Dry Drunk Syndrome: How to Deal with Strange Behavior Patterns

Dry Drunk Syndrome

Dry drunk syndrome may sound like an oxymoron, but this syndrome is very real and is more common than you might think.

The term “dry drunk” is used to describe a person who has stayed away from alcohol for some time but continues to behave as if he or she is still addicted.

A person who has dry drunk syndrome hasn’t made behavioral or emotional changes or has started to regress to old ways of thinking. If not managed properly, Dry Drunk Syndrome can easily trigger a relapse. In some instances, untreated dry drunk syndrome can lead to suicide.

Whether you or a loved one has dry drunk syndrome, take heart in the fact that the condition can be cured. Developing dry drunk syndrome does not mean that you have lost your chance at sobriety. It only means that you need to get back on the right track.

What are the symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Dry drunk symptoms are largely behavioral. You might start to exhibit low tolerance for stress or behave impulsively, repeatedly engaging in unhealthy or risky behaviors. You might even start romanticizing alcohol or getting nostalgic about the “good old” drinking days. Your attitude may become constantly negative, and you lose interest in previously cherished activities and become consumed with negative thoughts or self-pity. You may not recognize that anything needs to change. You just feel miserable in your skin.

What are the causes of Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Dry Drunk Syndrome is usually caused by no longer focusing on mental or emotional recovery. You may start to believe that since you no longer drink, there isn’t anything else that needs to be done, but suddenly you find you aren’t able to brush off negative thoughts. You may resist completing all the modules of the rehab program and stop regularly attending alcohol support group meetings.

How can you avoid Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Dry Drunk Syndrome can be avoided by treating the core issues of alcoholism. Be aware of and on the lookout for the symptoms that indicate you are slipping back into old ways of thinking. If you have not undergone behavioral therapy or counseling that targets people who abused alcohol, consider enrolling in a program. Join a support group of either 12-step or a non-12-step recovery and adjust your expectations of what “recovery” is.

Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome

Learn to recognize the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome, so you don’t mistake them for moodiness or think that your loved one is just being difficult.

The following are the classic symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome:

  • Exhibiting low tolerance for stress: The individual has an abnormally low tolerance for stress. He or she flies off the handle or is upset at even the normal daily stressors that most other people can deal with without becoming agitated.
  • Displaying impulsivity: Low tolerance for stress can manifest as impatience and impulsive behavior. During his or her drinking days, a person was accustomed to instant gratification. Now when things don’t go the way he or she had planned or hoped for, stress kicks in. The person acts with little or no regard for the harm his or her behavior might unleash.
  • Engaging repeatedly in unhealthy or risky behaviors: The individual may have given up alcohol but still turns to other substances of abuse to cope with stress.
  • Romanticizing alcohol or getting nostalgic about the “good old” drinking days: Forgotten are the brushes with the law. Forgotten are the broken relationships. The person now only remembers what was good about his or her drinking days. In many cases, an addict in recovery who is feeling nostalgic about alcohol is just a step away from a relapse.
  • Showing a lack of interest in previously cherished activities: It is expected that with alcohol out of the way, the person in recovery will show increased enthusiasm for the activities he or she once used to enjoy. But people suffering from dry drunk syndrome lose interest in the activities they once used to enjoy. It seems as if they have lost the willingness or will to rebuild their lives.
  • Harboring negative thoughts: This is one of the classic symptoms of dry drunk syndrome. Dry drunks tend to harbor negative thoughts about themselves, the people around them, and the events unfolding in their lives. They think they are no good because they have failed to “recover.” They believe alcohol rehab programs are a waste of time because they have ended up being miserable. Negativity breeds stress that, in turn, magnifies the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome.
  • Displaying self-pity: The addict in recovery harbors feelings of discontentment with the way his or her life is shaping up. Self-pity is one of the most worrying symptoms of dry drunk syndrome. Feeling low and feeling helpless at being unable to chart the course of his or her life can drive a person to depression or worse, suicide.
  • Denying that life needs to change: A recovering addict is as prone to denying the futility of his or her current situation as a practicing addict. The person refuses to accept that he or she is stuck in recovery and needs to do some inner work to change status quo.

Causes of Dry Drunk Syndrome

Before you delve into the causes of Dry Drunk Syndrome, here’s what you should know about the nature of alcohol addiction:

  • Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are behavioral disorders.
  • In many cases, alcohol abuse stems from unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Behavioral modification is critical for sustained sobriety.
  • Quitting alcohol usually only resolves the chemical dependency issues.

Causes Of Dry Drunk Syndrome

When you understand the nature of alcohol addiction and how it affects the individual’s mind, it is easy to make sense why dry drunk syndrome develops.

The following are the most common causes of dry drunk syndrome:

  • Not being able to alter behavioral responses: For many addicts in recovery, drinking was a way of coping with the stresses in their lives. Alcohol used to relax and de-stress them. If these people do not learn alternative healthy coping mechanisms, they will naturally fall back to their old ways. They respond to stress by reaching out for a drink because that’s how they have “learned” to cope.
  • Not being able to brush off negative thoughts: Learning not to react impulsively to negative thoughts and feelings is an integral lesson of behavioral therapy. During these sessions, addicts in recovery are taught how to tide over negative thoughts and feelings that the stresses of daily living almost inevitably bring on. If they are not able to cope with negativity healthily, they feel compelled to reach out for a drink. But they know that they are not supposed to drink, so the stress magnifies.
  • Returning to a life filled with stressors: For many addicts in recovery, the expectation after going through an alcohol rehab program is that they will return to their earlier “normal” lives and function independently and efficiently without drinking. But the “normal” life they had once led is probably still filled with those stressors that had triggered their addiction in the first place. With their coping mechanism not in place, it is not hard to understand why some people start to romanticize their drinking days.
  • Not completing all the modules of the rehab program: Comprehensive rehab programs include intensive counseling and therapy sessions that help addicts in recovery alter attitudes, beliefs and behavioral responses. Not completing all the modules means that the person has had no chance of doing the inner work that would have prepared him or her to cope with the stressors that prompted alcohol dependency in the first place.
  • Not attending alcohol support group meetings: Attending alcohol support group meetings regularly even after leaving rehab has been proven to prolong sobriety for as long as 16 years. These meetings create opportunities for the recovering addict to interact with those who have traveled along the same path and learn tips and tricks for staying sober from them. The interactions provide the much-needed emotional support and guidance that go a long way in helping a person identify and alter unhealthy behavioral responses.
  • Harboring unrealistic assumptions about recovery: Sobriety is not just a destination you arrive at after quitting alcohol, going through detoxification, and attending a rehab program; sobriety is a lifelong journey. But not many people realize this. The belief is that once they have quit drinking or completed rehab there will be improvement in all the currencies of their lives. So when this doesn’t happen or happens too slowly, discouragement, frustration, and depression set in.

Avoiding Dry Drunk Syndrome

A “dry drunk” refers to a person—someone who once abused alcohol—who has not consumed alcohol for some time but still exhibits the mental and emotional symptoms of alcoholism.

Dry drunk syndrome is the result of one of the following two developments in an addict in recovery:

  • The person may have stopped using alcohol but has not worked on his or her mindset. His or her emotional landscape remains unchanged.
  • The person is abstaining from alcohol but is regressing in recovery. The typical behavior in such cases is missing or not attending support group meetings and not keeping in touch with his or her sponsor. Regression also means reverting to the old ways of thinking like, “One drink is okay.”

You now know how dry drunk syndrome develops. You can prevent it in the following ways:

  • Be aware of and on the lookout for the symptoms. The sooner you spot them, the earlier you can stem the downward spiral that can eventually trigger a relapse.
  • If you have not undergone behavioral therapy or counseling that targets people who abused alcohol, consider enrolling in a program.
  • Join a 12-step or a non-12-step program to learn tips and tricks from people who have overcome the obstacles that you may be facing now. Participation in these programs also ensures that you have role models to look up and examples to follow.
  • Adjust your expectations of what “recovery” is. Remember that recovery is a commitment to life that you have to work at continuously. If you are stuck, it’s a signal that something is not going right. You have to correct your course.

Dry Drunk Syndrome is also known as “untreated alcoholism” in some 12-step circles. The moniker is not entirely unfounded. In a way, the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome mimic the emotional and mental states of an alcoholic. The cure is to take part in a behavioral counseling program and to reactivate your commitment to recovery.

When you experience dry drunk behavior patterns, the way to get back on track is to do what you know you are supposed to be doing. Only by asking for help and sticking close to others in recovery can you get fully back on the road to recovery.


Dry Drunk Syndrome: How to Deal with Strange Behavior Patterns

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Comments 8

  • I’m 22 years sober on my own, but never worked on myself so the problems remained.
    They exacerbated once I retired but l couldn’t understand what was wrong. I’m now attending a 12 step program which is helping considerably.
    Good article. Thanks.

  • Hi..I am 47 year old and quit drinking 1230 days before a ie on 26.10.2015 after abusing it for 22 years…I embraced soberity with my own will power and after going through the article I m in doubt whether I should have attended meetings…

  • How can I help my 50 year old daughter get professional help. She refuses to speak with me and hasn’t for almost 5 years. I think she’s a dry drunk.

  • I fit the dry drunk pattern 5 years sober attend 2 AA meeting per week I miss the stress relief and good times scared of relapse.. need help

  • I have 6 months sober and I’m going through a bad dry drunk and scared of relapse…can’t afford another one it may be my last…my last débauche almost took my life..HELP

    • I’m nearly 7 months sober. I’m definitely going through a dry drunk spell. It’s scary as i, like you, cannot go back to drinking, it will kill me.
      I’m going to get my license back on Thursday so I will be able to get to more meetings. I’m very low at the moment and can’t shake the heaviness, even though I do recognise that I’ve come so far from where I was. Let me know what you do Pierre, I wish you all the luck and strength you need.

  • Leah I’m 5 months sober and I’m working my program in DBT program individual therapy and go to 2 meeting a week read about dry drunk to see what it means I was curious cause I heard them term good to know I’m proud of myself and my recovery so far.

  • my hubby and I got sober together for 2years and also started relapsing all over the place as of late we have been sober for only 2 days .I have trouble sleeping am .exhausted all the time.our marriage has suffered as a result.the constant fights and not even rembering what happens takes a toll on both of us. however we are truly in love and push through it . together for 15 years I have a deep empathy for us addicts and have always believed the is underliying mental illness and trauma.my heart goes out to anyone suffering . A

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