Relapse Dreams

It is common for those in recovery to have occasional relapse dream. During sleep they once again experience what it is like to be using alcohol or drugs.

In the dream they may be enjoying the experience or it may have all the qualities of a nightmare. Many people in recovery will wake up from this type of dream with feelings of guilt, as if they choose to have such an experience. They may even view it as an omen that they are about to relapse in reality. It is important that people realize that such dreams are a normal part of recovery, and that they may even be a positive occurrence. In some instances though, these dreams may be a sign that people need to put more focus back into their recovery from addiction

The Function of Dreams

There is no clear agreement about the function of dreams. Theories for why they occur include:

  • Some experts claim that they are just random images created by the brain in response to things that have occurred during waking hours.
  • Another theory suggests that the purpose of dreaming is to prepare the mind for the stresses that are likely to occur in the future. It is like the mind is practicing so that it will be better able to handle things.
  • Dreams are a way that people come in contact with their subconscious. Such contact can be highly rewarding and lead to inspiration in waking life. There have been many great inventions, such as the sewing machine, that were inspired by dreams.
  • Traditionally dreams have been viewed as important spiritual tools. In some culture these visions are viewed as a means to communicate with higher powers that govern the universe.
  • Another view it as little more than a type of free entertainment provided by the brain so as to make sleep more enjoyable. The dreams themselves will have little real significance according to this theory.
  • There is of course the classic idea of dreams as wish fulfilment (psychoanalysis), though not in the literal sense, but in ways of completing unrealized (and largely subconscious) impulses.
  • Some existential psychological approaches suggest that dreams are the working out of a future destiny, though just how that works is quite interpretive and not meant to be literal.

It may be that dreams are a combination of all these proposed functions. 

The Cause of Relapse Dreams

  • Relapse dreams may occur for any number of reasons such as:
  • Addicts will usually have been abusing alcohol or drugs for many years. This means that these substances were an important part of their life. It is therefore understandable that such memories will continue to influence dreams.
  • Dreams will often be inspired by random events that occurred during the day. If something happened that reminded the individual about their past then this may trigger material for a dream.
  • The subconscious may continue to associate alcohol or drugs with reward and pleasure. These subconscious ideas then become material for dreams.
  • There seems to be a tendency for people to have more of these relapse dreams when they are going through a particular stressful time in their life. They may be a sign that the individual needs to find better ways of coping with the situation.

Relapse Dreams and Incentive Sensitization Theory

Sensitization theory suggests that addiction is driven by the unconscious. This is because during addiction the mind begins to associate alcohol or drug use with the internal reward system. This leads to incentive salience where outward behaviour is motivated by hidden internal forces. It is suggested that this subconscious drive to use alcohol or drugs can continue to operate long into recovery. It may be this that triggers many of the relapse dreams. 

The Benefits of Relapse Dreams

It has been suggested that relapse dreams can be beneficial in a number of ways. This is particularly likely if the person wakes up feeling disquieted by the dream. This reaction is evidence that they are taking their recovery seriously, and that they cherish their sobriety. It can be a good reminder of what might lay in store if they do not do the right things in recovery. It may motivate them to redouble their efforts, and this is always going to be a good thing. 

Sometimes these relapse dreams will be a sign that something is not quite right in recovery. It will be then up to the individual to evaluate their current situation to see where they could be going wrong. If people wake up with the urge to drink or use again then they need to take action to prevent a relapse. This may involve speaking to a therapist or a sponsor if the individual belongs to a 12 Step group. 

At Hope Trust, clients are encouraged to share their dreams in groups and their fears are processed by counsellors.

Dreams About Relapsing