Dreams About Substance Use Relapse Are Common For People In Recovery, A New Study Shows

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For anyone living with substance use disorder, long-term recovery can involve a number of challenges to face. A new study from the Massachusetts General Hospital shows that intense, disruptive dreams about substance use relapse are common among people in recovery, and are most prevalent in individuals with severe histories of harmful substance use. Of the 2,000 people represented nationally in the study who had resolved substance use, a full one-third reported having recurring relapse dreams after beginning the treatment process.

Published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment in January, after online release in October 2018, the study’s authors said that substance use relapse dreams can cause a lot of distress for people who are no longer actively using, and may be most frequent when individuals first enter recovery, according to a recent press release on the research. Even though only one-third of those studied reported the dreams during the research process, the study authors noted in the press release that the dreams are extremely common, and seen often in treatment settings.

“Anecdotally, the occurrence of drinking and drug-using dreams is a known phenomenon among people in recovery, but very little is known from an epidemiological standpoint about the prevalence of such dreams, their relation to relapse risk, and how they decay with time in recovery," said lead study author John F. Kelly, PhD, director of the Recovery Research Institute in a press release about the study. "Given that these dreams can be deeply unnerving, more information could help treatment providers, those in recovery and their families know what to expect going forward.”

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Dreams about substance use relapse tend to follow a pretty predictable pattern, according to The Journal of Sleep Specialists. Typically, the person in recovery dreams that they’re using their main substance again, and gets flooded with overwhelming feelings of panic or guilt. Once the person wakes up, however, they usually feel relieved that they were just dreaming. But, understandably, the dreams can feel really challenging to experience. Substance use relapse dreams tend to taper off and decrease as recovery continues, the study’s authors say in the paper — which may provide reassurance to individuals and families coping with the treatment process.

“The association between the decreasing frequency of these dreams and the length of time in recovery suggests that, as the body and mind gradually adapt to abstinence and a new lifestyle, psychological angst about relapse diminishes,” Dr. Kelly said according to the press release. “REM sleep and deep wave sleep undergo important changes, even long after people enter recovery, and these relapse dreams may be indicative of the healing process and brain-mind stabilization that occurs with time in recovery.”

Relapse dreams may be the result of the long-term impact of substance use disorder on the brain and central nervous system, the study’s authors said in the paper. And more severe and prolonged clinical histories of the disorder may mean that the dreams are more likely during the early stages of recovery. Fortunately, the effects of the disorder, and the upsetting dreams, may lessen over time as treatment continues.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).