Are Using/Relapse Dreams Normal?
In recovery, people sometimes have dreams of their former drug of choice. This is often troubling and frightening and may lead us to think that we are at risk of relapsing, but this is not necessarily the case. A study completed by the Centre for Research on Drugs in England found that 84% of former drug users were having drug-related dreams. Using dreams were also shown to be had more by those who were abstinent than those who were still actively using. Ultimately, researchers have found that the most important aspect in these cases is to look at the responses to using/relapse dreams rather than the occurrence or dream content alone.
How Can These Dreams Be Helpful?
Although these dreams can result in negativity, they can be used to help shape success in recovery as well. Researchers have suggested that during sleep, the brain’s cognitive processes are less active, allowing the “pleasure centers” behind addictive behavior to be in control. Thus, drug-related dreams can be seen as a warning for risk of relapse for the waking mind. Some may respond to these dreams with disappointment that they were not a reality, whereas others may wake up feeling relieved. These two responses make a difference between a warning sign for relapse and continued motivation for abstinence/affirmation that recovery is going well.
While someone in recovery may be doing well, the subconscious mind could have completely different feelings. All dream symbols are part of our mind, typically reflecting our innermost feelings/attitudes. The conscious mind may know that using “one more time” will lead to relapse, but the subconscious mind could create dreams of using from actively learning how to adjust without substances and cope with the frustrations of recovery. Other possible functions of using/relapse dreams can be found here. Asking ourselves what feeling/attitude the dream suggests and identifying areas of our life that match this feeling can be helpful in pinpointing/combatting triggers for relapse. Identifying how our minds react when in recovery can be help prevent these dreams from becoming a reality.
What are Some Tips for Coping with Using/Relapse Dreams?
It is important not to resist using/relapse dreams as that may lead to increased stress. However, it is also important to have coping skills ready in the event that these dreams become too intense to shake. The following are tips/suggestions that may help in coping with using/relapse prevention and transforming them into a tool for recovery:
- Do not dwell on these dreams. Overthinking, analyzing, or worrying about them can be counter-productive and create unnecessary anxiety/stress, which can ultimately lead to relapse. Addressing them is important, but we also practice letting go as well.
- Take care of your body. Physical activity can help you sleep better and decrease the dream stage, helping to decrease the onset of these dreams. Making sure you eat healthy regularly and avoid eating late at night can also reduce disruptive sleep patterns.
- Be mindful of your stress levels and make time for self-care each day. Try engaging in one of your favorite activities, like reading or playing a video game to help relax your mind before sleeping. Also make sure to give yourself time to regroup and decompress – techniques such as meditation can be helpful tools here.
- Have a relaxing sleep environment. Taking steps to make sure our bedroom is comfortable (dark, clean, void of unnecessary distractions) can enhance sleep each night. Having televisions as “background noise” can keep the brain stimulated and prevent restful sleep. Keeping the phone away will prevent mindless scrolling through Facebook.
- Notice your emotions. When you wake up from one of these dreams, focus on how you are feeling. Are you disgusted? Craving? Indifferent? We are not able to cope with these difficulties until we fully understand our emotions.
- Identify recent triggers. People, places, and things are an everyday occurrence, where something or someone may have reminded you of your using days. It is important that we make sure we are actively addressing/eliminating these triggers to prevent relapse.
- Talk to someone. Talking to sponsors, therapists, friends, doctors, and attending meetings/support groups can help us understand the dream/feelings from an outside perspective and uncover aspects that may have been hidden before. Opening up about your doubts/worries also helps release stress and associated guilt/shame, normalizing your experience, reducing isolation, finding reassurance, and learning tips to cope.
- Have a relapse prevention plan. It is important to note that you can never be too careful regarding relapse prevention, it is always better to be prepared. Using/relapse dreams can be an indication that your unconscious mind is still thinking about your addiction, where having a plan will make you feel more secure and confident in your recovery.