If you’re recovering from an addiction and have been sober for a while, you may start to experience disturbing dreams. It’s a common occurrence to experience dreams so vivid, you wake up believing you just used drugs. This is usually terrifying if you’ve been struggling with recovery from addiction and you may even experience a sense of guilt when you wake up. Drug dreams will usually be a nightmare with the conscious fear of relapse.
These dreams are a part of the recovery process and can even be considered positive. They can be a gauge on how your recovery is moving along. You might think you’ve made it past your addiction but sometimes, there’s an underlying part of you that is still dependent on the substance.
The Function of Drug Dreams
Nobody is sure what the function behind dreams are. There are many theories such as:
Dreams are random images your brain created to respond to things that happened throughout the day.
Dreams prepare the mind for possible future stresses. It’s as though the mind is conditioning itself to handle things efficiently.
Dreams allow you to contact your subconscious which can be a very powerful experience. This is where great inventions have been created, by the inspiration of dreams. Another theory is that dreams are nothing more than free entertainment provided by the brain.
The original theory behind dreams is that they’re a wish fulfillment. A means to finish things the subconscious wanted to do but didn’t. Some psychological theories believe that dreams are your minds way of ensuring a future destiny can manifest.
There are a variety of reasons that addicts will experience drug dreams even though they’re ecstatic about their recovery success. If you used drugs for a long time, it was it an important part of your life. Once you stop taking using, you think about them often and remember details. Those memories and thoughts then influence dreams.
It’s believed that dreams are inspired by events that happened through the day. If one day, you were reminded of your past drug use, that could be a trigger for dreaming about drugs. There is also a greater tendency to experience relapse dreams during the time of stress. This may indicate that you need to find a more effective way to manage a situation.
How Drugs Suppress Dreams
Most people that use drugs regularly will not experience dreams as they become suppressed. One theory is that the brain feels like it needs to make up for lost time when you stop using. Some dreams will be consolidated memories. The dreams that have been suppressed may be “unfinished business” for the subconscious. This is especially true for those who experienced trauma or took part in shameful behavior while they were using drugs.
The longer you abstain from drugs, the greater the chance of experiencing drug dreams or nightmares. The dreams play a role in promoting depression or anxiety if you’ve experienced them in the past. The mind is asking you to look at painful experiences that perhaps were the cause of your drug use in the first place.
Science Explains the Meaning Behind Drug Dreams
Christine Franey, Ph.D., and George Christo of the Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behavior in London conducted a study regarding drug dreams and sobriety. It included over a hundred addicts which all shared drug dream symptoms once they were sober. They found that there may be a correlation between the frequency of dreams and relapse. The study found that 85% of subjects who were sober for a minimum of six weeks experienced drug-related dreams. The medium frequency of the dreams was 2.4 per month.
During the six-month follow up, they found that those who had a high number of drug dreams were more likely to relapse. This was especially true with cocaine addicts because of the powerful reinforcing effects of crack.
Freud’s theory of dreams was that they are a fulfillment of an unacceptable and therefore repressed, unconscious wish. The theory makes sense when it comes to drug-related dreams but Christo and Franey believe the dreams are memory cues that cause a desire to use drugs. Some recovering addicts that experienced drug dreams said they experienced a higher level of craving afterward.
While you’re sleeping, the more logical parts of the brain can be inactive which allow the pleasure centers’ that drive addictive behavior to take control. The dreams tell the waking mind to be cautious because cravings and relapse are a possibility. It can give doctors and addicts a warning which allows them to act.
Understanding the Subconscious
To understand why you experience drug dreams, first, you must understand what part of you became addicted to your substance of choice.
Incentive salience is the description of intense “wanting” which develops through the brain. The wanting is developed through a connection between stimuli and reward. The connection all occurs at a subconscious level where it can begin to show through your outward behavior. The need for the award or stimuli can become very intense. This explains why alcoholics might dislike the taste of alcohol but they continue to drink anyway.
Incentive salience happens with addiction because your brain has been sensitized to your drug of choice. The four steps that get you to this point are:
Hypersensitivity heightens your body’s reaction when you become exposed to something like drugs over and over. This is an initial reaction from the body and won’t last.Hypersensitization is what causes incentive salience and symptoms that occur with addiction. This is where you experience a strong desire for the drug which goes beyond just enjoying the high.Incentive salience causes chronic behavior in using a specific drug. The subconscious forces that drive your addiction manifest into a conscious yearning for your substance of choice.
There are theories that believe it is the subconscious that controls addiction. When an addiction forms, your mind has associated alcohol or drug use with the internal award. Your outside behavior becomes motivated by hidden forces within you. The subconscious is attempting to dictate your outer actions which can be a powerful pull. Your subconscious mind also seems to take longer to recover when you abstain from your substance of choice.
Drug Dreams are a Phase in the Recovery Process
Treatment centers and medical professionals will tell you that drug dreams are a positive part of recovery. While they may feel scary and as though you’re losing your mind, they can show you that more work needs to be done. While you have decided to stop using or drinking, your subconscious may still juggle with the change you made.
The dreams can be horrifyingly real but are a part of your recovery as you navigate your drug-free life. The dreams should be shared by your counselor, support group, or rehabilitationstaff so you can have the support you need while working through the subconscious feelings you’re having. This may include changing things in your life to ensure you don’t relapse.
Drug Dreams and Sobriety for the Subconscious
You can have all the motivation in the world to stay sober but the subconscious mind may still crave drugs. While there are many benefits to sobriety, your subconscious doesn’t reason in the same way your conscious mind does. The mind of a recovering alcoholic is aware that one sip of alcohol would be a terrible idea. The subconscious mind only knows that it wants a sip of alcohol and has no capacity for reasoning. When you fall asleep, the subconscious displays images of your addictions. It creates clear pictures that might include you sitting there drinking a glass of alcohol or using your drug of choice.
Although you feel over your addiction, your subconscious is letting you know that not all entities in you feel the same. The good news is that drug dreams are not usually a sign of relapse. The conscious mind, which is controlled choices you make, and the subconscious have different ways of coping. It may take some time for your subconscious to work through your sobriety.
Drug dreams can help you to recognize that there is more recovery needed which can promote you put more attention to it. Drug dreams may not be a good sign if you’re having too many. If the dreams are recurring or you feel like it could cause you to use again, talk to someone in your support system.
Talking about it with your 12-step group or counselor will help you come to terms with what you’re experiencing while you sleep. Know that the dreams will subside after this phase of the recovery has been achieved. The subconscious will no longer be held down by the drug and you will have overcome another obstacle in the recovery process. As you learn how your mind reacts through drug dreams, you can begin to understand your addiction more. You can learn to deal with these vivid dreams in positive ways that help you.