Dreams and Addiction Recovery
Once you decide to change your relationship with substances, cutting them out or significantly reducing them, you are likely to start dreaming intensely and more frequently, than usual for a period.
You may have heard talk of ‘using dreams’ being a normal part of recovery from addiction Have you also heard that dreams are rich in meaning? According to Jeremy Taylor with more than 35 years of professional experience with dreams: “Dreams always have important symbolic meaning”. Dreams tell stories using images from your lived experience to highlight your concerns, your hopes and fears, your opportunities for growth, learning and change. Often these stories seem bizarre, senseless or frightening.
Many substances suppress dreaming, including a lot of the addictive substances commonly used in NZ- Methamphetamine, benzodiazepine, cannabis and alcohol. Prescription medications can also impact dreams both by increasing them and by suppressing them. Dreams usually occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which naturally occurs 5-6 times per night between non REM sleep which has 4 stages. However after you’ve had a period of time without REM sleep due to insomnia, substance addiction, or sedation you can experience REM rebound which is characterised by a marked increase in REM sleep which seems to be the body’s natural compensation. Some of the current understanding about REM sleep is that its biological role is to organise your experiences, solidify learning and connect memories in the brain. All mammals experience REM sleep.
In recovery, you may also experience dreams related to previous traumatic experiences, which can be intense, overwhelming and scary. Dreams can be an important part of the recovery from trauma. If you experience this type of dream frequently you may find professional help is useful (Hartmann, 1998).
So, what can you do with your dreams? Can they help you recover?
As a starting point you could write them down - include the feelings you experience in the dream and what is happening in your life around the time of the dream. It is common for dreams to be connected to the experiences of your daily life and the tasks of recovery. You might have dreams about using substances which end without getting the hoped for ‘result’. What do you feel about this when you wake up? Are you disappointed, left craving or are you feeling relieved it was only a dream? Noticing your feelings can help you in seeking support to prevent a relapse. You may find it useful to notice what has happened recently - did you experience something stressful or triggering which you used to ‘treat’ with a drink pipe or pill?
Your dream could also help you to recognise an area of your life you need to pay attention to. Before your dream, did you have an argument with someone which would have had you using in the recent past? Paying attention to your dreams might prompt you to recognise a need for new skills in managing conflicts.
But, what about those crazy dreams?
The ones which seem totally weird and freaky…. Do they mean anything?
The short answer is yes! Our brains create simple and/or intricate stories from the experiences we have had, it uses metaphors to highlight important concerns, our inner wisdom and the parts of our life we’ve not been able to notice. Most dreams are not literal; they are a story about our life and experiences. To understand the sometimes bizarre seeming dreams requires making associations. What do you think of when you hear this word or see this image? What experiences does it remind you of? Each person has difference associations which are meaningful for them. You can ask 10 people who dream of a car, what they associate it with and it could mean something different to each of them.
It’s important you work out what the images in your dreams mean to you. Where does that dream place remind you? What aspects of that person in your dream stand out for you? You can begin to understand your unique dream language.
Take the strongest images, figure out what they might mean for you.
Notice the feelings you have in the dream, notice what these feelings might be connected with, in your waking life.
If this dream has a message for you in your life right now, what might that be?
Please note: dreams of dying are common in addiction recovery, and many people associate this imagery with change, loss or grief. Don’t be frightened in you have a dream like this, as your brain is using a strong image letting you know something important about your recovery. It is not a literal image about your life or someone else’s life.
If you’d like to know more about dreams and using them to increase your awareness and opportunities for growth, below are some good books and articles that have informed me.
Bowater, M (2016). Healing the Nightmare, Freeing the Soul- A Practical Guide to Dreamwork. Calico Publishing Company: Auckland.
Flowers LK and Zweben JE (1998). The changing role of "using" dreams in addiction recovery. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 15:3,193-200.
Flower LK and Zweben (1996). The dream interview method of addiction recovery. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 13:2, 99-105.
Hartmann, E. (1998). Dreams and nightmares: The new theory on the origin and meaning of dreams. New York: Plenum Trade.
Nicholson, C. (2007) retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-less-sleep-means-more-dreams/ on 01.10.17
McNamara, P (2011) retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dream-catcher/201112/psychopharmacology-rem-sleep-and-dreams on 25 Sep. 17.
Roth, T (2017) retrieved from http://addictionblog.org/treatment/dreamwork-therapy-for-addiction-recovery-and-healing/ 12 August 2017.
Taylor, J (2012) retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-wisdom-your-dreams/201207/dreams-and-recovery-addiction on 25 Sep. 17