Are Relapse Dreams More Prevalent In Early Recovery?

By Paul Gata 02/22/19

A new study examined whether the amount of time a person has in recovery affected the number of relapse dreams they had.

man having a relapse dream

Relapse dreams—characterized as dreams that center around the experience of a primary addictive substance or activity—can be a common occurrence for individuals in recovery. Little is known about their meaning or cause, beyond the obvious connection to the dreamer's dependency, or in regard to their relation to relapse during conscious hours.

But a new study has suggested that those who have experienced more severe dependency issues may also have more relapse dreams. The frequency of such experiences decrease as the individual gains more time in recovery.

The study—conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute, and published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment—sought to determine, from a demographic and clinical standpoint, who experienced relapse dreams and if their rate of frequency was lessened by time in recovery.

To that end, the researchers employed an address-based sampling method that randomly selected individuals from 97% of U.S. households. Participants were determined by those respondents who were 18 years of age or older and answered positively to the screening question—"Did you used to have a problem with drugs or alcohol, but no longer do?"

More than 25,229 respondents were ultimately chosen for the survey.

The survey, which was administered over a period of 19 days between July and August 2016, asked participants if they had experienced a relapse dream while in recovery, and if so, how recently it had occurred.

They were also asked 15 questions about the types of substances they had used, as well as age of first use, frequency of use, if they were still using or no longer using that substance, and if they considered themselves in recovery. If they answered yes to the latter, the participants were asked about the type of recovery (inpatient/outpatient, 12-step program).

Upon analyzing the responses, the researchers found that approximately one-third of respondents reported experiencing a relapse dream after entering recovery.

Those who did report having recurring relapse dreams tended to have more severe substance use histories.

"We found that the individuals in recovery who reported at least one such dream had received help from treatment and mutual-help organizations in the past, reflecting a more serious clinical disorder and impact on the central nervous system," said lead author John F. Kelly, PhD, founder/director of the Recovery Research Institute.

They also found that for those participants that did report having at least one dream, the length of time spent in recovery appeared to have an impact on the decreasing frequency of these dreams. That association suggested that "as the body and mind gradually adapt to abstinence and a new lifestyle, psychological angst about relapse diminishes," said Kelly.

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