Avoiding the self-examination and emotional labor true recovery takes can leave a person who’s entirely sober feeling worse than they did before they quit drinking altogether. In recovery circles, this is often referred to as dry drunk syndrome, or simply dry drunk.
For people who struggle with a substance use disorder, there’s a big gap between sobriety and actively recovering from addiction. For a meaningful, productive, and lasting recovery to take root, giving up drugs or alcohol is only the first step.
In addition to simply stopping the use of alcohol, it’s also necessary to identify the root causes of why a person drinks and work on ways to overcome those issues as well.
It’s important to have some perspective about addiction. After all, it is a complex, chronic relapsing disease of the brain. Because of the stigma associated with it, people battling addiction issues are generally overly critical of their setbacks and successes.
Only about 19 percent of the more than 20 million people who need addiction treatment in the U.S. receive it, according to a report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found on the SAMHSA website.
Even though addiction is a highly treatable disorder, it has similar rates of relapse when compared to other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure.
An estimated 40 to 60 percent of people will relapse, but this does not mean that their recovery has failed, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Staying vigilant and continuing the work of recovery is not always simple or effortless. Life is difficult. It’s all too easy for a person to find himself or herself feeling untethered, vulnerable and at risk of relapse.
What is a Dry Drunk?
It should be said that there is already too much stigma related to addiction and recovery professionals are unlikely to refer to anyone as a “drunk,” much less a dry one.
The phrase was born out of 12-step support groups, and “Dry Drunk” refers to someone exhibiting many of the unhealthy behaviors, emotions, perspectives and choices of someone in active addiction, even though they’re sober.
Dry Drunk Syndrome can develop out of a number of different factors, but it’s important to understand that it can be a normal part of the recovery process, much like post-acute withdrawal syndrome.
First and foremost, not everyone seeks professional help for substance abuse. A person might decide, after some negative experiences, that they can no longer use drugs or alcohol and simply quit.
If they have an undiagnosed substance use disorder, though, this means that all the underlying actions that drove their self-destructive behavior are left unaddressed and usually still festering.
Next, anyone in recovery can face serious life setbacks that draw them into old ways of thinking and feeling. All of a sudden, they might feel out of place in counseling or in support groups and stop going altogether.
Whatever the case may be, being in this chaotic emotional space can be incredibly upsetting and psychologically painful. It is often a giant, waving “red flag” that a relapse is on the horizon if they don’t reach out for help or receive an intervention.
Dry Drunk Syndrome
The risk factors for developing this syndrome will vary, but there are some common circumstances that can bring it on.
For instance, a co-occurring disorder, also known as a dual diagnosis, is the presence of a substance use disorder and a mental health issue. In each case, one condition can amplify or worsen the symptoms of the other unless both are treated together at the same time.
Staying in a toxic home environment or relationship, social isolation, or unaddressed grudges or resentments are other situations that can make a person feel like they’re no longer grounded in recovery.
The symptoms of dry drunk syndrome can include some of the following:
- Depression or anxiety
- Feelings of hopelessness about the future
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or trouble concentrating
- Anger or resentment about others’ ability to drink or do drugs without consequences
- Increased sense of shame
- Guilt or criticizing oneself
- Impulsive or risky behaviors in lieu of substance abuse, like compulsive gambling, shopping, eating or unsafe sexual activity
- Frequently talking about using drugs or drinking, what it used to be like, or daydreaming about how it would feel to do it again
The good news is that these issues don’t have to result in a relapse. Being aware of the symptoms is the first step in addressing them and getting some relief.
Even if a relapse does occur, recovery is still very achievable and should not be considered a failure, but instead merely a setback.
Recovery vs. Sobriety
Managing a healthy recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is often full of intense self-examination and work, but with time and consistency, many of these new habits will become second nature.
Remember to go easy on yourself and develop a pattern of self-care that can stave off or even avoid dry drunk syndrome in the first place.
These are some ways to overcome dry drunk syndrome:
- Don’t isolate yourself. If you’re feeling vulnerable, reach out to an understanding friend, loved one or counselor
- Exercise regularly, outside if possible, to promote endorphins, which are feel-good neurochemicals in the brain
- Work on maintaining a nutritious diet of fresh vegetables, lean proteins, fish and whole grains
- Try to get 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep every night
- Indulge in relaxing activities, like long walks, meditation or low impact yoga
- Cultivate an active and responsible social network of friends
- Rely on support from family, and be supportive of them
- If you find AA helpful, continue working the steps, attend meetings, or get help from your sponsor
Quitting alcohol is a necessary step for living a life of sobriety, but there is more to a successful recovery than just giving up alcohol.
It’s also crucial to identify and manage other mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or anything else that may have sparked a relationship to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
For anyone experiencing unresolved issues that are contributing to dry drunk syndrome symptoms, it might be necessary to seek additional help from an alcohol addiction treatment program.
Though it may seem difficult at first, the rewards far outweigh the temporary struggle of bridging the gap between being sober and living a life in recovery.