It has often been said that substance addiction affects nearly every aspect of a person’s life. For some, even their sleep doesn’t always afford them an escape from the effects of drug addiction. Dreaming about using drugs or alcohol is not uncommon among people in recovery, especially during the early days of their addiction treatment.
Naturally, dreams that feel like nightmares to those experiencing them can be unsettling. This is especially true when you’re already suffering from long-term withdrawal symptoms such as cravings or mental health symptoms of anxiety and depression. Coping with disturbing dreams can become yet another challenge for a person already struggling with the management of their addiction during waking hours.
What Is a Typical Relapse Dream Like?
Like all dreams, relapse dreams can vary. However, the dreamer usually finds themselves in former situations where they abused drugs and alcohol. Familiar friends or acquaintances may also show up in these dreams. Sometimes the dreams recall the anxiety of hunting down drugs. (That isn’t so surprising when a substantial part of active addiction is spent thinking about using or trying to locate drugs.) The dreams may involve disturbing images about using again or experiencing the dark consequences of using again.
When an individual wakes up from these dreams, they may feel anxious or even panicked. Some people may feel guilt. Others may feel renewed urges to use. Managing the feelings that these dreams trigger is important for preventing relapse and keeping recovery progress on track.
How Common Are Relapse Dreams and Nightmares?
According to a study published in The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, relapse dreams are more common among people who have had severe addictions. However, roughly 60 percent of people in recovery experience relapse dreams or nightmares. Some people may only experience a few; others may experience these dreams with more frequency. The good news for people in recovery is that these dreams tend to diminish in time as people continue their recovery journey and their mind/body becomes more accustomed to new routines.
What Do Dreams Say About Our Thoughts?
Our dreams often reflect what’s been on our minds or what we’re coping with. In that light, it’s not surprising that people focused intently on avoiding drugs and alcohol might dream about drugs and alcohol in any context. Just as a person’s body is healing from the effects of substance addiction, so, too, is the brain. Remember that substance use disorders literally change the chemistry of the brain. The healing process takes time and, often, involves unpleasant symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and, yes, even nightmares.
Of course, many psychiatric experts have also developed perspectives on dreams. C.G. Jung believed that dreams were an attempt for the psyche to communicate thoughts or ideas to the dreamer. Freud believed that the dreamers themselves could interpret meaning from their dreams. However, it’s important to keep in mind that any interpretation of a dream could be mistaken or cause problems for the individual. For instance, a relapse dream isn’t a “prophecy” that a user will use drugs or alcohol again. Dreams may be nothing more than the brain attempting to work through past experiences, past emotions, or old thought patterns. What is more important than extracting some sort of meaning from dreams is what individuals do to cope with these triggers when they’re awake.
Is It Possible to Stop Relapse Nightmares?
People can’t control what they dream about or stop dreams from occurring. However, it can be helpful to understand what triggers a relapse dream. As mentioned, people who had severe addictions seem to be more vulnerable to these dreams. The length of time a person is recovering also impacts the occurrence of these dreams. While you can’t necessarily stop these dreams, you can be mindful of the fact that they do dissipate as recovery continues and you become more distanced from your old life that involved drug or alcohol abuse.
Experiencing triggers, feeling emotional distress, or experiencing particularly strong cravings can cause a person in recovery to suffer a relapse dream. Conversely, they can simply occur even if the individual had a greatest day in therapy.
Even so, there are things that dreamers can do to ease the effects of these dreams. Some ways to reduce the negative effects of relapse dreams and nightmares include:
- Discuss them with your therapist or counselor. If your dreams are causing you to experience stress or emotional distress, they’re important matters to mention during therapy sessions. Your healthcare provider may have suggestions for coping with these dreams that are specific to your circumstances. You may have other habits that are impacting your sleep schedule, for instance. Drinking caffeine at night can actually trigger more vivid anxiety dreams.
- After waking up from a relapse dream, take time to meditate and clear your mind of thoughts. Try not to carry this dream and its images into your morning or the rest of your day. Be mindful about the fact that the experience was a dream–not reality. Try to remember that bad dreams like stressful situations can be triggers, so deal with them as a trigger, using strategies like meditation or exercise to reduce their effects.
- Take precautions and attend extra support group meetings or avoid stressful situations for a bit if you can. Relapse dreams can be triggered by stress. Be sure that you’re coping with stress in healthy ways. Of course, even if you’re practicing all the strategies you learned in rehab for managing your stress levels and triggers, relapse dreams can still occur. Keep practicing those strategies and, in time, these unwelcome dreams will occur with less frequency.
- Do something positive for yourself. Managing substance use disorders is hard work. Recovery is challenging. Be sure that you are taking care of yourself. If you’re suffering from relapse dreams, try engaging in activities that typically soothe you such as taking a walk or reading. Do something healthy for yourself that encourages the healing process and stops you from dwelling on unpleasant dreams.
Relapse Dreams Don’t Mean You Will Relapse
Relapse dreaming is not associated with relapse. Just because you dream of using drugs or alcohol again, does not mean that you will. Researchers have found no correlation between relapse dreaming and an increase in relapse rates. That’s good news for people who experience these disturbing nightmares. Try to remember that your mind is always working. While you sleep, you have no control over what your mind is doing; you’re not responsible for the images it conveys.
What’s most important is how you cope with unpleasant dreams if they occur, just as it’s crucial to cope with your triggers or negative emotions in healthy ways. Staying focused on your recovery will help you stay on track. As you build a new post-addiction life and establish new, healthy patterns of living, your mind will find other thoughts and images to explore.
Remember that you are healing. Sometimes a wound will ooze out impurities as it heals. Sometimes a bruise appears worse as it heals. But healing is happening. Even if you’re dreaming about relapsing, you are healing so long as you maintain your recovery progress. If you have questions about any aspect of your recovery process, you can rely on FHE Health to guide you as you navigate your new normals and work to prevent relapse. With our individualized addiction treatment and support, you can achieve your long-term recovery goals.