Updated: Jun 29
Did you know that alcohol affects our quality of sleep?
This might come as a surprise because alcohol is a sedative and can make us feel relaxed and drowsy. Oftentimes, when we drink, we fall asleep quickly, and sometimes it might even seem easier to fall asleep. However, that doesn't mean that the quality of sleep that we get under the influence is better.
Research indicates that alcohol disrupts our sleep cycle by changing the length of time we spend in each stage. Alcohol can suppress the REM stage of our sleep cycle - where most of our dreaming and memory consolidation occurs. In turn, there's an imbalance between our slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, decreasing our overall quality of rest (Pacheco, 2022).
Unfortunately, when people quit drinking, sleep problems don't automatically go away. Heavy drinkers tend to have a harder time falling asleep during their early stages of recovery. Using good sleep practices (having a set sleeping schedule, relaxing before bed, etc.) can help significantly (Arendt et. al, 2010).
I was lucky and didn't having difficulty falling asleep early on, but I did notice that my dreams became a lot more vivid during recovery. I've always remembered my dreams, but each morning I recalled them with a lot more clarity. Sometimes this was a good thing, and sometimes this was a very, very bad thing.
I can't count how many relapse dreams that I've had since I quit drinking. It's at least in the double digits. It wasn't uncommon to have them more than two times a week. In the beginning of my recovery, it happened frequently. It tapered off a bit, but last month when I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, these dreams came back in full force.
Relapse dreams are extremely common. Factors that can trigger a relapse dream are:
Intensity of the substance use disorder
Length of time a person has been in recovery.
Generally, if you were a heavy drinker, you're more prone to relapse dreams. However, the longer you're in recovery, the less likely you are to having these dreams. Relapse dreams actually represent the healing and stabilization process in recovery. They can be caused by cravings, distressing events, or emotional anguish (AspenRidge, 2020).
My relapse dreams are different every time, but they follow a specific theme. The dream goes... I drink, realize what I've done, and feel extremely guilty, afraid, and shameful. The scariest part is knowing that I have to start over at day zero. It's safe to say that relapse dreams are my new nightmares.
It's always a sigh of relief waking up and realizing that it was just a dream. However, sometimes its hard to shake it off throughout the day. Having to start over with my recovery scares me more than any scary movie I've ever seen.
These dreams suck to have, but they teach me a lesson. I do NOT want to go back to my old life. If I did drink, I would feel all the terrible emotions that I'm trying to avoid. These dreams are also a sign that I might be going through something in life that is putting a lot of strain on me emotionally.
I write this not to scare people about sleeping (or the inability to) during recovery. I write it because relapse dreams are very real, and having one can be as distressing as the dream itself. However, it's all part of the process, and your mind is readjusting to your new life.
The reason that I'm writing about this today is because last night, I had a different kind of alcohol dream. In one dream, I was explaining to someone what Alcohol Anonymous was. In another dream, someone asked me to drink, and I told them that I was sober.
This may not seem like much, but it's a huge turning point for me. For the first time, I've stood up for my sobriety in my dreams, and felt confident in doing so! There wasn't even a sign of hesitation.
This is HUGE. It means that my subconscious mind is changing. After ten months, my cognition has identified that I am sober and I am confident in that decision. Through persistence and dedication, and a lot of challenging hurdles, my subconscious is catching on. And - it's hard to change that suckers mind.
I might have relapse dreams in the future. Who knows? All that matters to me is that I had two dreams in a row where I stood up for my sobriety with my chin held high. And that in and of itself shows me that I have the power to change even my subconscious mind.
Your mind can change, too. If you put in the work of recovery and stick with it, your mind can readjust to your new life. It's the most beautiful thing in the world.
Arnedt, J. T., Conroy, D. A., & Brower, K. J. (2007). Treatment options for sleep disturbances during alcohol recovery. Journal of addictive diseases, 26(4), 41–54. https://doi.org/10.1300/J069v26n04_06
AspenRidge. (2021, February 23). What are relapse dreams?: What they mean and why they happen. AspenRidge. From https://www.aspenridgerecoverycenters.com/what-are-relapse-dreams/
Pacheco, D. (2022, March 11). Alcohol and sleep. Sleep Foundation. From https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep