Early Recovery: Pink Cloud Syndrome



After a person overcomes a drug problem, they are usually happy and seem very confident in their ability to stay away from the drug forever.

How positive is this optimism? Some argue that it sets a recovering addict up for failure. If one is confident to the point of thinking that it will now be easy to stay away from drugs, they may relapse.

This overly positive attitude is known as the ‘Pink Cloud Syndrome.’

The emotional roller coaster of early recovery

When someone is in rehab, they often swing back and forth between feeling terrible and feeling great. Sometimes people in rehab are full of happiness and optimism.

After all, they are getting over an addiction. They may have struggled with addictions for years or decades. Soon they will be free.

The ‘Pink Cloud’ Syndrome is a term used within the Alcoholics Anonymous community to describe the euphoric feeling immediately after detoxing from drugs or alcohol. This ‘natural high’ sensation is often short-lived and is followed by feelings of disappointment and low-mood.

Is the ‘Pink Cloud’ dangerous?

Some would argue that it is not and that there is no such thing as Pink Cloud syndrome. A person feels great to be away from their drugs, and they should. Others point out that someone can quickly go from the Pink Cloud back to addiction.

The danger of Pink Cloud syndrome is that a patient may decide that their problems are already over. They may decide that they will always feel great and never feel terrible again.

When they come down from the Pink Cloud, they do not expect the misery and often return to drugs or other substances for comfort.

A person should know that post-rehab life will have its ups and downs. Feeling great does not mean they will feel great tomorrow.

Even more importantly, feeling terrible and craving drugs does not mean they will feel the same way tomorrow. They should prepare themselves for the emotional swings of life without addictions, where they cannot turn to drugs when their mood is low.

A person leaving rehab should know that cravings will sometimes still hit them years after they quit drugs. They must prepare themselves to fight against these cravings.

They must take care of their lives. Some of them stop asking others for help after rehab, which is risky.

If they allow their lives to become too stressful or depressing, they may return to drugs. They should build a lifestyle that is not high stress, lonely, or in some other way unpleasant. A difficult life is something they may turn to drugs to tolerate.

It is essential to understand that not everyone who feels fantastic in recovery is experiencing pink cloud syndrome.

It is normal and healthy for someone to feel great a lot of the time after they quit drugs. They have pink cloud syndrome only if their excessive optimism might lead them back into drugs after the good feelings go away.

How commonly is the term used?

The term ‘Pink Cloud Syndrome’ is not a psychological diagnosis. However, many or most people who treat alcoholics and drug addicts use the term.

The phrase was first used back in 1992, in the drug recovery book ‘Dare to confront: How to intervene when someone you care about has an Alcohol or Drug Problem.’ The term also appears in fiction media sometimes.

Why is feeling too good dangerous?

Whenever a positive change happens in a person’s life, they usually feel great at first. Finding a job they like or a good relationship can make a person feel high on life.

However, the better life they now have soon becomes the new normal and is no longer enough to make them feel great all the time.

Feeling very happy happens when your life is getting better, not when your life is already good. If your life is already good, you will only feel reasonably happy most of the time.

Very happy is about winning and achieving. Bliss is not something that even the rich, famous, and beautiful feel most of the time.

The term ‘Pink Cloud Syndrome’ is often called the “honeymoon phase” to compare it to the early stages of a marriage. Everything seems wonderful, and it sounds hard to believe that there will ever be any trouble again.

In reality, a good marriage involves solving problems that appear over the years. It never involves getting along all the time because that is impossible. There will always be problems in a marriage.

A couple that has a good chance of remaining together forever goes into the marriage expecting problems to appear. The couple is optimistic about their ability to work out these problems.

If a couple expects to live happily ever after with no issues, on the other hand, then they are more likely to split up.

An addict that leaves rehab expecting never to have any problem staying away from drugs/alcohol ever again is sort of like a couple that plans to live happily ever after with no problems. It is not realistic. Reality will bring them down and bring them back to drugs.

A person often leaves rehab in a better state of physical health than they have been in years. They leave rehab feeling blissed out for this reason.

The sudden increase in physical health makes them feel happier, saner, and more confident than they ever did before. They have a chance of staying off the drugs if they leave rehab without thinking that all of the future will be so wonderful.

How do you know if you have pink cloud syndrome?

Feeling good does not mean that you are affected by pink cloud syndrome. However, you might have it if you feel invincible. If you feel like your problem has already been solved, you have pink cloud syndrome. Your problems are not over as soon as you get out of rehab. It is not over.

If you feel invincible, you have Pink Cloud Syndrome. You could very well be looking at a happy, drug-free life, but not because it will always be easy to avoid drugs. You will face challenges.

People with Pink Cloud Syndrome are often impulsive because they feel like they cannot lose. They may impulsively stop going to support groups, stop avoiding locations where people use drugs and do other dangerous things that lead them back to the habit.

The Pink Cloud as a defense

The pink cloud may also cause a person to forget about their finances, their family, their relationships, and their responsibilities. It may be a psychological mechanism that allows someone to break an addiction.

By feeling great all the time, they can ignore their duties, and by neglecting their responsibilities, they can overcome their drug habit. While this can be a good thing, it can cause people to ignore critical responsibilities.

Withdrawal symptoms

It may not take very long for an addict to go straight from feeling horrible because of withdrawals to feeling great because they are clean. Their body will, after a while, notice that they should be free of chemicals and should feel great now that they are.

However, cravings for drugs and other withdrawal symptoms will return in the future. While they were able to deal with the initial acute withdrawals while in rehab, they will have to deal with milder withdrawals in the outside world.

Depression and anxiety are common in the months after quitting drugs. Withdrawal symptoms become less frequent over time and tend to disappear in months to less than two years [1].

The slow recovery process

After the pink cloud goes away, a recovering alcoholic or drug addict may notice that they have destroyed their relationships, finances, and social circles.

They then face a long climb back up to where they were before and beyond that. The fear of the slow climb back up to where they were can lead them back into drugs and alcohol.

The physical detoxification and emotional support that one finds in rehab can have one feeling great when they walk out the door. Once out of rehab, reality can strike.

One should walk out the door feeling both happy and prepared for the worst. Drug abuse changes the structure of the brain [2], so it takes a lot more than a detox to recover fully.

To help alleviate the emotional turmoil of Pink Cloud Syndrome, here are some suggestions:

1. Don’t be excessively pleased with yourself

Remember that you are a recovering addict and not someone who never did much drinking or drugs. Don’t think of yourself as entirely free of your addiction.

If an alcoholic were to quit alcohol for years and then attempt to go back to moderate drinking, the addiction would come back and take over. Addiction never goes away entirely.

2. Spend a realistic amount of time with addiction recovery groups

Don’t feel so complacent that you stop showing up for AA meetings. Thinking you don’t need support groups is pink cloud thinking and is dangerous.

You will feel negative some of the time and need to be around a support group. One or two meetings and one or two phone calls a week is a good idea.

3. Make calls if you are having trouble

If you feel like you are going to have just a few drinks, always make a call. They will remind you that your cravings will increase rather than reduce if you have only a few beers.

Call if you are on the pink cloud and feeling like you don’t need meetings also. Meetings significantly lessen the odds of a relapse. The overall chance of relapse for substance abuse is 40 or 60 percent [3].

One should minimize the odds of relapse and try not to let a relapse be a return to addiction.

4. Admit it if you temporarily relapse

If you briefly go back to drinking or drugs, always admit it to your group. Secret occasional drinking will quickly turn into frequent drinking that you will not be able to hide. Do not feel too complacent!

Keep going to your meetings. You cannot allow yourself to feel invincible and abandon your support groups.

For some drugs, relapse rates are very high. People quitting opiates, in particular, tend to relapse. Someone quitting opiates has a 91% relapse rate [4]. A former opiate user is not doomed, but they are likely to try the drug again after quitting.

5. Return to competing in the real world

While a recovering addict should not take the weight of the world on their shoulders right away, they should return to working and to finding new friends.

An active life that is not too stressful is the right way to go. Someone recovering from a drug problem should be active both in their personal life and in support groups. They should not feel so optimistic that they abandon their support meetings.

6. Think long term

A recovering addict should have a regular schedule, regular exercise (nothing reduces withdrawal symptoms better than that), and therapy.

They should continue to go to therapy for years. Quitting support groups is the path back to addiction. Pink cloud syndrome can cause people to stop using medications that help them give up their addictions.

They should remember that their brain no longer processes pleasure normally [5] and that it will take a long time for their brain to heal.

A recovering addict should enjoy the feelings of joy and freedom that come with avoiding drugs or alcohol. These feelings are normal.

A person who quits drugs does not step into a difficult but drug-free world. They step into the world of freer and healthier people.

A person should leave rehab happy, expecting plenty of bad times that they can get through and plenty of good times.

References

[1] https://www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/PAWS

[2] https://www.lenus.ie/bitstream/handle/10147/110022/Article5260.pdf

[3] JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000.

[4] https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851054/

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