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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is Dry Drunk Syndrome? Symptoms, Behaviors, and Treatment

May 8, 2024
23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 8, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
May 8, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
May 8, 2024
23 min read

Understanding “Dry Drunk” Syndrome 

  • If you’re sober but still struggling with resentment of your sobriety, you may be experiencing “dry drunk” syndrome.

  • This stage of recovery is surmountable with self-care, professional help, and social support.
  • Reframe is a neuroscience-based app that provides tools, community, and inspiration to help you reorient yourself toward a life with less or no alcohol.

Given the wealth of information on the internet, is it any surprise when we could find ourselves scouring the web for diagnoses of our symptoms? One search and we could be going down the rabbit hole of every possible health condition and solution. For those of us in recovery, a term that pops up often is “dry drunk.” Seemingly contradictory, the term may be even more confusing after we’ve searched for answers. 

Let’s examine further what dry drunk means and explore some ways to better manage the symptoms that can accompany the condition. The journey to sobriety is no walk in the park, but having a better understanding of its challenges can help us make sure we stay on track. Before we get into the common challenges and how to overcome them, let’s first understand what “dry drunk” means. 

Dry Drunk Definition

A man sits with a beer, holding his head in despair

Dry drunk, or dry alcoholic, is a term that was originally used to describe someone who may be holding onto prior habits even after they stop drinking. The term was coined by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous who used it to describe those in sobriety who may not be getting the help they need. However, it is no longer used in this context; today it can imply that someone in recovery may not be trying hard enough.

The meaning of dry drunk, as it is now used, refers to someone who experiences symptoms and displays certain behaviors that are attributed to dry drunk syndrome. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly dry drunk syndrome is and what symptoms and behaviors are associated with it.

What Is Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Dry drunk syndrome refers to the experiences of someone who is in sobriety but continues to display behaviors and experiences similar to the ones they endured when they were drinking. Imagine cutting sugar out of our diet but continuing to suffer its same negative effects. That can be confusing and discouraging — just as dry drunk symptoms are for someone cutting out alcohol. 

Those of us recovering from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) may experience dry drunk syndrome — especially if we try to white-knuckle sobriety. White knuckling in recovery refers to leaning solely on willpower to stop drinking, often without any outside support or treatment. This can compound the negative feelings of dry drunk symptoms and leave us stuck in the dry drunk stage. Let’s explore in more detail what AUD is to better understand why dry drunk symptoms can occur in recovery.  

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Alcohol use disorder is more than just a bad habit or lack of willpower — it is recognized as a mental disorder. Someone with AUD may not be able to stop drinking even if they experience harmful effects. In recovery, cutting out alcohol is a crucial step that involves emotional and behavioral challenges.

There are various stages of AUD, but regardless of the stage, the condition can have detrimental impacts on our life. A person’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being is severely affected by AUD, which can cause lingering effects of dry drunk symptoms even after quitting alcohol. Acknowledging AUD as a serious medical issue can help us understand why dry drunk syndrome can occur during recovery. Most important, it can help us prevail over these challenges. 

Another common experience in recovery is post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Let’s take a closer look at what PAWS is to determine the similarities and differences between dry drunk syndrome and PAWS. 

Are Dry Drunk and PAWS Different?

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is the stage in which a person has moved past the acute stage of withdrawal but continues to experience psychological effects. The acute stage of withdrawal typically refers to the 24 hours after our last drink, whereas PAWS symptoms can last up to six months. Some common experiences of PAWS include mood fluctuations, lower stress tolerance, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and longing for a drink. 

Dry drunk syndrome and PAWS have similar symptoms, but the terms are not used interchangeably. While neither condition is officially recognized in the DSM-5, both are common experiences for those in recovery from AUD. Medical professionals and researchers attribute dry drunk behaviors and symptoms to be part of PAWS. Let’s take a look at some of the specific symptoms that are associated with dry drunk syndrome. 

Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome 

Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome 

Much the way symptoms of the flu can differ from person to person, dry drunk symptoms will also vary — but there are some common ones:

  • Resentment. Feeling bitter towards friends and family is a common dry drunk behavior. Recovery from AUD comes with complicated emotions. This can lead to feelings of jealousy or resentment towards those around us who are not recovering from alcohol misuse. 
  • Anger. This is often directed toward ourselves or at recovery itself. It is frustrating to continue feeling negative effects even after quitting alcohol, so we often look for something to blame. Imagine taking medication that our doctor prescribed for the flu but finding that it has no effect. Our first reaction may be anger towards our doctor, then at ourselves for not getting better. The paradoxical effect of dry drunk syndrome after quitting alcohol can have the same effect. 
  • Romanticizing drinking. Especially with the compounding effects of feeling anger towards recovery, drinking may seem like the “good ol’ days” for someone experiencing dry drunk syndrome. Alcohol hijacks our brain’s reward system, and positive feelings from dopamine release can be linked to drinking. When quitting alcohol, it may take some time for our brain to recognize that alcohol provided a false sense of happiness when it artificially triggered the release of dopamine — leading to cravings for alcohol during PAWS.
  • Mood swings. A lower tolerance to stress and increased mood swings occur due to alcohol’s interactions with the neurotransmitters in our brain. Alcohol is categorized as a depressant, but drinking alcohol can have stimulant effects. The “up” feelings are the sense of happiness that often accompanies intoxication. The “down” or depressant effects are usually felt in the aftermath, in this case during withdrawal through low mood and low tolerance to stress. 
  • Fear of relapse. Those of us in recovery often mistakenly label dry drunk symptoms as relapse. When experiencing these symptoms, dry drunk syndrome can evoke severe feelings of stress, as we may fear reverting to old habits. Quitting alcohol is no small feat, and the thought of undoing all the progress we made can be extremely unsettling for those of us in recovery.
  • Developing other addictions. Since alcohol misuse often occurs as the result of other internal or external factors, it is common for us to turn to other coping mechanisms when quitting alcohol. This can be in the form of caffeine, gambling, exercise, and more.

Recognizing dry drunk symptoms and behaviors is the first step in helping us work through them and progress along the road to real sobriety. Deciphering the causes of dry drunk behaviors can also help us better manage the symptoms.

What Causes Dry Drunk Behaviors? 

Researchers continue to attempt to identify the causes of dry drunk behaviors, which are accepted as part of post-acute withdrawal. However, it is widely agreed that PAWS symptoms are a result of physiological changes in the brain that occur from dependence on a substance. PAWS not only occurs in recovery from AUD but also in recovery from other drug misuse, including opioids and marijuana. 

Substance misuse affects neurotransmitters in the brain, which are altered after extended periods of exposure to the substance. When the substance is removed, our neurotransmitters need time to adjust — causing prolonged symptoms associated with dry drunk syndrome. 

There are other factors besides alcohol that lead to AUD. Alcohol is commonly used as a coping mechanism or way to escape negative emotions or feelings. While the substance itself is removed in recovery, the issues leading to misuse in the first place may not have been dealt with yet. Therefore, the conflicting emotions and longing for alcohol that commonly occurs during the dry drunk period should be addressed. Recovery is often referred to as an identity transition that not only involves quitting drinking but also identifying and reworking the factors that led to alcohol misuse. 

Quitting alcohol is arguably the most important step in AUD recovery, but staying in the dry drunk stage can be dangerous. It can be compared to painting over the cracks on a dilapidated house. From the outside, the house may look brand new, but until the cracks are repaired, the house can still come crumbling down — just like our health in the limbo dry drunk stage. 

Risks of Staying a Dry Drunk

The dry drunk stage is a tricky place to be. We may be in a better place than when we were drinking, but continuing to experience the same behavioral and psychological effects can be tormenting. While the act of quitting alcohol can stop our physical health from declining, settling into this dry drunk stage can continue to negatively impact our mental health. 

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are commonly associated with post-acute withdrawal. One of the dangers of not continuing to pursue full recovery is the risk of falling deeper into a negative mental space. This could then lead to a full-blown mental disorder and put us at risk for relapse. Although symptoms of dry drunk syndrome and PAWS may be difficult to navigate, they are important stages to surmount in order to transition from the dry drunk period to true sobriety. Since dry drunk symptoms can often bring about feelings of shame or discouragement, let’s take a closer look at the prevalence of dry drunk syndrome to help us understand more about the condition. 

Is Dry Drunk Syndrome Common?

The experience of recovery is extremely individualized. However, due to the way alcohol interacts with the systems in our brain and body, we may have common symptoms and occurrences. While research on PAWS continues to require further study, UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior found that PAWS occurs in over 75% of those of us recovering from AUD. 

Understanding that PAWS happens to many of us in recovery helps us feel less alone and can motivate us to continue to push through to full recovery. It can be discouraging to quit alcohol and continue to feel the same effects, but recognizing the prevalence and causes of dry drunk syndrome can help us better navigate it. 

How To Navigate Dry Drunk Syndrome 

Now that we understand that dry drunk syndrome is a common occurrence, let's explore some strategies to overcome this challenge in recovery. Symptoms of dry drunk syndrome can be frustrating and demotivating, but here are four helpful ways to manage them.

  1. Self-care. Practicing self-care can sometimes seem meaningless as most of us think of treating ourselves to a spa day or a latte on the weekends. However, these seemingly external acts can do a great deal in improving our mood and overall mental health. Self-care looks different for everyone, but some primary tasks such as eating proper meals, getting adequate rest, staying hydrated, and connecting with friends and family are ways we can improve our mental health and combat negative feelings that PAWS may evoke. 
  2. Identify triggers. When symptoms arise, it’s helpful to review the events leading up to occurrences so we can work to understand and avoid potential triggers. Triggers will vary from person to person, but some common ones include certain people, situations, or substances that may encourage old habits. Identifying our individual catalysts for dry drunk occurrences helps us avoid them or develop strategies to better manage them.
  3. Healthy distraction. While we aren’t suggesting an “out of sight, out of mind” strategy, finding healthy distractions is helpful in avoiding the trap of negative thinking. Exploring new hobbies, getting out in nature, and connecting with others helps to channel our energy into positive actions rather than ruminate on negative thoughts. 
  4. Professional assistance. The feelings and emotions associated with dry drunk symptoms can be difficult to manage on our own. Seeking professional support can help us learn positive coping strategies and open the door to other resources that can alleviate dry drunk effects. Professional support options may include medical professionals such as a primary care physicians or mental health practitioners and AUD or other support groups.

Dry drunk symptoms are unpleasant, but implementing these strategies can make them less daunting. Having support from family and friends is also helpful in persisting along the path to full recovery.

How To Support Someone Experiencing Dry Drunk Symptoms

Experiencing dry drunk symptoms in recovery can cause emotional distress and even discourage us from maintaining sobriety. Support from loved ones is integral in motivating those of us working to reduce or stop alcohol consumption to keep going. Here are some ways that our circle of support can help:

  • Offering a judgment-free space. Dry drunk symptoms can often evoke feelings of shame. By creating a judgment-free space, those of us in recovery from AUD can openly express our struggles and work through them with help from others. 
  • Assisting with accessing treatment. Professional treatment is not always easy to access, which can be a barrier for those of us in recovery seeking support. Family or friends can assist by identifying medical professionals and/or support groups. It is also helpful to offer to drive or attend a session with a loved one in order to help destigmatize and normalize seeking treatment. 
  • Acknowledging their experiences and feelings. Complicated emotions and feelings are a large aspect of dry drunk syndrome. Acknowledging the challenging experiences that we are going through can help us work through them with proper validation and support. It is helpful to remind anyone in recovery from AUD that dry drunk syndrome is common and encourage them to continue to push through to full sobriety. 
  • Providing tokens of encouragement. While emotional support is crucial, physical items can serve as tokens of encouragement and provide motivation when family and friends aren’t around. 
  • Caring for oneself. Supporting a loved one in recovery can be taxing physically and emotionally. Remembering to take time to care for oneself is important for longevity in supporting others in their journeys toward real sobriety. 

Summing Up

Many of us only hear of the silver linings of sobriety, but the reality is that recovery from AUD has no shortage of trials and tribulations. Dry drunk syndrome and its complicated symptoms can be discouraging for those of us in recovery. While the dry drunk stage is safer than alcohol misuse, there are detrimental effects if we stay stuck in it. The symptoms can be difficult to navigate, but with the strategies outlined and with support from friends and family, true sobriety is not a pipe dream. Dry drunk syndrome may visit us, but it’s not here to stay!

Summary FAQs

1. Where did “dry drunk syndrome” come from?

The term originated with the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

2. What is a dry drunk?

A “dry drunk” refers to someone in sobriety who may experience symptoms and behaviors similar to those they had when they were drinking. 

3. Is “dry drunk” real?

Although not recognized in the DSM-5, dry drunk symptoms and behaviors are a common experience for those who are recovering from AUD.

4. What are the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome?

Common symptoms include mood swings, alcohol cravings, and difficulty maintaining relationships.

5. What will help someone experiencing dry drunk syndrome?

Reassurance and creating a judgment-free zone can help someone experiencing dry drunk syndrome to feel supported.  

Is Alcohol Affecting You? Reframe Can help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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