Dreams about using or drinking again in early recovery—called “drug dreams”—can be alarming for those worried about relapsing. However, these dreams are common and can even indicate progress in recovery. At Believe Detox Center in Los Angeles, California, we know how unsettling these dreams can be. That is why we teach relapse prevention and coping skills to clients struggling with drug dreams and other withdrawal symptoms.
The purpose of dreaming in general is largely unknown. However, there are many theories about why we dream. Understanding why we have dreams can help to shed light on the function of dreaming about substance abuse.
Dreams can occur throughout all stages of sleeping, though they are the most vivid and intense during the REM stage of sleep. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep. During REM sleep, a person’s brain is in a flurry of activity and their eyes move rapidly behind closed lids.
According to MedlinePlus, certain phases of sleep help a person “learn information, get insight, and form memories.” In REM sleep, dreaming stimulates parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, and emotional processing. Thus, dreaming helps restore these parts of the brain to prepare a person to learn and process information during waking hours.
So, why do clients in early recovery have drug dreams? Well, throughout early recovery and detox, clients are talking about their past substance abuse, potential relapse triggers, and the underlying cause of addiction. Therefore, as a client learns more about and focuses on learning about their addiction, their brains will process this information during dreams.
In addition, some substances, like alcohol, hinder a person’s ability to enter the REM stage of sleep. During detox, when a person stops using drugs or drinking alcohol, they might have intense and vivid dreams. This is because substance abuse has limited their ability to dream. Now that dreaming is restored, dreams could appear more realistic and intense than before.
Clients often worry that dreaming about substance use could lead to a relapse. In some cases, a person’s dreams are so realistic that, upon awakening, they fear that they did relapse. However, drug dreams can be a sign of progress and can aid in recovery.
Dreams can highlight concerns and fears, which the subconscious mind processes throughout sleep. When a person recently stopped using or drinking, triggers and cravings can be overwhelming. As they learn new skills to stay sober, they are usually quite concerned about the potential for relapsing. Before having a foundation of coping skills to manage cravings, these concerns are warranted.
Thus, these dreams could highlight a client’s fears during early recovery. They can illuminate stressors and triggers that they might not be fully aware of. By talking about and reflecting on drug dreams, clients can benefit by learning new skills to combat these concerns during their drug and alcohol treatment program.
Of course, even if dreaming about substance abuse can be a sign of progress, these dreams can be distressing. Vivid dreams and flashbacks can be especially upsetting if a person has a history of trauma or disturbing experiences related to drug and alcohol abuse. Therefore, drug dreams can become a nightmare, which could leave a person feeling excessively stressed during early recovery. The following can help a person cope with dreams about substance use in detox and early recovery:
If a person is currently in a treatment program, they can bring these concerns up during peer support meetings or group and individual therapy sessions. Sometimes, dreams can be a good way to begin a psychotherapy session, as they often reflect subconscious concerns about a person’s waking life.
When these dreams are distressing and overwhelming, a person might be feeling triggered throughout the day. For instance, drug dreams might only occur following specific events in a client’s daily life. They might have smelled something similar to their drug of choice or are feeling emotions that triggered substance abuse in the first place. Identifying patterns and connections between waking and dreaming life can help a person manage potential triggers.
The best way to prevent a relapse is to get ahead of it. By taking proactive steps to prevent relapse, clients increase their chances of success in recovery. Rather than reacting to triggers and cravings as they come up, clients can learn ways to prevent these issues from occurring or minimize the impact. Since relapsing is a part of recovery from any chronic disease—including addiction—drug dreams can offer unique insights into relapse prevention planning.
Dreaming about drug and alcohol abuse when a person stops using or drinking can be distressing. Many people worry that these dreams mean that a relapse is on the horizon. However, these dreams can offer insight into a person’s triggers, emotions, and concerns. Believe Detox Center in Los Angeles, California, is here to help those in early recovery manage withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse with our detox programs. Contact us today to learn more.
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