People who are still early in recovery often have dreams about relapsing. They are understandably worried that dreaming of relapse is a bad sign. Maybe it means recovery isn’t going well. Maybe it’s a sort of premonition or proof that their addiction is just waiting for a chance to strike. Maybe the dream will trigger strong cravings. Are relapse dreams something to be concerned about?
In short, no. Relapse dreams are common and they’re just dreams. When you think about it, it would be weird if you didn’t dream about using. Part of the definition of addiction is that you think about using all the time. You obsess about it and can’t wait to do it again. This has been a regular feature of your mental life for a long time. It would be strange if it suddenly stopped. It’s like a programme that’s always running in the background.
What’s probably weird for your brain is that you’ve suddenly stopped using. Rationally, you understand what’s going on, but a lot of your behaviour is about your brain just doing its own thing. You have motor patterns, habits, and daily routines that make up most of what you do. Most of these are automatic. When you suddenly make a big change like getting sober, all those automatic functions don’t really know what’s going on. They’re just waiting to do their normal thing and from time to time they check in to see if you’re still doing that thing you did every day for years. So one way to respond is to think, ‘No, we aren’t doing that anymore’.
Relapse dreams may also be caused by triggers that you may or may not have noticed. We’re exposed to a lot of information every day and we don’t consciously process most of it. Sometimes a sound, a smell, or a feeling will be connected to our drug use somehow but we either don’t notice the trigger or don’t make the connection. Your brain looks for these connections automatically. It wants to find where the piece fits in. Often it does this work while we sleep and sometimes the answer appears in dreams. Maybe you caught a whiff of a clove cigarette and thought nothing of it. But your subconscious starts looking at associations. It eventually figures out you had an ex whose brother smoked cloves and introduced you to a guy who sold you some pills. You may have never made the connection consciously.
Dreaming about relapse can actually be a good thing. It can make you more aware of your triggers, for example. You may never have considered clove cigarettes a trigger, but now you know. It can also be a way to explore your feelings about addiction. Writing down your dreams, especially dreams about using, can be a way to sort out your thoughts and feelings about using so you aren’t so easily ambushed by them. Most importantly, they’re just dreams. You can’t use in your sleep unless you’re on Ambien. See what your dreams have to teach you but don’t be afraid of them.
Castle Craig is one of the most established and respected addiction rehab centres in the UK. Castle Craig provides consulting psychiatrists who diagnose associated mental illnesses like anxiety states, depression, ADD, PTSD, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, and compulsive relationships. For information, call our 24 hour free confidential phone-line: 0808 256 3732. From outside the UK please call: +44 1721 788 006 (normal charges apply).
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | January 29, 2020