A sleeping man in addiction recovery has dreams of relapsing.

Drugs and Dreams: What It Means to Relapse While Asleep

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A sleeping man in addiction recovery has dreams of relapsing.

For many restful dreamers, sleep provides a welcome escape from the toils of the day. For others, sleep is an invitation for intrusive thoughts and alternate realities.

Some dreamers tiptoe between nightmare and reality so closely that they awake unsure of the difference. For recovering addicts, these midnight dreams can be especially terrifying, because they may relapse in them. Those in recovery might wonder: is this a relapse warning sign?

An author discusses how he coped with relapsing in his dreams during his addiction recovery journey.

Relapsing Dreams are Common

I had using dreams for the first 8 months of my recovery, and I know they can be terrifying experiences, real or fictional. I also know that I’m not the only one. Dreams of using drugs and alcohol are actually very common in recovering addicts, especially early on in their recovery journeys, and they are not predictors of relapse in real life.

Because they are so common, I know you too might experience dreams of relapse during your journey. I thought I would share some things I did and learned to help me cope with my 8 months of persistent relapse dreams.

A Dream is But a Dream

First and foremost, you need to remind yourself that your dreams are not your reality, and they do not reflect on your waking journey to get and stay clean.

I remember what it felt like to wake up in cold sweats, agonizing over how to explain myself to my family, my employer, the drug court, and the members of my meetings. I would question whether my giving in to cravings while asleep meant that I had, well, given in. But the decisions you make while unconscious are just that: unconscious. If you didn’t consciously make the choice, it’s not your choice at all. Who knows how much power we truly have over the choices in our dreams, or whether they are predetermined the second we fall asleep? We can only ever trust the choices we make in the waking world as our own, and thus those are the only choices we and others can judge.

The Serenity Prayer Before Bedtime

A routine that I developed to deal with relapsing dreams is to recite the serenity prayer and then meditate right before bedtime. This practice clears my mind and reduces the stress level of the day, which puts me in the best frame of mind to prevent anxious nightmares before I sleep.

Call Your Sponsor

Perhaps the best way to deal with the afterthoughts of a relapsing dream is to pick up the phone and call your sponsor. During the first year of my recovery, my sponsor’s number was on speed dial. After I had a dream of using and panicked, my sponsor would talk me into a peaceful state of mind. He explained to me what I have explained to you: it was just a dream, with decisions I was not responsible for.

Reprocess Your Brain with Gratitude

Eventually, my sponsor and I developed a pre-bedtime routine: I would call him nightly just before my nightly serenity prayer and make a gratitude list of the things that I was thankful for that day. I would list 7 things I was thankful for everyday just before bedtime, and these 7 couldn’t be repeated from the day before.

This practice is a way to reprocess your thinking patterns. When you focus on gratitude, you concentrate on things that are important to you rather than the drugs that you could put in your body. After I make these lists--and I still do, even without my sponsor on the other line--my mind is more at ease, and I sleep better in that frame of mind.

Keep a Journal

My sponsor also convinced me to keep a journal of my thoughts, feelings, and state of mind following a relapsing dream, so that I could process how the dream made me feel, and how those feelings affected my mood and actions during waking hours.

Journaling the dreams also lets you keep track of how often they happen. When I get the occasional relapse dream now and pull out my old journal, I can see how seldom these dreams occur, and that helps me feel hopeful and empowered over my unconscious state. My strength in pursuing a recovered life has dampened the dreams and caused them to occur less frequently. My waking choices have power over my dreams, not the other way around.

These are only some of the many ways a journal can benefit sobriety.

Regular Exercise

Another means of dealing with using dreams is to exercise. I exercise every day after I get off of work. I am either strength training at the gym, doing cross-fit, participating in a cycling class or going on a hike. By the time I am done working out for about 2 hours after pulling 8 hours of work, I am worn out to the point that my body and mind don’t feel the need to wander when my head hits the pillow.

Exercise also relieves stress and anxiety, and I notice my sleep is deeper and more restful. When I wake up in the morning, I am refreshed and ready to start the day.

I have also found activities done in nature are particularly helpful. Being surrounded by nature puts helps me be present, which puts my mind at ease and keeps me from dwelling on potential threats to my recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drug relapse during waking hours, please see our directory of treatment centers, or call us at 800-772-8219 for more information.


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