“La la, just going to treatment, minding my own business, working the steps like they taught me…” When BAM! You jolt awake into a cold sweat, bewildered and utterly confused that how you somehow wound up relapsing at the exact hangout spot you just talked about in group yesterday. Stare at the ceiling, blink a few times, then realize… wait, it was another one of those stupid relapse dreams. As you wait for your heart to stop assaulting your throat, you wonder what it means. And you’re not alone. Relapse dreams happen to almost every cognizant person at some point in their recovery. So when are they cause for concern?
What are Relapse Dreams?
Though pretty self-explanatory for people in treatment, loved ones can have a hard time understanding the nature and severity of relapse dreams. They’re typically constructed from the “people, places, and things” recovering addicts associate with their drug of choice. Relapse dreams come in all shapes and sizes. But they share one commonality: the person dreaming involuntarily relives old sensations of active addiction that trigger all manner of reactions.
This may translate to something as simple as dreaming of a real memory. Or a slightly altered version of that memory. But the problem with relapse dreams lies not within the dream itself; rather, it’s how they linger (and fester) in the psyche. These phantoms rile up a cacophony of fear, guilt, craving, and anxiety. Even though we don’t choose what we dream, waking up from a relapse dream feels like a personal failing. And that spells danger when recovering addicts lack proper support systems.
Managing Your Reaction
Relapse dreams hit like a ton of bricks during a recovering addict’s most vulnerable state. Part of this sensitivity comes from the fact that no objective science explains what dreams actually mean. Although theories exist, the psychology behind dreams remains elusive to this day. This sits in stark contrast to our thorough understanding of physical withdrawal symptoms such as nausea. While physical nausea can be treated with medication, relapse dreams need to be managed on a behavioral level.
Everyone reacts differently to relapse dreams depending on their personality and stage of their recovery. But in the early stages, fear represents one of the most common reactions.
Contextualizing the Problem
Relapse dreams seem so real that it almost feels as if the events actually happened. This visceral sensation disorients the already volatile trajectory of people in early recovery. Fear and anxiety often lead people to view relapse dreams as a step backward. Here are some common thought reactions that contextualize the effect of relapse dreams:
“I must have a secret plan to use that I wasn’t even aware of.”
This fear makes a lot of sense when you consider a recovering addict’s head space. They are dealing with a behavioral disease where they don’t understand or feel in control of their own actions.
“This must be a sign that my disease hasn’t run its course. I thought I was ready to get clean and sober, but maybe this means I’m not.”
Most people come to treatment with doubts. It’s the nature of managing a behavioral disease. These doubts often resurface in the wake of relapse dreams.
“I can’t stop thinking about it… and I feel bad that I enjoyed it while it was happening.”
It’s normal for recovering addicts to romanticize their past experiences of using. Relapse dreams don’t typically include the negative fallout of addictive behaviors, so they automatically become more pleasurable to experience. It’s common to enjoy relapse dreams to some degree, but those problematic feelings should be brought up in therapy.
“There’s just this pit in my stomach that won’t go away.”
These types of reactions are very uncomfortable to experience. But they actually help when understood in the context of recovery. Anxiety is the body’s way of signaling that you do, in fact, want to make meaningful changes.
What Causes Relapse Dreams?
The human body doesn’t like sudden changes. Although it does gradually adjust, the decision to get sober needs time to work its way through a person’s psyche. Our instincts in particular need some time to catch up. So as our brain forms new neural pathways with the help of a recovery program, it still misfires in the form of cravings and relapse dreams.
These neural pathways don’t carve themselves out overnight. They take months, even years, to fully develop as recovering addicts relearn how to live life on life’s terms. Unfortunately, this period of transition carries a high risk of relapse. So it’s beneficial for addicts in early recovery to anticipate and examine relapse dreams; that way, you’re never caught off guard.
Sorry, But They Don’t Ever Stop
Relapse dreams serve as a prime example for why cognitive behavioral therapy is needed after detoxing. It’s not enough to just get clean and sober. The mind has a tricky way of roping us back into the past, even decades after the fact. Relapse dreams affect even the most senior members of the recovery fellowship. They typically become less triggering as time drags on. But there’s a reason addicts and alcoholics always call themselves “recovering” rather than “recovered.” So why is that?
The disease of addiction has yet to meet a definitive cure. Although treatable, its symptoms must be actively managed to remain in remission. Relapse dreams represent one of those symptoms. So while they decline in frequency and intensity as time goes on, they may never go away completely. That’s not a problem as long as the person manages their reaction effectively.
Long story short: relapse dreams aren’t a cause for concern if you take back the reins after you wake up. If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363