Recovering from alcohol use disorder can be a long, tough process. When you choose to stop drinking, you’re taking a significant first step. In most cases, though, getting sober is a lot more complex than simply giving up alcohol.
One potential challenge involves “dry drunk syndrome,” a slang term that originated in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It refers to traits and behaviors often seen with alcohol use that persist into recovery.
In other words, someone who’s sober might still “act drunk” or deal with the same issues that led them to quit drinking in the first place.
It often occurs as part of a broader condition known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
The phrase “dry drunk” often has a negative connotation. Within AA, for example, it’s sometimes used to refer to people who aren’t “working the program” or trying hard enough. Plus, labeling someone in recovery as any kind of “drunk” generally isn’t helpful.
“I don’t use the term ‘dry drunk,'” Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC, explains. “People struggling with alcohol use are already dealing with a lot of pain. I don’t want to add to it by using a stigmatizing word.”
When talking to or about someone in recovery, avoid using this term. Instead, call out specific symptoms or behaviors.
While the phrase “dry drunk” is controversial, the set of symptoms it refers to are a normal part of recovery for plenty of people and nothing to be ashamed about.
The characteristics of this phenomenon may share similarities with the feelings and behaviors you might experience while still drinking.
Symptoms can also seem to resemble a late withdrawal, as some treatment professionals have pointed out.
You might experience some changes in your mood or emotional state, including:
- irritability, frustration, or anger
- low spirits
- impatience, restlessness, or difficulty focusing
- anxiety or worry about your ability to maintain sobriety
- resentment that’s directed toward yourself, people who can still drink, or people who want you to quit drinking
- negative or hopeless feelings about your ability to stop drinking
- distraction or boredom
You might also notice your mood changes rapidly or frequently. Expressing your emotions might seem tough or impossible, which can lead to further frustration.
Specific behaviors and experiences often linked to this syndrome can include:
- aggressive or impulsive behavior
- trouble sleeping
- a tendency to judge, blame, or criticize yourself harshly
- frustration with treatment, which may lead you to skip meetings or counseling sessions, or give up on them entirely
- frequent daydreaming or fantasizing, often about alcohol use
- using other behaviors, like TV or gambling, to cope with abstinence
These behaviors and emotional concerns can strain your relationships and interactions with others, especially if alcohol use has already had a negative impact on your relationships.
If you’re already coping with depression or other mental health concerns, these symptoms might further complicate matters and make you feel even worse. This can sometimes trigger renewed alcohol use, especially in the absence of more helpful coping techniques.
Not necessarily. Recovery is a highly individualized process. It can look a bit different for everyone.
Some experts suggest that people who leave treatment programs early or don’t address underlying factors that contribute to alcohol misuse have a higher chance of experiencing this syndrome.
However, there’s not much evidence to back this up.
Other complex factors may also play a role, including underlying mental health issues or a lack of social support.
Some folks assume that people showing signs of this syndrome are about to relapse and drink again, but this isn’t always the case.
Turner, who specializes in addiction treatment in Virginia, explains that while many people use “relapse” to describe a return to substance use, she defines relapse as the process of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that can trigger use.
“Given that relapse is a process, it can be identified and interpreted before use happens,” she says.
Based on this definition, the symptoms of “dry drunk syndrome” may constitute a relapse, even if the person doesn’t drink.
Keep in mind that relapses are a normal, common part of recovery.
If you suspect you might be dealing with this syndrome, try not to be too hard on yourself. For many people, it’s just part of the recovery process.
Still, there are things you can do to manage these symptoms and minimize their impact on your life.
Connect with others
It’s not always easy to open up about alcohol use and recovery, especially to people who don’t have any experience with it, but it’s a crucial part of the process.
Talking to loved ones about what you’re experiencing and sharing as much as you feel comfortable with can help them understand your distress. This can also help you reconnect and make it easier for them to offer empathy and support when your feelings and emotions trigger thoughts of drinking.
It can also be very helpful to talk to others in recovery. This part of recovery is pretty common, even if people don’t recognize it as such or talk about it much.
Try talking to your treatment sponsor, accountability partner, or member of a peer support group. Chances are, more than a few people have traveled a similar road.
Commit to self-care
Taking care of your health can help you weather all kinds of challenges more easily, including urges to drink.
To take better care of yourself, try to do the following:
- Get some physical activity every day.
- Eat nutritious meals and drink plenty of water.
- Set aside enough time for restful sleep.
- Spend time outside when you can.
- Make time for friends and family.
You don’t have to do all of these every day. Instead, focus on taking small steps to build some of them into your routine.
Maybe you start by simply going to the gym at a certain time most days of the week. Don’t stress too much about doing a huge workout; just focus on getting yourself there.
Develop new coping methods
Having helpful coping techniques in place can make it easier to manage distressing emotions and thoughts about drinking.
Things like grounding techniques can help you manage unpleasant or challenging thoughts, while breathing exercises can get you through moments of anger or frustration.
Yoga or meditation can offer benefits beyond simple distraction, too.
Coping methods don’t necessarily have to involve trying something new, though. They can be as simple as setting aside time for your favorite hobbies, including:
- drawing, painting, or pottery
- solo or team sports
- home improvement projects
Keep in mind that these hobbies might not feel quite as enjoyable during the early stages of recovery. It’s normal to feel this way at first. If some time goes by and you still feel the same way, you can always give a different coping technique a try or explore a new hobby.
Recovery can be extraordinarily difficult and bring up feelings of hopelessness. Plus, if you’ve done things while drinking that harmed you or people you love, you may also carry some pain and have plenty of sharp words for yourself.
Remember that addiction is a serious disease, and you’re doing the best you can. Try to nurture feelings of patience and self-love, especially on the days you feel those emotions the least.
Not feeling it? Try thinking about what you’d say to a close friend in your position.
Identify your reasons for drinking
“Treatment should focus on understanding and treating why someone turned to alcohol,” Turner says.
Remember, eliminating alcohol is only part of the equation. It’s equally important to explore the habits and reasons behind your drinking, ideally with a qualified therapist.
“Once you deal with the why, the need for alcohol is often resolved,” Turner says.
Seek professional help
It’s best to have some kind of extra support during recovery, whether that’s a 12-step program or a regular appointment with a therapist who specializes in addiction counseling.
The important thing is to find a recovery program that works for you and stick with it. If one approach doesn’t feel right, take a step back and consider a different one.
All of this can be frustrating if you have a loved one in recovery. You might even feel like they’re taking a step backward, not forward. But remember that this phase is a fairly normal part of recovery, and it won’t last forever.
In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to support them.
Don’t underestimate the power of a few encouraging words.
When you’re in recovery, it’s easy to focus on the negatives. Maybe they slipped up and had a drink after several months of sobriety. Or maybe they feel like they’re missing out on social events.
You can help them see the bright side, whether that’s commending them for how far they’ve come or acknowledging when they make the choice to forgo potentially tempting situations, like an office happy hour.
People recovering from alcohol misuse or addiction often experience difficult, painful emotions. They might feel frustrated or angry, struggle with their desire to drink, or express a lot of negative thoughts. Their mood might change abruptly and often.
Even if they direct these emotions toward themselves, their emotional state can affect yours. Try to remember this isn’t necessarily a situation they chose to be in.
Of course, it’s important to set (and enforce) clear boundaries around behavior that affects you negatively, like angry outbursts or dishonesty. But it’s also important to cultivate patience as they work toward making changes.
Support positive habits
Spending time with your loved one, especially on activities you both enjoy, may help them feel more positive and optimistic about life in general. Hobbies can also help create a distraction from thoughts of drinking.
Consider getting involved in activities together, like hiking, volunteering, or even cooking classes.
If you don’t enjoy or participate in the same types of activities or hobbies, you can still encourage them to seek out things they enjoy or find new interests.
Show support by asking about new skills they learn or milestones they reach, like creating a fancy dish or participating in a 5K.
Get support for yourself
You might want to participate in treatment with your loved one whenever possible, but it’s also wise to talk to a therapist on your own. This is especially the case if specific behaviors or mood symptoms affect your day-to-day life.
Alcohol addiction is a disease, but that doesn’t excuse abusive behavior. If your loved one behaves in toxic or aggressive ways, it’s best to talk this over with a therapist and develop a plan to keep yourself safe.
Outside of therapy, don’t forget to take care of yourself and your needs. Make sure you’re prioritizing your own self-care throughout their recovery process.
You can’t be of much help to your loved one if you’re burned out and neglecting your own needs.
Recovery is a tough, complex journey. For most people, it’s not enough to just quit drinking. You also have to explore, deeply and honestly, patterns and behaviors in your life that contribute to your alcohol use.
This can make for a rough, painful journey, but doing so can help you better navigate challenges that come up and increase your chances of making it to your destination: a successful recovery.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.