Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
Your loved one has worked hard to overcome their addiction to alcohol. They have undergone medically supervised detox and are now attending a professional addiction treatment program as well as a local 12-step group.
Yet, despite all this effort, the signs and symptoms you’ve noticed during the height of their alcohol addiction continue to persist. They may show signs of depression or anxiety or struggle with remembering important tasks. In other cases, they may show disinterest in their personal or professional lives or seem just as angry or frustrated as they were when they were drinking.
This condition is known as “dry drunk syndrome,” or what researchers call post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). It’s very common. In fact, an estimated 75 percent of individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction may experience the condition at some point, according to the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
In this article, we’ll explore what dry drunk syndrome really is and how you can help your loved one cope with life after addiction.
What is Dry Drunk Syndrome?
Dry drunk syndrome gets its name because it affects individuals who are in recovery from alcohol addiction, also known as “dry,” causing them to act the way they did when they were previously drinking.
Many individuals who struggle with alcohol addiction exhibit difficult and challenging behaviors during their addiction, such as aggressive or reckless behavior, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and difficulty remembering or carrying out tasks.
Loved ones often hope that addiction treatment can change this behavior — and, with time and commitment, professional treatment can lead to behavior change. But change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why individuals who have struggled with addiction over a long-term period of time may continue to struggle with “dry drunk” behaviors even as they enter recovery.
What Causes Dry Drunk Syndrome?
Researchers are still looking into the causes of dry drunk syndrome, but they suspect that the condition persists because of the chemical and structural changes that take place in the brain and body when an individual uses an addictive substance.
For example, when an individual regularly consumes alcohol, they cause levels of messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters to increase in the brain. One particular neurotransmitter that alcohol boosts is dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that causes a temporary feeling of relief and pleasure when drinking.
If the individual regularly consumes alcohol, the brain will grow accustomed to this abnormally high level of dopamine in the body, far higher than the brain itself can produce naturally. When an individual stops consuming alcohol, the brain and body go through an adjustment period known as withdrawal.
During withdrawal, the individual will often experience uncomfortable, flu-like symptoms including fatigue, body pain, headaches, nausea, and sleeplessness. Other, more dangerous outcomes can also occur during withdrawal, including delirium tremens, a brain condition that can lead to coma or death.
This is why we strongly recommend that individuals never attempt to undergo withdrawal on their own without proper medical support.
Withdrawal symptoms can also be psychological. Individuals may be fearful, anxious, depressed, moody, or angry as they experience the toll that addiction has taken on their body and brain.
During dry drunk syndrome, individuals may experience some of these similar sensations even after they have begun treatment. In some cases, dry drunk syndrome can last for multiple years after a person has stopped drinking. Researchers believe that this is because the brain and body are still recovering from the chronic changes that addiction has caused.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome?
Dry drunk syndrome causes individuals to experience psychological signs and symptoms associated with addiction and withdrawal even after they have begun recovery.
These can include:
- Anger and frustration
- Anxiety and depression
- Emotional instability and mood swings
- Difficulty remembering everyday tasks
- Challenges in personal relationships
- Job or school-related problems
- Cravings for alcohol
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
While dry drunk symptoms may resemble those of withdrawal and active addiction, they can typically last well into early recovery and sometimes beyond. If your loved one is struggling with dry drunk behaviors, you will want to ensure that their treatment provider is properly equipped to provide the appropriate treatment and care for these challenges.
When Does Dry Drunk Syndrome Occur?
Dry drunk syndrome can occur at any time during recovery but most commonly occurs in early recovery. In some individuals, dry drunk symptoms are most common in the days and weeks immediately after beginning recovery. Others may experience symptoms that last months and even years after they stop drinking.
Though dry drunk syndrome is common, not everyone who experiences the syndrome will experience it the same way. For example, some individuals may only have slight emotional challenges as they progress through recovery. Others, however, will greatly struggle with feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger throughout their recovery. As with most mental health challenges, chronic stress or unexpected life events can worsen dry drunk symptoms.
If you are concerned that your loved one may be struggling with dry drunk syndrome, consider the level of stress they are currently experiencing. Can you take any proactive steps to reduce their stress level or recommend any steps they can take on their own? Lowering stress is an important step towards dealing with dry drunk behaviors.
Dry drunk syndrome can also make relapse more likely. For many people in recovery, dry drunk symptoms can make cravings and a desire to drink again very difficult to resist. It’s important to work with your loved one’s treatment provider to watch for the warning signs of relapse.
How Common is Dry Drunk Syndrome?
Unfortunately, dry drunk syndrome impacts many people in recovery each year. Individuals who have been chronic drinkers or struggled with alcohol use disorder for many years are more likely to experience severe dry drunk syndrome, but anyone with addiction challenges can experience symptoms.
Other factors that can affect the severity of dry drunk syndrome include an individual’s age and gender, according to the University of Wisconsin Health.
Can Dry Drunk Syndrome be Treated?
Luckily, dry drunk syndrome can be treated. Like other mental health challenges, dry drunk syndrome is best addressed through a combination of individual and group therapy, peer support, and behavioral and lifestyle changes. If your loved one is already enrolled in a professional treatment program, make sure to communicate your concerns to the program staff. If they have already completed treatment, there are still positive steps you can take.
Among the steps you can take to help your loved one both in and outside of treatment include:
- Talk to your loved one’s addiction treatment provider. In many cases, your loved one may be enrolled in addiction treatment as they experience dry drunk symptoms. If you notice they are struggling, chances are their provider has, too. But proactively reaching out to their treatment provider can help ensure that your loved one receives the care they need during an emotionally difficult period of time.
- Encourage your loved one to talk to trusted support networks. Developing a peer support network is critical for long-term recovery. If your loved one is enrolled in addiction treatment, make sure they regularly attend group therapy sessions alongside others in their program. This will help them feel less isolated and more supported in their recovery. In addition, your loved one may benefit from joining a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Regularly scheduled AA meetings can provide a sense of structure and support even after your loved one completes their treatment program.
- Identify moments of HALT and other relapse risks. Since dry drunk syndrome can place your loved one at a higher risk for relapse, it’s important to help them identify moments when their risk may be higher than normal. For many individuals, remembering an acronym like HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) can help stop difficult moments from spiraling down into substance use. For others, addictive triggers can include people, places, and feelings associated with their previous addiction. Being aware of these risks and developing strategies to mitigate them can greatly improve recovery outcomes and lessen the dangers of dry drunk syndrome for your loved one.
- Prioritize stress-relieving activities like exercise and meditation. Dry drunk syndrome is made worse by stress. Individuals who experience chronic everyday stress or moments of intense traumatic stress can often struggle with worse dry drunk symptoms than those who do not. Figuring out ways to cope with stress in a healthier and more sustainable manner can make a big difference. Some of the most effective strategies for stress management include exercise, proper nutrition, and meditation and mindfulness. While most professional treatment programs incorporate these elements into their treatment, you can help support your loved one to continue these practices when they complete treatment, as well.
Dry drunk syndrome is a common challenge facing many individuals in early recovery. And while it can be frustrating for both the individual in recovery and their family and friends, dry drunk syndrome does not have to be a pathway to relapse. With proper support and care, you can help your loved one navigate the complexities of dry drunk syndrome and emerge into a strong and healthy recovery that will last.