If you are in recovery from addiction, you know what I’m talking about when I say, “relapse dreams.” This is when you wake up anxious, covered in sweat, because you just had a hyperrealistic dream that you were taking, or about to take, your drug of choice that previously caused you immense pain and destruction.

Relapse dreams are scary because they feel extremely real. You might even wake up questioning whether or not it was really just a dream. Unfortunately, relapse dreams are pretty common among people who have a history of drug addiction or alcoholism. Here’s what you need to know about relapse dreams and what to do when you have them.

Why Do Relapse Dreams Happen?

Don’t worry—just because you have relapse dreams doesn’t mean you are going to relapse. Experts say that dreams represent fragments of reality and our subconscious mind to incorporate memories and process emotions. If you have struggled with addiction, using drugs or drinking likely became second nature. For some length of time, you depended on it to survive. In addition, the subconscious may continue to associate substances with pleasure, making drug or alcohol abuse suitable material for your dreams. History of drug or alcohol abuse doesn’t just disappear overnight, it is embedded in our minds, so it comes as no surprise that relapse dreams are normal for people in recovery.

During a study of 2,000 participants who had suffered from addiction in the past, approximately one-third of them reported experiencing relapse dreams. The study found that the longer the person was sober, the less frequent the dreams became. This suggests that the mind and body adapt, over time, to a new sober lifestyle, causing relapse dreams to occur less often. John F. Kelly, Ph.D., who is the founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute, explains that relapse dreams may demonstrate the healing process and stabilization that happens over time in sobriety.

Other causes of relapse dreams include:

  • Longer, or more severe, history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Triggering events
  • Emotional distress
  • Experiencing cravings

What Should I Do When I Have a Relapse Dream?

Since relapse dreams are a totally normal thing in recovery, there isn’t much you can do to prevent them. Instead, try to look at relapse dreams as a gentle reminder that addiction is a permanent disease that must be treated on a daily basis. While accepting relapse dreams as a part of recovery is important, you need to be able to cope with the emotions that may arise after waking up from a relapse dream.

After having a relapse dream, you may feel anxiety, guilt, and fear. Building a strong mind-body connection is an essential part of coping with emotional triggers in recovery. The first aspect of building this connection is to be able to identify the emotions you are feeling and what made you feel that way. When you are able to stop and think about your emotions, you can begin to differentiate between true and false. Even though your relapse dream made you feel the way you feel, you can know and identify that the dream wasn’t real and that you are safe. Being mindful of your emotions and emotional triggers allows you to regain control over your thoughts and actions.

When you do have a relapse dream, it is important to talk to another person about it. If they are also in recovery, chances are that they will understand exactly what you are going through. If they aren’t in recovery, but a trusted loved one nonetheless, that’s okay too. Often, saying something out loud helps you detach from any thoughts or anxiety you may be holding onto.

The Path to Recovery

Fortunately, if you stay vigilant and take the actions needed to maintain your sobriety in the long-term, the occurrence of relapse dreams will diminish over time. Nobody likes having relapse dreams, and it is normal to feel guilty or scared. But don’t let these feelings consume the rest of your day—use them as an opportunity to continue to treat your addiction on a daily basis.

*Cassidy Webb is an avid writer from South Florida. She advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.