other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. If left unchecked, symptoms can even trigger a relapse.

Causes of dry drunk syndrome

possible causes of dry drunk syndrome

As mentioned, those suffering from alcoholism and addiction face struggles beyond just compulsive substance use. For many, alcohol is used as a coping mechanism to numb painful emotions and avoid difficult situations. When a person becomes sober, they no longer have this crutch. This means they are exposed to many new and complex emotions they were previously able to avoid. 

Adjusting to life without alcohol can be a painful and intense process. Recovery stresses getting to the root of one’s addiction and addressing the issues and behaviors that contributed to their substance use disorder. This is not a fun process, as many painful issues and traumas can be brought up. 

Some individuals are unable, unprepared or lack the proper support to deal with these issues head on. Others may believe their only problem was drinking and that they don’t require additional support. When the behaviors and issues that led to the addiction are not addressed, dry drunk syndrome can occur. However, it is important to note that displaying symptoms of dry drunk syndrome doesn’t necessarily indicate that person is not taking their recovery seriously. There are several other possible reasons why a person may be exhibiting symptoms of dry drunk syndrome:

1. Inability to manage behavioral responses

Developing new, healthy behavioral patterns is not easy. It requires time, effort and support. If alcohol was previously used as a de-stressor, now that it is unavailable, it may become very challenging for the alcoholic to manage their behavioral responses. Especially, if they haven’t unlearned their previous behaviors through treatment of a 12-step program. Moreover, they may be surrounded by stressors and triggers they are not yet equipped to deal with. This stress can lead to dry drunk behaviors. 

2. Not completing treatment

Some choose to go without treatment because they feel as if they don’t need it. Others leave early because they find the program to be too challenging or believe it isn’t necessary. Although recovery is possible without completing treatment or a 12-step program, it is much more challenging when lacking proper support or education. Treatment focuses on more than just sobriety. Participants learn new life skills including coping with stress and cravings; changing behavioral patterns; developing healthy relationships; avoiding toxic situations and learning how to deal with emotions. When an individual leaves treatment or opts out altogether, they miss out on these critical lessons. Therefore, they may lack the tools, knowledge and support to deal with a sober life effectively, which can result in the appearance of dry drunk behaviors.

3. Experiencing Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

Dry drunk syndrome symptoms can be the result of Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). According to Psychology Today, PAWS is defined as “ constellation of often brutally uncomfortable symptoms that persist even after all physical traces of alcohol and drugs have left the body and brain.”  Some classify dry drunk syndrome under the PAWS umbrella. Depending on the severity and length of a person’s addiction, they may struggle with the condition post detox.  

Despite completing detox, changes in brain and body chemistry resulting from a substance use disorder can remain. During early abstinence, the Central Nervous System may still be readjusting to not having alcohol in its system. This can lead to a number of painful symptoms, as seen in dry drunks. These include problems with concentration, memory, sleep, appetite, irritability, anger and anxiety. Symptoms may persist for weeks or even months. Presently, there are few scientific studies on PAWS and there is still much to be learned about the syndrome. For this reason, the condition has yet to be recognized by the DSM. 

4. A warning sign of relapse

For some, dry drunk syndrome can indicate a forthcoming relapse.This can even occur in individuals who have been in recovery for years. The emotions, fantasies about drinking and negative behaviors may serve as the trigger, or there could be some other issue at play provoking the relapse. It is important to take these symptoms seriously. If you are concerned that you might be experiencing a relapse, seek professional help or peer group support.

What to do if a loved one is displaying dry drunk syndrome symptoms

How to help and support a dry drunk

If you have a loved one with an alcohol use disorder, you know the toll that it can take on those closest to them. You may have experienced a great deal of pain, frustration, stress and conflict surrounding your loved one’s drinking. In fact, you may have expected for everything to fall into place once they stopped drinking. Unfortunately, recovery is a long and difficult process for both the addict and those close to them. This is especially true if your loved one is exhibiting symptoms of dry drunk syndrome. 

You may feel disappointed that you are not seeing all of the changes you had anticipated. You may even be frustrated at their selfish behavior or worried that they will relapse. Although you can not control your loved one’s addiction or recovery, here some ways you can support your them as they struggle with dry drunk syndrome:

  • Listen and offer your loved one the space to talk through their feelings.
  • Be patient and realize that recovery is a process with ups and down.
  • Be positive and offer words of encouragement.
  • Recognize accomplishments, no matter how small they may be.
  • Be supportive of positive behaviors, new hobbies and healthy routines.
  • Avoid negativity and criticism.
  • Set clear boundaries to avoid enabling behaviors you may have once participated in.
  • Encourage your loved one to seek additional support through therapy, treatment and peer support groups
  • Be kind to yourself and practice self care 
  • Loving an addict or alcoholic is not easy. Seeking therapy or joining a peer support group such as Families Anonymous and Nar-Anon can help you process, decompress and navigate through these difficult times.

How to cope with dry drunk syndrome and avoid relapse

If you yourself are struggling with sobriety and believe that you may have dry drunk syndrome, it is important to take active steps to improve the situation. Recovery is important and dry drunk syndrome poses a risk to your sobriety and wellbeing. Here are some better ways to cope:

1. Recognizing the underlying issues 

If you feel that you may be a dry drunk, it is important to first and foremost consider the issues that may have led to your addiction. It is likely that your current struggles are the result of the same underlying problems that caused your substance use disorder in the first place. By identifying these issues, you can take steps to address them. If you are finding it difficult to pinpoint the source of the issue or if it seems insurmountable, consider seeking therapy or professional help. The issues that contributed to your addiction have probably been present in your life for a long period of time. Emotional problems and traumas can be complex and dealing with them may take time and commitment. In order to fully heal and begin a healthier life, these issues must be addressed. 

How to cope with dry drunk syndrome

2. Sharing your struggle with others

Some addicts try and go at it alone, believing they just have to stop drinking to get better. However, staying sober without the support of others can be difficult and isolating. Many put immense pressure on themselves to just get better. Having emotional support can help release some of this pressure. Although opening up about your alcoholism may not be easy, sharing your struggle can be cathartic. Moreover, talking out the difficulties you are experiencing in your recovery will allow your loved ones to better understand what you are going through and provide emotional support. 

Additionally, joining a peer support group can be immensely helpful in this regard. Recovery is a long road filled with many unexpected obstacles. These safe spaces allow addicts and alcoholics to share their experiences, learn from others, and find support from individuals who understand what you are going through. Look for an AA or NA meeting in your area.   

3. Treatment, therapy and professional support

Alcoholics and dry drunks alike generally deal with a number of emotional and behavioral issues that allowed their addiction to flourish. Breaking these behaviors and addressing emotional issues can be hard. Although you have accomplished a great deal by getting sober in the first place, if you are exhibiting dry drunk symptoms, there is likely still a great deal of work to do. Remember, recovery involves more than just attaining sobriety. Many dry drunks have gained sobriety, but still lack the coping skills to manage stressors and triggers. Because getting the next drink was the motivating thought for so long, it can be hard to change the negative accompanying behaviors that served you as an alcoholic. 

Therapy, to this end, is necessary and instrumental in the recovery process. This can be done directly with a trained therapist or as a part of an integrated rehab program. If you have not sought treatment, have failed to complete a program or just feel like you need extra support, attending a rehab program may also be a good option. Treatment provides alcoholics and addicts with practical skills that serve them in all facets of life. A good treatment program takes a holistic approach to addiction, offering a range of services. For instance, Liberty Ranch takes an evidence-based approach to recovery providing therapy, family counseling, life skills training and dual diagnosis management. Joining a treatment program will reduce the likelihood of a relapse, whether you are struggling with sobriety or have yet to quit drinking. 

4. Education and setting expectations

You may have an unrealistic expectation about what the road to recovery looks like, which could have led to self-criticism and blame. Eliminating substances from your life is just one step. Recovery can be a long and stressful road. By educating yourself and better understanding the holistic process of recovery, you will have clearer expectations of what being healthy and staying sober entails, as well as the pitfalls to look out.  Once you have a clear understanding of what recovery looks like, you will be able to better manage your expectations and anticipate challenges along the way. This will also allow you to be less critical of yourself when facing setbacks.

Healthy activities to cope for those struggling with dry drunk syndrome

5. Practicing healthy routines and finding new passions

Addiction takes up a great deal of time, money, and mental space. While drinking, it is likely that a large part of your life revolved around getting that next drink. Once this is gone, life can feel empty and it is easy to focus on the negatives. It can be helpful to fill your time with new activities and routines. Creating routines can keep you from falling back into old patterns by replacing old negative habits with positive structure. Identifying a new passion or an enjoyable activity can also be a helpful motivator. By finding a new interest or hobby, you can interject excitement into your life while taking the focus off of thinking about alcohol and drugs.

6. Be aware of symptoms of dry drunk syndrome

Even those who have been in recovery for a long period of time are susceptible to regressing. For this reason, it is important to remain vigilant. Check in with yourself and be on the lookout for symptoms of dry drunk syndrome. If you find yourself feeling hopeless, frustrated, angry at others, wanting to skip meetings or thinking about having just one drink, ask for help. Avoiding these issues will not make them go away.

Reach out to your sponsor, loved ones or to a professional that can help you work through these issues. 

7. Practicing self-care and compassion

Detoxing and getting sober is hard. Once sober, many fail to appreciate the continued challenge of staying sober. Going through recovery is a process that at times can feel impossible and insurmountable. Many put pressure on themselves to just be “okay” once they have eliminated alcohol or drugs from their lives.These are unrealistic expectations. And this type of thinking can contribute to dry drunk syndrome. It is normal to struggle, even after years of sobriety. If you are feeling hopeless or engaging in negative self-talk, remind yourself of how much you have accomplished by becoming sober. You are likely being too harsh on yourself. Remember to be compassionate to yourself. There is no perfect recovery process and you are doing the best you can. Seeking help and encouragement along the way is perfectly fine.