Drinking Dreams: What do they mean and how do you cope with them?

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Drinking dreams—sometimes called relapse dreams or alcoholic nightmares—are incredibly common among people in recovery. In a nutshell, a drinking dream is when you dream that you have ingested alcohol. A 2018 study in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Treatment showed that about 1/3 of adults in recovery have had a dream like this, but they were more common among people who were more seriously impacted by their drinking. The study also showed that these dreams seem to decline the longer a person stays sober, which is great news if your dreams are upsetting.

Since I started my recovery, my drinking dreams have changed a lot, but in the ones I had between 1 and 90 days of sobriety, I would usually find myself drinking in a bar or at home. I remember waking up in a panic after these dreams. A couple of times I woke up with tears running down my face and continued to cry for a little while after I woke up because I was so upset. And from what I’ve read elsewhere, it seems I’m not alone! Many people in recovery are disturbed by their drinking dreams. My life was just so awful when I was drinking, so it was terrifying to think I had relapsed. It’s really hard to explain just how upsetting these dreams can be, but if you’ve experienced one, you know.

The drinking dream I had last night was very odd and a good example of how my dreams have evolved over time. In the dream, I was sitting at the nurse’s station, getting report on the two new patients who had just been admitted. I’m currently studying to become a nurse, so this was not unusual so far… Then, one of the new patients rang her call bell and asked for a cup of malt liquor. I looked at the nurse I was shadowing expecting her to say something like, “No, we don’t serve alcohol in the hospital.” But instead, she asked me to go get it! She said to pour a 150 mL “dose” for the patient and bring it to her right away. I went to the refrigerator located near the nurse’s station and inside I found a very generic-looking bottle labeled “malt liquor.” I shuddered a little at the thought of what it must taste like, but poured it into a liquid measuring cup to get the right amount. It looked like diluted, grape-flavored cough syrup. I worried that this was not the best thing for my patient, but I also knew my place as a nursing student and didn’t want to question the nurse’s judgment.  I took the drink to my patient, set it down on her bedside table, and she grabbed it and hastily drank it.

Back at the nurse’s station, a couple of my nursing student friends said that they really wanted to go for drinks after we finished our shift and asked if I would come along with them. I said, “I don’t drink, actually, but I’ll go and hang out for a little while.” The student nurse who I’m closest with in real life said, “Oh good! Because we want to get really drunk and that way you can drive us!” I was a bit taken aback by this, but I did what I am almost certain I would do in real life if this happened…I smiled and replied, “Sure! Yeah, I can do that.” (I know, I know…bad idea and I need to work on my boundaries and being more assertive!)

At the bar, my friends were downing their drinks quickly and I just watched. I felt strange being in a bar. I had a moment where I wanted to join in and drink what they were drinking, but as I watched them, that feeling faded. They were a mess! Laughing, stumbling, eyes unfocused, gulping down drinks like they were…medicine…just like my patient had done earlier. I could tell they were chasing something in those glasses of alcohol. Relaxation? Comfort? Joy? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know that it wasn’t there. I know that alcohol doesn’t really provide any of those things, just the illusion of them. It made me sad. I worried about how they were going to feel in the morning, but at least I was there to help them get home safe. I decided I was not going to drink, and I didn’t.

This is what my drinking dreams often look like now. They are so strange, but these dreams often provide me with some really cool insights and strengthen my resolve to stay sober. This dream was a great reminder for me of how a lot of people (myself included) view drinking as a type of medicine that will bring them joy, relaxation, comfort, etc. But obviously that’s a lie! Alcohol is marketed that way and over time we accept that it is capable of giving us those things. What alcohol really gave me was a lot of headaches, stomachaches, vomit, bruises, tears, embarrassment, anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia, and shame. I am so happy to be sober and rid of these things!

Every now and then, I will have a dream where I do drink and, although they are often upsetting, they can also be helpful. The most recent drinking dream where I drank was a few weeks ago, so I don’t remember it as vividly as the one I had last night. But I do remember that I was walking around my town in the summertime with a wagon filled with bottles wine. Why? I don’t know! I did a lot of weird things when I was drinking. Every now and then, I’d stop and take a swig from a bottle that I had opened. I remember feeling really anxious in the dream, but the wine wasn’t making me feel better. It never did. I always felt worse. In the dream I also felt hot, tired, and bloated, which is what used to happen in real life! But worst of all, I felt so ashamed for drinking again. I am so proud of my sober time. It’s hard to describe how much it means to me and losing it is a terrifying prospect. It is always such a relief for me to wake up and realize that it was just a dream. That is my subconscious telling me how important it is for me to stay sober! It’s pretty cool.

Over the past 6 months, I’ve had many dreams like this one where I drank and felt regret. In the dream, I was looking for something, but alcohol didn’t give it to me. Drinking never gave me what I thought it would. I need to say that over and over again sometimes because my addiction lies to me. It always has and it always will. That’s why I relapsed in the past. I will always have to be on my guard about this. It’s crucial for the continued success of my recovery for me to remember that alcohol will not provide me with anything good.

These drinking dreams remind me that I am on the right path. Alcohol is a substance and no substance can provide the things that I truly want, which are happiness, inner peace, higher self-esteem, physical fitness, financial stability, and better relationships. I hope that through my continued sobriety and daily spiritual practice, I will reach my goals. But until then, I will focus on the present. Life is already so much better now that I am sober and I am grateful for that.

So what can you do to cope with an upsetting drinking dream, relapse dream, or alcoholic nightmare?

Know that having these types of dreams in recovery is totally normal! I was really freaked out by my drinking dreams at first, but after sharing about my first one in an online support group, I found out that lots of people have them. I honestly think that drinking dreams are a really good sign that your recovery is progressing. Although the meaning of relapse dreams is not yet fully understood by people who study addiction and recovery, it almost seems like evidence that your brain is adjusting to your new lifestyle and trying to reset itself to sobriety mode. That’s a good thing!

Practice relaxation techniques to get your stress levels under control. A relapse dream may also indicate that you are experiencing a high level of stress and increased cravings as a result of your stress. A 2010 study in Med Hypotheses linked sleep disturbances to relapse rates for people in recovery, so it’s important to be on your guard if you have a relapse dream. Use your drinking dreams to alert you that you need to take extra care to protect your sobriety until your stress is under control again. But the good news is that having drinking dreams may reflect a stronger motivation to stay sober according to a study that was published in the International Journal of Dream Research in 2009.

Write or talk about your drinking dreams with someone to look for meaning. I find it really helpful to talk or write about my drinking dreams. It helps me to process them and find ways to learn and grow from them. I usually write my dreams down and/or tell my husband about them over coffee. It’s a little extra work, but I think these dreams can be really helpful if you take time to examine them. It’s also true that relapse dreams can be really upsetting, but it often helps me to consider why the dream was so upsetting. For me, the emotions usually come from being reminded of how out of control and miserable I was. My life is so much better now that I am sober and I am definitely afraid of returning to the darkness that I was stuck in before. But it’s a healthy fear!

Thanks so much for reading! Got any relapse dreams you’d like to share? I would LOVE to hear about them. 🙂

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Brower, K. J., & Perron, B. E. (2010). Sleep disturbance as a universal risk factor for relapse in addictions to psychoactive substances. Medical hypotheses, 74(5), 928–933. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2009.10.020

Kelly, J. F., & Claire Greene, M. (2019). The reality of drinking and drug using dreams: A study of the prevalence, predictors, and decay with time in recovery in a national sample of U.S. adults. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 96, 12–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2018.10.005

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2019, February 12). Drinking and drug-use dreams in recovery tied to more severe addiction history: Frequency of these relapse dreams decreases as the body and brain adapt to abstinence. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 28, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190212190849.htm

Milios, Rita. (2016, October 7) Dreams in Recovery: “Using and Relapse Dreams—What Do They Mean? American Addiction Centers. Retrieved December 28, 2020 from https://www.recovery.org/pro/articles/dreams-in-recovery-using-and-relapse-dreams-what-do-they-mean/

Parker, J., & Alford, C. (2009). The dreams of male and female abstinent alcoholic’s in stage II recovery compared to non alcoholic controls: Are the differences significant? International Journal of Dream Research, 2(2), 73–84.

“Over the past 6 months, I’ve had many dreams like this one where I drank and felt regret. In the dream, I was looking for something, but alcohol didn’t give it to me. Drinking never gave me what I thought it would. I need to say that over and over again sometimes because my addiction lies to me. It always has and it always will.”

7 thoughts on “Drinking Dreams: What do they mean and how do you cope with them?

  1. I occasionally have a dream where I drink and then am required to drive somewhere. I am hiding my drinking, and I am embarrassed in the dream that I have been drinking after being sober for a while.
    I am trying to act normal. It is very hard and confusing. I refuse to admit I was drinking.

    When I wake up I often need time to reassure myself I have not been drinking. This similar dream comes up every once in a while. I like to think it is a reminder to me that I value my sobriety and that drinking would only bring guilt and lies.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow! I haven’t had one where I have to drive after drinking, but definitely have had a dream where I’m trying to act normal after drinking because I don’t want anyone to know what I’ve done.
      I feel the same way about my sobriety. It’s so important to me and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished. I don’t want to lose that, so I think my brain likes to vividly show me how much that would suck every now and then. Thank you, Brain! 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t buy that bit about marketing one bit. No amount of marketing could have been responsible for how I felt the first time I drank. I never paid attention to that crap, anyway. That’s just me, though.


    1. Yeah, I guess “marketing” might have been the wrong word for what I meant. I remember seeing my parents and other grownups drinking to relax and have fun growing up and thought that’s what you do! I don’t know if I really noticed the way drinking was always portrayed in movies and TV until later on. But basically I was just trying to say that it seems like we get messages about how relaxing and fun alcohol is early on in life. There’s the physical addiction side of it, too, which is huge. But I’ve had a hard time breaking that mental connection between alcohol and fun/relaxation and it kept me stuck for a long time because I thought “ahhh, but how will I relax!?”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I dig your conclusion. Well done. I always looked at those dreams as the brains way of taking out the garbage. Picked that up reading a scientific paper on dreams a while back… in ‘94 or ‘95…

    Liked by 1 person

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