Is it Possible to Dream Away Your Sleep Problems?
Research on lucid dreaming suggests a new way to reduce those sleepless nights.
Posted May 09, 2020
You may be familiar with the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there’s the rub,” but have you ever considered the reverse: “To dream, perchance to sleep?”
People with insomnia not only have difficulty remaining or falling asleep, but also report the experience of dreams with more negative content. Perchance it is the nature of your dreams that's interfering with your sleep quality.
Indeed, Hamlet’s observation itself reflects the idea that dreaming could interfere with sleep, because as he goes on to observe, “… for in that sleep of death, who knows what dreams may come?” Hamlet goes on to explain that the sleep of death literally implies “shuffling off this mortal coil,” but if you have insomnia, you may have a similar dread of what images and events you’ll experience throughout the night.
According to the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research’s (UK) Jason Ellis and colleagues (2020), dreams may indeed “be a pertinent part of the clinical picture for individuals with insomnia.” People with insomnia report more dreams, and more dreams of a negative nature, than normal sleepers mirroring the waking experience in individuals with insomnia, often "characterized by stressful events, anxiety, and low mood” (p. 1).
Previous research on treating people whose PTSD is associated with nightmares shows how they can benefit from the pre-sleep autosuggestion of more positive imagery. Based on these findings, the British authors proposed that training people with insomnia to control the nature of their dreams could help restore normal sleep patterns.
The control of dream content, Ellis et al. further maintain, could be accomplished via the route of lucid dreaming, or “the capacity to know that one is dreaming and potentially change the dynamic of the dream itself” (p. 2). Approximately half the population, the British authors report, have had a lucid dream and 20 percent report having a lucid dream within the past month. There’s a good chance, then, that you’ve had your own share of lucid dreams at some point in your life.
The content of your own lucid dream may vary depending on your occupation and interests, but consider a common dream scenario in which something goes dreadfully wrong right before you're about to give a talk to a group of people (co-workers, supervisors, students, or members of a community group). You’re setting up the presentation mode, such as your laptop connected to a projector, and the software suddenly fails, leading everyone in the group to start laughing at you. Although this is definitely a situation that causes you to feel foolish, your lucid dream narrator allows you to “tell yourself” that it’s really only a dream and so your reputation in the group won’t really suffer.
Now imagine that same dream, except rather than just letting the calamity play out to its unfortunate conclusion, you actually are able to control the outcome. You won’t let that dream end badly, you “decide,” but instead willpower through and actually fix that software problem. Now instead of laughing at you, people are amazed at your technological expertise. You can wake from this dream actually feeling more in control of your life than you did when you fell asleep, or what the British team call being in a better “morning mood.” Not only could training in lucid dreaming reduce insomnia in those who report this sleep disturbance, Ellis et al. hypothesized, but it could also reduce its associated anxious and depressive symptoms.
To test this hypothesis, the authors recruited a sample of 71 individuals from the community who fit the criteria for clinically diagnosable Insomnia Disorder. People with this disorder have difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep at least 3 nights per week for more than 3 months along with daytime dysfunction or distress, despite having adequate opportunities for sleep. Participants also had to be part of that 50 percent of the population who report never having had a lucid dream.
After taking into account these and other exclusion criteria, the researchers arrived at a final sample of 54 adults, about 50-50 males and females, averaging 30 years of age, with most between the ages of 21 and 39. By the end of the 2-week study, 48 participants remained, of whom 37 reported that they were able to develop the ability to engage in lucid dreaming as a result of the 2 weeks of training.
It’s important to note that, as you can see, there was no control group, a step that would obviously be required were the method to become recommended as a treatment for insomnia. Instead, the authors used a standard pre-test post-test approach in which each participant served as his or her own control. The authors were, however, able to perform somewhat of a control by comparing the post-test clinical findings of those who were able to engage in lucid dreaming and those who were not.
Looking at the training itself, the approach developed by Ellis et al. involved an at-home program in which participants first learned about normal sleep patterns and then in a second session gained practice in writing down the content of at least one of their dreams over the course of the night. In the third session, the researchers asked participants to engage in hourly “reality checks” during their wake time to make sure they weren’t dreaming by tapping each finger.
The key feature of the lucid dreaming training itself, begun in this third session, involved creating a “lucid dream affirmation” such as “I will dream tonight and be aware that I am dreaming.” In the fourth and final session, conducted at the end of the 2-week period, participants were asked to visualize the kind of dream they wanted to have. They were told to “practice changing one element of this dream to indicate to them that they are in the dream and have the capacity to change the dreamscape.” Finally, using the content of one of their previous dreams, participants were told to embed an element from such a dream into their lucid dream “as a cue to realizing that they are dreaming and lucid” (p. 4).
In a follow-up completed 4 weeks after training ended, the effects of lucid dreaming clearly seemed to support its value as a potential treatment for symptoms of insomnia. Of the 37 participants who successfully were able to report on a lucid dream at the end of the training period, 25 (68 percent) no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for insomnia compared to 1 (9 percent) of those in the non-lucid dreaming group. Furthermore, using a standard insomnia symptom measure, 17 showed a treatment response of whom 16 (94 percent) were in the lucid dreaming group. The lucid dreamers also showed reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression, further supporting the study’s hypothesis.
As the authors note, the findings were based on treatment through lucid dreaming alone, and not the cognitive-behavioral therapy that may more typically be included in insomnia treatment, thus putting more of the onus on the lucid training method. It was also clear that lucid dreaming wasn’t for everyone, given that 11 participants could not acquire this ability. The authors also acknowledge the no-control group limitation but point out that their effect sizes, in statistical terms, demonstrated a measurable impact of training in the pre-post comparisons.
One great advantage of the British study is that the participants were able to use this technique in their own beds rather than having it restricted to a sleep lab. As a result, it would seem that this is a method readily adapted for at-home use. Furthermore, as an alternative to pharmacological intervention, lucid dreaming carries with it no medical risks, which is certainly a major advantage.
To sum up, if you’re not a lucid dreamer, it might be worth trying this intervention out on yourself. Learning to monitor your dreams and even change their course may help turn some of your own nighttime adventures into ones that can promote your fulfillment during the day.
Ellis, J.G., De Koninck, J. & Bastien, C.H. (2020): Managing insomnia using lucid dreaming training: A pilot study, Behavioral Sleep Medicine, DOI: 10.1080/15402002.2020.1739688