The research on relapse dreams
People who work in addiction recovery typically report that most of their clients have relapse dreams. Given how common they are, it is perhaps surprising that there is almost no research on the subject. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute conducted a study to better understand the role of relapse dreams in recovery. The team gathered data on more than 2000 people from across the country who had resolved a serious substance use issue. They were surprised to find only about a third of those people had experienced relapse dreams during recovery.
The team also discovered that there were primarily two factors that influenced whether someone would have a relapse dream: how serious their substance use issue was and how long they had been in recovery. Severity of substance use was determined by whether the person had sought help such as attending 12-step meetings or entering an addiction treatment program. People who had sought help for their substance use were far more likely to have experienced relapse dreams, which is probably why addiction counselors report that relapse dreams are a nearly universal experience for people recovering from addiction.
The other major factor was how long the person had been sober. The longer they were sober, the less frequently they had relapse dreams.
What do relapse dreams mean?
Again, the research on relapse dreams is almost non-existent but the authors of the Mass General study speculate that relapse dreams may play an important role in recovery. Sleep, especially REM sleep, when dreams occur, plays an important role in learning. It is believed that this is when the day’s experiences are sifted and the important experiences are transferred to long-term memory. Recovery is a process of both learning and unlearning. You have to learn new skills and coping mechanisms and unlearn addictive behavior. Your brain has to adapt to the idea that drugs and alcohol are no longer part of your normal behavior. Dreaming about relapse might be part of that adjustment.
There is also an idea that a relapse dream is a sort of virtual reality practice for facing temptation in real life and that’s why these dreams typically have the feel of reality and occur in a familiar or plausible situation. You spend a lot of time in treatment thinking about the circumstances surrounding your substance use, what situations to avoid, and how you might deal with temptation. It’s understandable that you might find yourself in such a situation when you dream. Just because you fail the test in the dream doesn’t mean you’ll fail in real life. The dream may serve as a reminder to stay alert and avoid those kinds of situations when possible. And since most people react with remorse and disbelief, and finally relief after waking up, this probably indicates that they really do want to stay sober.
What can you do about relapse dreams?
Since relapse dreams can be distressing, they often want to know what they can do about them. The Mass General study suggests the main thing do is just stay committed to recovery. The longer you stay sober, the less mental energy you have to devote to it and the less likely you are to dream about using drugs or alcohol.
If you do dream about relapse, it may be helpful to pay attention to what the dream has to tell you. What were the circumstances of your dream? Who was there? Where were you? Did something happen during the day that made you think about drinking or using drugs again? Dreams are often a way of bringing to our attention things that escaped our notice during the day. Acknowledging those things and even investigating them can placate whatever subconscious process brought them to your attention. One way to do this systematically is to keep a dream journal. Whenever you wake up, write down what you dreamt about. This not only helps you understand what the dream is trying to tell you but it helps make you more aware of when you’re dreaming, which takes the edge off of stressful dreams.
Finally, if you’re having dreams about relapse, share them with someone. Tell your therapist or talk about it in your 12-step meeting. Most of the people there have probably had similar dreams and they can reassure you or give you advice. Perhaps most importantly, sharing relieves any stress you might have about relapse dreams. There’s no sense in ramping up your anxiety about relapse because of a dream and there’s no sense keeping it to yourself when this is exactly the kind of thing the people in your support network will understand.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 800.910.9299.