“I was being pursued by frightful monsters. I was fleeing through an endless series of interconnecting rooms, always experiencing difficulty in opening the dividing doors and closing them behind me, only to hear them opened again by my hideous pursuers, who uttered terrible cries as they came after me. I felt they were gaining on me. I awoke with a start, bathed in sweat.” H. Saint-Denys, 1982
Almost everyone has experienced a nightmare before, an intensely negative dream where you are overwhelmed by fear to the point of awakening, and you wake to find your heart racing and your breathing erratic. While it is not uncommon to have nightmares once in a while, especially during periods of stress, experiencing nightmares frequently can diminish psychological well-being. In fact, frequent nightmares are associated with higher levels of waking anxiety, impaired cognitive functions, and increased emotional arousal and reactivity.
Whereas in normal dreams the emotional experiences of the day are replayed and adaptively integrated into memory, in the case of nightmares, emotional memories may be too powerful, perhaps related to past trauma, adverse experiences, or insecurities, such as a fear of abandonment. Due to the overwhelming emotion experienced, nightmare sufferers even develop a fear of going back to sleep. This creates a vicious cycle where nightmare awakenings interfere with the emotion regulation normally provided by sleep, resulting in further waking arousal and distress.
Because of this, it is important to develop treatments aimed at reducing nightmare frequency. One novel approach that is being explored for treating nightmares is lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is the process of becoming aware in a dream.
Once lucid within the nightmare, the dreamer can realize that there is no real danger, even despite lingering fear. At this point, the dreamer can attempt to break free of habitual responses, instead consciously choosing how to respond. Ideally, patients have already visualized alternate endings to their nightmares in wake, so they can quickly tap into these alternate courses of action. Even careful confrontation with fearful figures can be a beneficial approach to dealing with a nightmare, in some cases leading to further understanding of the nightmare content and allowing personal transformation.
“I became lucid, while being chased by a tiger, and wanted to flee. I then pulled myself back together, stood my ground, and asked, "Who are you?" The tiger was taken aback but transformed into my father and answered, "I am your father and will now tell you what you are to do!" […] I told him that he could not order me around… On the other hand, I had to admit that some of my father's criticism was justified, and I decided to change my behavior accordingly. At that moment my father became friendly, and we shook hands.” P Tholey, 1988
In this sense, knowing how to confront a nightmare is an important step. For example, if you dream of being pursued, you could stop running and even approach the pursuer and calmly start a dialog, ask "who are you", or, "why are you chasing me"? Stand your ground and try not to be afraid. If you have nightmares of falling, letting go of fear can lead to floating or even flying dreams.
But how can you become lucid in the first place?
Although the induction of lucid dreams is difficult, lucid dreaming can be trained (LaBerge, 1980). One recent study attempted to evaluate the efficacy of lucid dreaming training in the treatment of nightmares, when applied in conjunction with Gestalt therapy (Holzinger et al., 2015).
The study recruited 40 patients who experienced nightmares at least 2x per week. All patients received Gestalt group therapy over the course of nine weeks, but half the patients also received lucid dreaming training in addition. Gestalt therapy consisted of group dream sharing and visualizing alternate endings to a nightmare, often using various forms of role play to fully immerse in and overcome the nightmare experience.
Lucid dream training first involved general education about dreams, nightmares, and lucidity. It is important for patients to become very familiar with their dream and nightmare patterns, so they will be more likely to recognize repetitive content, and to discern the difference between waking and dreaming life. For this, keeping a daily dream log forces patients to be aware of, record, and reflect on their dream experiences. Patients are also told to focus on becoming lucid prior to sleep, holding this intention and making it the last thing on your mind prior to falling asleep makes it more likely you will successfully induce lucidity. Other techniques of inducing lucidity include performing reality checks during the day, asking yourself “is this a dream?” and maintaining mindfulness. The simplest factor, though, seems to be persistent intention to achieve lucidity, and consistent attention to all dream experience.
In the study, all subjects showed a significant reduction of nightmare frequency, from ‘several nightmares per week’ to ‘about two nightmares per month’ following 9-week treatment. Further, three months post treatment, nightmare frequency was even further reduced to ‘one or two per month’.
However, the Lucid Dreaming group showed benefits above and beyond those who received only Gestalt therapy. Firstly, 75% of lucid dream trained patients actually achieved lucid dreams during the nine weeks. This confirms the practicality of using lucid dream training in treatment. Further, lucid dreaming was associated with a concurrent decrease in nightmare frequency, but an increase in dream recall frequency. In this sense, lucid dream training may lead to an enrichment of dreaming life, not only decreasing nightmares but increasing positive and transformative dream experiences. This point is further supported by the finding that patients in the Lucid Dreaming group were more motivated and enthusiastic about participating in therapy, perhaps due to an increased sense of control and self-understanding, and perhaps a newfound appreciation for their dreaming lives.
Thus, lucid dream training seems to be useful at least as an add-on to existing therapies for nightmares. The main advantage is that becoming lucid allows you to actively change the course of a nightmare while it is occurring, and even allows you to interact and empathize with the emotional avatars of your unconscious mind.
Holzinger, B., Klösch, G., & Saletu, B. (2015). Studies with lucid dreaming as add‐on therapy to Gestalt therapy. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica.
LaBerge, S. P. (1980). Lucid dreaming as a learnable skill: A case study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51(3f), 1039-1042.
Saint-Denys, H. (1982). Dreams and How to Guide Them. London: Duckworth. 58-59.