The researchers documented dreams and cravings of 86 recovering addicts from two residential treatment facilities in Ontario. They found that “drug dreams” — dreams involving drugs and paraphernalia, drug use or other drug users – caused cravings to increase.
The participants kept journals about their dreams and cravings.
Cravings varied little the day before a drug dream occurred but were significantly higher afterward. Cocaine and crack cocaine users reported more drug dreams than other groups being treated for opiate and alcohol abuse.
Prof. Francesco Leri, Psychology, said this is a new area of treatment program research.
“Many patients in recovery have drug dreams, but there is essentially no research on this,” he said.
“The reason little has been done in this area is that dreams are subjective experiences in that you’re relying on the participants to tell you what happened. You have to trust the individuals to remember what their dreams were about, which is not always easy once they wake up.”
Leri said the study was based on classical conditioning, involving stimuli and responses.
“We were surprised to see significant correlations between having drug dreams and reporting enhanced craving and enhanced negative effect. This study was unique because we weren’t looking to see why these dreams happened but rather what happened as a result. We focused on their effects rather than their causes.”
The challenge with treating recovering addicts is that even small stimuli can lead to cravings and relapse, said Leri. He noted many residential treatment programs look to prevent stimuli from negatively impacting patients.
In their paper, the researchers wrote that “it should be considered that the experience of drug dreams, unlike exposure to environmental drug-conditioned stimuli, cannot be readily controlled by an individual.”
The study recommends a combination of psychological and pharmacological treatments for dealing with drug dreams.
“Imagery release therapy, which is used to treat post-traumatic nightmares, or medical drugs such as Prazosin, which is used for nightmares, may be useful as part of a broader withdrawal management strategy,” said Leri.
“We need to examine different ways of treating individuals to achieve the highest success rate, and this study will hopefully lead to more research on effective treatment options.”
The study is published in the March issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.