Dreams about relapse are extremely common among people recovering from addiction. In a typical relapse dream, you might use drugs or alcohol again, suddenly feel overcome with remorse, disbelief, or panic, then wake up and feel relieved that it was only a dream. Despite the relief that it was only a dream, many people are concerned about having relapse dreams. They are distressing in themselves, but you might wonder if it’s a sign that your recovery isn’t going well or that you might relapse in real life.

Although relapse dreams are common, there hasn’t been much research on why they happen or how they affect recovery. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute wanted to learn more so they examined more than 2000 participants recovering from addiction across the country. Of these 2000 people, about a third had experienced a relapse dream after entering recovery. That number may seem low since addiction counselors often report that nearly all of their clients have had a relapse dream at some point. The disparity can perhaps be explained by the study’s other findings.

What causes relapse dreams?

There were primarily two factors that influenced whether someone had relapse dreams: the severity of their substance use and how long they had been in recovery. People who had sought help for substance use by entering treatment or by attending a mutual-aid meeting like AA or NA were far more likely to have experienced a relapse dream. That may be why people who work in those settings say relapse dreams are nearly universal among people in recovery.

The other major factor was how long the person has been in recovery. Relapse dreams became less frequent the longer someone was in recovery.

The study did not find that relapse dreams were likely to lead to relapse. People who were more likely to have relapse dreams were in the high-risk category for relapse, i.e., more recently sober with a more severe history of substance use but relapse dreams didn’t turn out to be a sign of impending relapse. It may actually be the opposite. When you’re intensely focused on recovery, you are essentially relearning how to assert control over automatic behavior. When you’re learning a new skill, your brain consolidates that information during REM sleep. There is even a theory that dreaming about relapse is a kind of virtual reality rehearsal for confronting a situation in which you might be tempted to use drugs or alcohol. If you wake up from a relapse dream and are relieved to find you’re still sober, it probably indicates you’re still on the right track and committed to recovery.

At Fort Behavioral Health, we offer a safe, nurturing, and healing space for men and women to find recovery from the multifaceted disease of addiction. Our team believes in inspiring each client to face their challenges, discover the root of their problems, and reclaim their lives. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, call us today at 844.332.1807 or contact us through our admissions page.


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