Dry Drunk Syndrome: Overcoming a Little-Understood Condition

Last Updated: August 8, 2019

Dry Drunk Syndrome: What Is it, and How Does it Happen?

Alcoholism is a well-documented and understood substance abuse condition. A person who is abusing alcohol will often exhibit signs and symptoms consistent with substance abuse. In such cases, dealing with these symptoms is straightforward only requiring that the individual is weaned off alcohol. But what happens when after quitting drinking, the person continues to exhibit similar behavioral signs and symptoms to when they were abusing alcohol?

When this happens, the individual is considered as having a dry drunk syndrome or DDS. Dry drunk syndrome, also known as Post-Acute Withdrawal or PAW is defined as a condition where an alcoholic who has quit alcohol continues to demonstrate the same behaviors they had when they were abusing alcohol.

What is Dry Drunk Syndrome?

Dry Drunk Meaning

The term had its roots in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement and was used as a pejorative term to describe individuals who had quit alcohol but were still behaving like drunks. Despite these unsavory roots, the term found its way into mainstream medicine as the condition was better understood.

Dry drunk behavior was previously thought to be a matter of stubbornness and a lack of willingness on the part of the recovering alcoholic to change their ways, a misconception that led to the ostracization of those affected. Modern understanding of DDS took hold with the work of researchers like R.J. Solberg who in his 1970 book, “The Dry Drunk Syndrome,” offered a clear and precise definition and description of the syndrome. With this greater understanding came better awareness of what people with the syndrome experience.

What is a Sober Alcoholic?

Today, medicine has a solid understanding of what a sober alcoholic is and the challenges they face in finding lasting recovery. Psychological advances have also identified triggers and causes of the syndrome and how to work around them to help the individual experience true recovery. It is now understood that a person with DDS has had significant mental and psychological changes occur during their alcoholic days and prior and so when they quit alcohol; they find they are still faced with the same challenges.

It is also understood that people who turn to substance abuse tend to do so as a coping or escape mechanism meaning that even before they started abusing drugs, they were struggling to cope with their lives. After quitting alcohol, they find they no longer have a crutch to help them deal with the challenges of their life, resulting in dry drunk behavior patterns.

Causes of Dry Drunk Syndrome

Understanding the causes of DDS can help those with an affected loved one learn how to deal with a dry drunk. As the condition is hardly ever voluntary, the individual affected may do things that seem willful but emanate instead from a state of mind they cannot escape.

To provide a better perspective of the condition, here are the top causes of DDS:

  • Altered behavioral responses: When a person engages in substance abuse, they often do so as a means of coping with the challenges of life. By repeatedly using alcohol to help them cope, they form a pattern of habits that stick with them even after they quit alcohol, which is the classic dry drunk definition.
  • Negative ideation: After quitting alcohol, the individual may experience negative thoughts especially when they feel like they are coping poorly with life’s situations. An increase in prevalence and intensity of such thoughts can lead to dry drunk behavior.
  • False hopes: When an alcoholic quits alcohol, they may have grandiose thoughts of how perfect life will be post alcohol. When they come back to life with all its stressors and challenges, they find it increasingly difficult to cope, especially now that their primary coping mechanism is no longer present.
  • Incomplete rehab: Rehab programs incorporate substance and behavioral therapy. If a person quits rehab or undertakes rehab outside of a professional facility, they may fail to go through the entire treatment program, leaving some behavioral and coping issues unresolved.
  • Poor support structures: Research has shown that group therapy and other support structures not only provide information and structure but also offer hope. Lack of such support structures may lead an alcoholic to DDS. For example, if drinking in a workplace is encouraged, it is much harder to quit drinking.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Drug addiction recovery is lifelong. When a recovering alcoholic’s expectations mismatch this reality, they may feel discouraged, frustrated and depressed leading to DDS.

Dry Drunk Syndrome Symptoms

Dry drunk symptoms are analogous to those of alcoholism. Individuals with the condition may even be mistakenly perceived as still abusing alcohol. Understanding these symptoms and how they relate to the entire recovery process is a major step for anyone affected by the issue.

Here now are the classic symptoms of DDS:

  • Poor stress tolerance: The person will fly off the handle when faced with normal stressful situations like having to wait in line, or not getting what they want.
  • Impulsive behavior: Poor tolerance leads to impatience and impulsive tendencies. Unable to cope without instant gratification, the individual will resort to actions that defy reason.
  • Unhealthy habits: While the individual may have quit alcohol, they may replace the habit with other vices such as sex, other drugs, pornography, and others.
  • Misplaced nostalgia: When faced with stress, the person will romanticize the good old days of drinking. They will not remember the issues that led them to rehab in the first place.
  • Inability to revert to normal life: Whereas there are high expectations that the individual will go back to loving and doing the things they used to; dry drunk syndrome often results in continued lack of interest in these activities.
  • Negative thoughts: The person will have negative thoughts towards themselves, their friends and family and others. These negative thoughts may include jealousy, resentment and a lack of empathy. Thus, alcoholism affects family even after the addict stopped abusing alcohol.
  • Self-pity: Considered classic, sober alcoholic behavior, the individual will focus on all that is not going right in their life, leading to feelings of low esteem, depression and in extreme cases, suicidal ideation.
  • Denial: The individual will resist reality, resorting instead to a false view of their condition, resulting in a denial of the seriousness of the problem and the need for further treatment.

Dry Drunk Syndrome Prevention and Treatment

Preventing Dry Drunk Syndrome

For a person undergoing treatment for alcoholism, the threat of falling into DDS is very real. If they or a loved one are at this point, they must undertake measures to ensure treatment and recovery proceed smoothly leading to successful recovery before alcohol brain damage became irreversible.

Here are some steps to take to prevent dry drunk traits from forming:

  • Understand the syndrome: Awareness of what DDS is and how it can affect the individual involved is an essential first step.
  • Commit to the alcoholism treatment program: As these treatment programs often encompass substance and behavioral issues, completing the program is the surest way of preventing DDS.
  • Have realistic expectations: Alcoholism treatment and recovery takes time. Accepting this reality can forestall any DDS-related thought processes from developing.
  • Stick to support structures: Whether AA 12-step programs or others, the person must maintain ongoing contact with support structures to avoid isolation, a fertile ground for the emergence of a dry drunk personality.

Treating Dry Drunk Syndrome

If DDS symptoms have already developed, hope must not be lost. There are useful treatment options that can help lead the individual back onto a path of sustainable recovery.

Here are some ways DDS can be treated:

  • Group therapy: Such programs provide the necessary support structures, hope, and accountability that can turn around DDS.
  • Individual therapy: If the individual prefers private therapy sessions, these too can provide behavioral therapy to help them cope with life and live free from DDS.
  • Inpatient/outpatient rehab: In extreme cases, the individual may benefit from a comprehensive rehab program that focuses on behavioral modification.
  • Life skills training: In most cases, teaching the person coping skills can help minimize the effects of DDS.

Coping with Dry Drunk Syndrome

Many approaches have been suggested to help people cope with the dry drunk syndrome. Some advocate for spirituality and meditation while others propose finding one’s life purpose. While these can be effective, the underlying concepts are often difficult to grasp. The following are some generally accepted ways of dealing with DDS:

  • Pick up a hobby: A dry drunk will in many cases struggle with idleness, leading to a worsening of the condition. Picking up a hobby can help redirect their time and energy to less destructive activities.
  • Volunteer: Whether it is at the local dog shelter or a soup kitchen, giving back to society can infuse a sense of meaning and purpose into the individual’s life, thus acting as a counter-argument for any negative, hopeless thoughts that may find their way into their mind. Alcoholism is a social problem, and recovery might benefit society.
  • Get healthy: Eating healthy, exercising and participating in fitness activities can boost mental health and build mental resilience. People who practice healthy living also learn how to say no to unhealthy things, something a person with DDS can significantly benefit from.
  • Learn something new: Expanding the brain through learning activities can help bring a sense of accomplishment, pride, and self-esteem in a person with DDS. Learning also encourages discipline and self-control as it requires focus and dedication to learn anything successfully.
  • Recruit loved ones: Isolation is a sure recipe for failure when it comes to DDS. Recruiting loved ones to provide mental, psychological, financial and social support can have a massive impact on a person with DDS. Knowing they are not alone will boost their sense of worth and help them turn their life around.

Recovery is Always Possible

What is a dry drunk if not a person who caught some tough breaks in their life? This can happen to anyone. DDS can escalate into serious alcohol side effects if left untreated. As such, it is essential that anyone recognizing these symptoms in themselves or a loved one act immediately to find treatment. The critical thing to remember is that there is life after alcoholism and DDS.
Nevertheless, DDS does represent one of the many dangers of flirting with alcohol and should, therefore, serve as a cautionary tale for those not yet affected. Treatment options for alcohol abusers are available throughout the US and include group and private counseling, inpatient and outpatient treatment for alcoholism, sober living houses and AA meetings. The alcohol rehab facilities offer different payment options, which are usually covered by insurance.


Gregory Okhifun

Dr. Gregory Okhifun

Medical Reviewer

Dr. Okhifun is a passionate medical doctor, with over five years’ experience as a general practitioner. His passion for medical education led to his journey in medical writing. He has a wealth of experience writing for hospitals and medical centers, health organizations, telemedicine platforms, wellness organizations, medical tourism publications, addiction websites, and websites focused on nutrition and nutraceuticals.
He also serves as medical coordinator and content writer for Gerocare Solutions, for which he also volunteers as a health advisor/consultant for the elderly.
Dr. Okhifun enjoys traveling, meditation, and reading.

Speak with a treatment specialist. Call 24/7



Add comment

  • Thank you for providing insight in a positive way. I live in a household that contains an alcoholic and another suffering from ptsd. Clearly, I am not qualified to deal with either. I came to this site to gain a little knowledge, hoping to find strategies to keep my sanity until I can afford to move again. What I’m taking from this is to lead through example. Two blocks away is a sober living facility that I pass by on my morning walk. I’m hoping that the facility has group support or some type of meetings that non residents are welcome to attend. At least I now have a starting point. Thank you again. I can’t heal them, but I can be sure to provide positive reinforcement if they choose to heal themselves for the months it will take me to save enough to move.
  • I have a 61 year old son who quit drinking 11 years ago. He was a very heavy drinker since high school. He had 3 DUI’S (the last one in 1984). His license was revoked and he has not been able to get it back. He blames everyone else for his problems, is very short tempered. He is a good carpenter but blames not having a license for not having steady work. He won’t go to AA. He says most of the people there are going because the law has forced them to go and I’m not sure that he has ever admitted he was an alcoholic. Is there hope for him?