Sleep is an essential function that protects physical and mental health in addition to enhancing overall quality of life. For decades, researchers have debated various issues regarding the functions of sleep and the effect of sleep deprivation on adults.
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Thus, an important aspect in an individual’s recovery from any substance use disorder is to ensure they get adequate amounts of sleep. Individuals who have trouble sleeping may need to develop a sleep hygiene program, a program of healthy sleep habits that can improve the person’s ability to fall and stay asleep as well as the quality of their sleep.
Again, individuals who have a formal sleep disorder should seek professional consultation from a licensed therapist and from a physician who specializes in sleep disorders. Maintaining proper sleep hygiene habits can reduce the incidence of distressing dreams that individuals may have when they are asleep; however, most individuals experience dreams that they find distressing at one time or another.
Dreams have fascinated people for centuries. History is full of accounts where individuals’ dreams had the power to predict the future or represented some symbolic conflict that an individual was dealing with. Dreams are also considered an important reflection of an individual’s unconscious mind – the part of the mind that stores memories, drives, desires, etc., that are not available to one’s conscious awareness except through dreams and other clinical means.
According to traditional Freudian thought, the mind can be conceived by the metaphor of an iceberg. A very small proportion of the iceberg is above the surface of the water (consciousness), and the vast majority of the information that is in the mind is below the surface of the water (subconsciousness and unconsciousness). The unconscious mind is the largest portion of Freud’s three components/levels of the mind and responsible for the vast majority of behaviors that people engage in.
Freud initially used hypnosis to understand aspects of the unconscious mind and unconscious conflicts in individuals. Later, Freud believed that dreams were a window into an individual’s unconscious mind and used dream interpretation as a major part of his psychoanalysis. Eventually, Freud began to use free association, a therapeutic technique where the patient simply speaks what is on their mind at the moment and the therapist listens intently for clues to unconscious conflicts, in combination with dream interpretation to understand the unconsciously driven issues that occurred in his patients.
Many of Freud’s followers also used aspects of dream interpretation, but many of his most esteemed followers, such as Carl Jung, did not consider them as important as Freud did. The Freudian notion of dream interpretation has fueled many of the more popular notions of dream interpretation used by modern-day therapists and others, even though many of Freud’s original concepts are no longer considered to be relevant.
Interestingly, many individuals in recovery experience different types of dreams. A common, distressing dream for individuals in recovery involves them relapsing. Some sources interpret these types of dreams to indicate that the individual is actually about to relapse. In essence, that may or may not be true. There are numerous books and websites that claim to be able to interpret the symbolic meaning of an individual’s dreams by referring to universal archetypes that occur in dreams that have a shared meaning for nearly everyone. This notion may have some relevance to it, but in truth, dreams most likely have several different purposes that are related to the functions of sleep and their actual ability to predict the future is quite poor.
Individuals reporting that dreams have the power to predict the future are engaging in a cognitive bias known as the confirmation bias, where they concentrate on information that only confirms their pre-existing beliefs and ignore information that is not consistent with these beliefs. People have numerous dreams every night, and as it turns out, the vast majority of dreams that people have offer no predictive value at all regarding what will happen in the real world, and only a very small proportion of them actually come true to any extent at all. People who provide evidence that dreams have predictive value concentrate on the very small proportion of dreams that display some relevance in the real world and ignore the vast majority of dreams or events that occur in dreams (most likely well over 95 percent of the events that occur in dreams) that have no predictive value regarding what happens in the real world.
Instead, research indicates that any individual’s dreams will often represent certain types of conflicts or important issues the individual has experienced during the day or represent issues that are personally relevant to them and have been ongoing; Freud was probably correct in assuming that some dreams had personal relevance to the individual. Because important areas of the brain, such as the frontal lobes, are inactive when an individual is dreaming, many dreams are often rather illogical and irrational, and they shift back and forth from image to image (which is one reason the notion that dream images are symbolic has retained its popularity). In reality, they are just often illogical.
Some individuals who report having recurring dreams about tidal waves may have had some traumatic experience, but the actual traumatic experience is often different from individual to individual. Some events may have involved a fire; other people may have lost a loved one; others may have been involved in an abusive situation, etc. Thus, some individuals who have recurrent dreams about tidal waves or drowning may be dealing with some type of emotionally charged experience, but the specific type of dream has no predictive value regarding the type of experience the individual is dealing with.
The vast majority of individuals who suffer from traumatic experiences do not report having dreams about tidal waves, and the vast majority have numerous other dreams as well. It is not known how many individuals have dreams about waves or tidal waves and are not dealing with traumatic experiences.
Likewise, an individual in recovery dreaming about relapsing may be related to numerous different issues. For instance, relapse is common in recovery, and there is no data reported anywhere to indicate that all or even the majority of individuals who relapse had dreams regarding it prior to the relapse. So, how do dreams about using drugs or alcohol relate to individuals in recovery?
Based on the research on dreams, these types of dreams most likely reflect important issues the individual faces and may reveal specific concerns, fears, or feelings regarding attitudes, desires, or struggles. Many individuals in recovery experience cravings, urges to use their drug of choice again, and these cravings are considered common responses to environmental triggers.
Instead, individuals who are concerned about these types of recurrent dreams should discuss these issues with their therapists, sponsors in recovery programs, peers in recovery, and other treatment providers. This can help individuals understand issues that are personally relevant to them and how to address their issues in a practical manner. It is a mistake to assign the relevance of these types of dreams to anything other than individual conflicts, concerns, questions, and unexpressed or expressed desires a person has regarding their recovery.