Do drugs affect dreams?

 Do drugs, whether medicinal or recreational, affect dreams?

Let’s begin with medicinal drugs.

If you take any of the following, you may have noticed an increase in vivid or upsetting dreams or nightmares: Anti-depressants (SSRIs), beta-blockers for blood pressure, Alzheimer’s medications such as donepezil and rivastigmine, statins for lowering cholesterol, Parkinson’s medications such as amantadine, steroids such as prednisone & methylprednisolone, and anti-histamines, either over the counter or prescribed, for allergies.

Not everyone taking these drugs notices changes in their dreaming patterns, but Beta-blockers are notorious for their impact on dreams. They upset brain chemistry by suppressing night-time melatonin production, resulting in sleep disruption. The more your sleep is disrupted, the more your dreams are disrupted. On top of this, simply because you’re more wakeful throughout the night you’ll tend to be more aware of dreams that you might otherwise sleep through. Your dreaming mind may or may not be processing your anxieties about not being able to sleep, resulting in more vivid and perhaps upsetting dreams.

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Blockers), prescribed for depression, disrupt dreaming by affecting REM sleep, often resulting in stressful dreams.

Again, this may be partly due to waking up frequently (making you more likely to remember dreaming), compounded by your dreams reflecting the physiological, mental, and emotional stress of long-term, on-going, disturbed sleep. A symptom of clinical depression, in the absence of medication, is more time spent dreaming: the person enters REM sleep earlier in the sleep cycle, and stays in it for longer, so the time spent dreaming is generally longer than for those not experiencing depression.

With or without drugs, depression seems to carry an increased load of upsetting dreams, but don’t be quick to write off these dreams as being due to depression, or as being ‘just’ a side effect of drugs, as they can be richly insightful when interpreted, helping the dreamer become more acquainted with their deeper self, and perhaps indicating pathways for mood management and healing.

Medicinal hypnotic drugs such as benzodiazepines and ambien supress Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) that, in turn, increases REM sleep and time spent dreaming.

If you’re distressed by dreams that you feel are related to a medicinal drug that you’ve been prescribed, consult your doctor, and perhaps also consult a dream analyst or dream therapist, or learn how to understand your own dreams so that you can search for more insight into your inner world.

The dreaming brain and mind are very good at picking up on ‘intruders’ such as drugs, and resultant dreams may reflect the battle your body and mind experiences as it deals with these changes.

Now let’s turn the spotlight onto recreational drugs. How do they affect dreams?

Addictive, mind-altering drugs such as cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), marijuana, and alcohol all suppress REM sleep during use. If you fall asleep you’ll experience relatively dreamless sleep until the drug has been metabolised, then, if you’re still sleeping, you may experience REM Rebound, where your dreaming mind tries to make up for lost time by going into REM overdrive, crammed full with very vivid dreams. If you wake up before the REM Rebound period begins, you may experience hallucinations as you go about your day. Think of these hallucinations as dreams projected onto your day, as that is precisely what they are.

Cocaine and MDMA keep you alert and hyper awake, the flipside being the REM suppression and zero dreams while using. Cocaine use can result in permanent sleep cycle disruption, and terrifying dreams during withdrawal. MDMA users may experience night terrors and sleep paralysis once the drug wears off.

If you’re a heavy user of any of these drugs, you may not experience dreams until you go into withdrawal, and those dreams may be terrifying as your brain and mind, finally free to dream, process all the physiological, mental, and emotional stresses of using. In severe withdrawal, where 100% of sleep is REM, or where REM spills over into wakeful hallucinations, you may be said to experience the DTs (delirium tremens).

As with dreams resulting from medicinal drugs, dreams experienced during withdrawal from recreational drugs – whether in REM Rebound at the end of a night’s long sleep or whether in rehab – are worthy of analysis and interpretation. They will generally reflect the struggles of using and addiction, revealing deeper insight about underlying patterns and needs that may be pivotal in assisting recovery.


Jane Teresa Anderson

Graduating with an Honours degree in Zoology specialising in neurophysiology from the University of Glasgow, dream analyst and dream therapist Jane Teresa Anderson has been researching dreams since 1992, and developing and teaching dream alchemy practices that shift perspective and reprogram unconscious limiting beliefs. Jane Teresa is a multi-published author, and appears frequently in the media on television, radio, and in print. She is also host of the long-running podcast, The Dream Show, and offers her online study and certificate courses through The Dream Academy.

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