The Nightmare of Drug Dreams

Provides information on drug related dreams of drug users who are trying to quit the habit. Implications of having such dreams; Freud's theory of dreams; Knowledge to be used to prevent dreams from being a reality.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published January 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Drug users who are trying to quit their habit should hope that their dreamsdon't come true, according to two British researchers. Their study of more than a hundred addicts shows that drug-related dreams are common among people trying to stay clean, and that the frequency of such dreams may predict who will begin using again.

Christine Franey, Ph.D., and George Christo of the Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour in London, found that 85 percent of their subjects—who had all been abstinent for at least six weeks--reported having drug-related dreams (a median of 2.4 dreams a month). At a six-month follow-up, those who'd earlier had a high number of drug-related dreams were more likely to have resumed their drug use. This was especially true of cocaine addicts, the researchers say, perhaps because of "the particularly powerful reinforcing effects of crack."

These dreams "could be explained by Freud's theory of dreams being the fulfillment of an unacceptable, and therefore repressed, unconscious wish," write Christo and Franey in the journal Substance Use & Misuse. They think it's likely, however, that the dreams are simply memory cues which may prompt an increased desire to use drugs. Those who reported many drug-related dreams, they note, also experienced heightened feelings of craving.

During sleep, the researchers speculate, the brain's "higher" cognitive processes may be inactive, allowing the pleasure centers that drive addictive behavior to get the upper hand. Drug-related dreams, then, can serve as a warning to the waking mind that cravings, and the likelihood of relapse, are on the rise--knowledge that addicts and doctors can use to prevent dream from becoming reality.