“Dry Drunk”: Signs, Risks, and Getting Help
The term “dry drunk” was coined by the creator of Alcoholics Anonymous and has since spread to more mainstream use. The colloquial term is used to describe someone who is sober but is still struggling with the emotional and psychological issues that contributed to their drinking.
For many people who struggle with alcohol use, the work doesn’t stop when they stop drinking and drinking anymore might not be the solution to all their problems. Many people still struggle with the emotional and psychological issues that contributed to their drinking in the first place.
When this happens, a person may be experiencing what is sometimes referred to as the colloquial term “dry drunk syndrome.” This terminology can be stigmatizing—words like “drunk” are antiquated and harmful for people recovering from an alcohol use disorder—however, it can be helpful to know the signs and symptoms of dry drunk syndrome so you can help a loved one who’s struggling with their sobriety.1
What Is “Dry Drunk”?
“Dry drunk” is a colloquial term that is sometimes used to describe someone who is sober but is still struggling with the emotional and psychological issues that contributed to their drinking. In other words, though they are physically sober, their mental and emotional state may still be that of someone who does drink.2
The term dry drunk was coined by the creator of Alcoholics Anonymous and has since spread to more mainstream use. In the 1970 book, The Dry Drunk Syndrome, author R.J. Solberg defines dry drunk syndrome as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”
Experiencing dry drunk symptoms is not uncommon. In fact, as many as 75% of those recovering from alcohol misuse or addiction may experience protracted alcohol withdrawal—a range of symptoms that can persist for weeks or months after abstaining from alcohol—at some point in their recovery.3
What Causes Dry Drunk Syndrome?
People are motivated to drink for several reasons. In one study, researchers grouped motivations into 2 broad categories—”personal-effect motives” and “social-effect motives.”4 Personal-effect motives include drinking alcohol to avoid, escape, or regulate unpleasant emotions while social-effect motives include drinking for positive reinforcement. Studies suggest that when a person’s drinking is motivated by personal-effect motives, they are more likely to misuse alcohol than a person whose drinking is motivated by social-effect motives. In other words, when people drink as a coping mechanism, they may be at higher risk of alcohol misuse and addiction.4
Although addiction is treatable, the disease is complex and can alter a person’s brain function and structure.5 These changes in the brain can last long after a person has stopped drinking alcohol, which is why the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends patients remain in treatment for an adequate amount of time.5 Detoxification is an important part of recovery for many people, but while a drug detox can help a patient achieve a substance-free state, detox alone may not be sufficient in helping patients achieve long-term abstinence.5
Many people who struggle with alcohol use also need co-occurring disorder treatment for conditions such as anxiety or depression. For people who experience dry drunk syndrome, a co-occurring disorder may make recovery even more challenging. This is why ongoing treatment (e.g., inpatient or outpatient rehab) that addresses both conditions may provide better patient outcomes.
Dry Drunk Signs and Symptoms
Everyone is different, so the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome can sometimes be hard to recognize but can include a variety of changes to mood and behavior. That said, potential symptoms of a “dry drunk” may include:6
- Acting self-important
- Blaming others for their own problems
- Dishonesty and lying
- Fantasizing about drinking
- Feeling detached or dissatisfied
- Impulsive or selfish actions
- Mood swings that go from sadness to happiness to anger
- Problems with decision-making
You may notice that many of these symptoms are similar to those of “functioning alcoholics,” another colloquial term sometimes used to describe a person who is dependent upon alcohol but can still function in everyday society. If you’re used to your loved one behaving this way, you might not even realize that “dry drunk” behavior isn’t normal after a person stops drinking.
Dry Drunk Risks
Recovery from alcohol addiction is a long-term process. For many people, recovery requires multiple treatment programs, which can help patients address the underlying causes of their addiction with the help of medications, behavioral therapies, and more.5 Behavioral therapies vary and may include a combination of individual, group, and family counseling—all of which can help patients learn healthy ways to cope with their addiction, improve their problem-solving and social skills, increase their motivation to change, and ultimately reduce the risk of relapse.5
Relapse is common in people who struggle with addiction. Approximately 40% to 60% of people suffering from substance use disorder relapse at some point.7 One study found that when compared to people who sought treatment, people who did not were less likely to achieve 3-year remission. As a result, they were more likely to relapse. While relapse does not mean that treatment has failed, it can be dangerous for several reasons, one of which is a lowered tolerance.8
Even if a person struggling with dry drunk syndrome does not relapse, they may experience secondary problems if they do not get help, including the negative effects of alcohol on relationships. Without the right support, they may also develop a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression or a pre-existing condition may be worsened. Studies show that depressive disorders are the most common mental health disorder connected to alcohol use disorders, with sufferers being 2.3 times more likely to develop depression than the general population.9
Getting Help for Yourself
If you are struggling with “dry drunk” syndrome, you are not alone and there are several ways you can cope, such as:
- Prioritize self-care: Taking care of your mental and physical health can help you cope with the challenges you may be facing. You can prioritize self-care by getting enough sleep, getting physical activity daily, eating a nutritious diet and staying hydrated, and keeping in touch with supportive family and friends.
- Find a support group: Whether you connect with others via an online support group or attend Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in person, meeting people who share your struggles can help you cope in a healthier way.
- Find healthy ways to cope: It can be easy to replace one addiction with another but finding healthy ways to copy can make it easier to work through emotions. Grounding techniques, meditation, and yoga can provide numerous other benefits in addition to helping your work through emotions. Other hobbies such as arts and crafts, book clubs, gardening, music, and sports can also help.
- Find professional help: Remember: addiction is treatable and can be managed successfully. Studies show that professional help that combines behavioral therapy and medications for AUD result in successful outcomes for many patients.7 There are several ways you can find professional help near you, such as using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s FindTreatment.gov tool or our directory of rehabs near you.
Getting Help for a Loved One
Dry drunk recovery is possible, especially if you help your loved one in their time of need. One option is to convince them to seek alcohol addiction treatment from an inpatient or outpatient facility. These facilities use evidence-based practices to help address the mental and emotional aspects of addiction that are often overlooked.
You may also consider recommending that your loved one join a support group, such as AA. These groups typically meet on a weekly basis and can be a great way to get actionable advice from people who have been in their shoes. Therapy is another good choice, as it can sometimes help to work through issues one-on-one with a qualified medical professional.
As an onlooker, you can’t force your loved one into treatment. But you can help guide their path by learning about addiction, researching the best outpatient treatment centers in your area, and even attending AA meetings with them. Many people suffering from dry drunk syndrome also need help finding their passion to motivate them through this dark time, so help them find something they can dedicate their life to.
Find Out if Your Insurance Plan Covers Alcohol Addiction Rehab
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of evidence-based treatment for alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD). To find out if your insurance covers alcohol addiction treatment at an AAC facility, contact us at or fill out the form below to verify your insurance online. Your information is kept 100% confidential, and there is no obligation to enter treatment.
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