lucid dreaming treats nightmares

Lucid Dreaming as a Treatment for Nightmares

Many clients suffering from anxiety disorders report experiencing nightmares. Makes sense. Anxiety disorders usually include feelings of dread, worry, catastrophic thoughts, all of which are a measure of the extent to which anxiety can saturate the conscious and unconscious. As such, it is natural for anxiety to seep into our dreams.

Lucid dreaming is the art of being conscious during a dream. Lucid dreaming involves setting an intention to become aware while one is dreaming, using some cue that the person is really dreaming, rather than awake. Lucid dreaming can be accomplished through a variety of techniques, such as reality checks and emotional signals that indicate being in a dream state. Reality check involve testing the physics or rules of your surrounding world, for example, looking at your hands with the intention that they fade away or disappear, or pushing against walls to see if they bow or flex. Emotional cues involve always asking oneself the question “Wait, am I dreaming?” when the situation becomes too weird to automatically be considered real life.

Lucid Dreaming can become a tool for growth and change in psychotherapy. For example, it can be used to communicate with real people, with dream characters (characters you create to appear only in your dreams), work through past traumas, or engage in problem solving. The lucid dreamer observes the dream and gains insight into subconscious thought processes and symbolism that go on without our awareness. Some lucid dreamers report exquisite control over the dream state, with the ability to take the dream where and when they desire. Others report that their lucid dreams quickly becoming uncontrolled and chaotic, which happens when the dreamer becomes afraid they are losing control over themselves in this state of mind.

Nevertheless, lucid dreams offer a unique opportunity to explore consciousness and spiritual growth. Studies suggest that lucid dreaming may allow for creative breakthroughs in areas such as art, music or invention through various cognitive processes which are active during sleep. People who practice lucid dreaming rigorously sometimes talk about how they feel more connected to their subconscious mind than ever before, which allows them to solve problems with greater speed and accuracy. They may also use the dream state to communicate with significant others in ways they would not normally attempt in their waking life, just to see how the conversation might go.

A Treatment for Nightmares

Because lucid dreaming offers a measure of awareness and control while dreaming, it can be used as a treatment for nightmares. Nightmares involve a state of intense physiological and emotional arousal connected to extreme negative events, perhaps involving mortal danger. Because nightmares are so aversive, it would be nice to have some means of controlling them or interrupting them, perhaps by waking yourself up, or even leveraging your nightmares for greater self-insight. “By becoming conscious within your own dream, you gain the power not only to affect what happens in it, but also discover more about yourself” (Sparrow & Ballaban-Gill, 2015). The nightmare will then become a meditation that teaches the subject how to take effective action, or at least, how not to be helpless within the feared scenario.

Nightmares are especially common for clients who have anxiety disorders. For example, nightmares sometimes trigger PTSD flashbacks in those who have suffered from them. Other people find worries from their daily life infiltrating their dreams. Client who have Generalized Anxiety Disorder may find that their most common worries have infiltrated their dream. Panic attacks frequently accompany catastrophic thoughts, and nightmares may be viewed as catastrophic scenarios unfolding in the dream state.

Lucid dreaming can be used to cope with nightmares in a variety of ways. By being able to define the nightmare, you are able to observe and take control of your own fearful reactions. You can choose to notice what’s happening in your mind, with your emotions, and with your body. Second, you are able to control your own distance from the feared object or situation. Practiced this way suggests using lucid dreaming as a form of systematic desensitization, not unlike guided imagery, though the latter is conducted under the guidance of a therapist. Nevertheless, this represents the use of lucid dreaming as a form of exposure therapy. The person faces their fears while still being safe in the knowledge that their fears are only dreams. Others use lucid dreaming as an opportunity to confront monsters or demons from their past who have led them astray through trauma, substance abuse, or other reasons. That is, they personify their own behavior or experiences as a means of communicating with it, befriending it, and “seeing what it needs.” Whether by facing it head on or taking control over it completely, lucid dreaming is one way of coping with nightmares that allows for conscious interpretation and action rather than simply passive reaction.

Practicing the Intention to Lucid Dream

I tell clients to practice the intention to dream lucidly right before bedtime and at random moments throughout the day. Right before bedtime is intended to embed the intention to lucid dream right at the threshold of sleep, so that it literally represents the dreamers last waking desire.

I also explore whether their nightmares have a repetitive theme. For example, one client related being back at his old job. He goes in for a scheduled appointment with his boss, who relates that the management have decided they would like him to get a business degree. In the dream, the client objects that he already has a business degree, that’s how he got the job. His boss simply says, “We’d like you to go back and do it all again.” The theme here is obviously futility. Another client was severely abused by her father as a child. Her father would drive her and her brother to the end of a long road and leave them there. He would then say that this time he was never coming back, and leave them there. Her nightmares featured strong themes of abandonment. The client’s job is to implant the intention to become lucid whenever the theme makes itself known. So if the second client were to start experiencing feelings of abandonment, that would be her cue to ask, “Wait, am I dreaming?” After about a month of this, she had her first lucid dream.

Management of nightmares can become important for managing daytime anxiety. There’s a close relationship between sleep quality and level of anxiety. Poor sleep or inadequate sleep makes coping effectively harder the next day. Such clients report increased anxiety and increased feelings of vulnerability to anxiety, as well as impatience and irritability. Eliminating nightmares can become an important point of progress, since it reduces daytime anxiety, worry, obsessiveness and compulsiveness, and irritability.