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What Is a Dry Drunk? Can the Condition Be Prevented?

When a person struggles with alcohol use disorder or other forms of problem drinking, quitting alcohol is the first step in recovery. Staying away from alcohol improves one’s mental and physical condition. It can help loved ones begin to trust and support the person in recovery because they see their dedication to overcoming addiction.

However, without rehabilitation, support groups, and individual therapy, a person who detoxes from alcohol will likely not succeed in recovery. Detox is not a cure, as there is no cure for addiction. As a chronic disease of the brain, addiction to any substance, including alcohol, involves compulsive behaviors that trigger the release of neurotransmitters that stimulate the reward system. Without this stimulation, the person may become irritable, aggressive, depressed, and experience intense cravings.

This condition is currently called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), but when it was first examined in those struggling to overcome alcohol use disorder in 1955, the term dry drunk was applied.

The concept of the dry drunk describes a combination of ongoing behaviors associated with alcohol abuse and addiction but the person does not consume alcohol. Signs that a person may be a dry drunk include:

  • Resentment toward the person, or people, that one feels “forced” them to quit drinking
  • Annoyance or frustration that they cannot drink “like normal” again because they must stay away from alcohol
  • Sadness or guilt at the realization that, because of alcohol abuse, they have failed to achieve certain goals, aspirations, or dreams, and wondering if it is too late
  • Having to take responsibility for that lost time or opportunities
  • Anxiety or fear about challenging oneself, due to fear of failure, associated with fear of relapse
  • Jealousy or envy toward others for their appearance of perseverance, willpower, and strength

These signs may turn into depression, anxiety, lashing out, and even verbal or physical abusiveness. These emotions likely appeared while the individual abused alcohol; the difference is that the person has stopped drinking, but they still experience emotions and cravings associated with alcohol abuse. This can cause loved ones around the individual to feel cautious about interactions, to worry about their loved one, and to feel sad or guilty that the person is unable to overcome their behavioral and emotional struggles while alcohol appears to no longer be the problem.

If a person ends their physical dependence on alcohol but develops PAWS, this may be, in part, because they have not received appropriate therapeutic treatment through a rehabilitation program. There are several approaches to treating the emotional, mental, and behavioral reactions associated with overcoming addiction. There are many approaches to talk therapy, both individually and in a group, which can help the person understand that they are not alone in their struggles, and they can change their behaviors for the better. Other forms of therapy, including holistic and complementary treatments, art therapy, religious or spiritual support, medication, dietary changes, and exercise, all support improved mood, better interpersonal relationships, and a healthy body.

It is important for a person struggling with addiction to get evidence-based treatment to overcome this condition. Ending physical dependence on a substance and staying abstinent is the first step, but rehabilitation and various approaches to therapy offered by these programs are equally important.

Treating mental and behavioral health helps to avoid PAWS and to keep the person on track to long-term stability.