Insomnia is a disorder in which individuals have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for at least three nights a week, and this sleep disturbance causes distress and waking dysfunction.
Individuals with insomnia also frequently awaken during the night, and studies show that in general, they recall dreams more frequently than healthy sleepers. The dreams of insomniacs have been shown to be more negative and distressing than the dreams of healthy sleepers. This has some clinical relevance, given that the emotional content of dreams is directly related to an individual’s mood before and after sleep.
In order to ameliorate bad dreams, interventions exist to transform negative dreams into more positive dreams. For instance, in Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, patients practice visualizing positive endings to their bad dreams. Studies of treatments like this show that the ability to change dream content is associated with positive clinical outcomes.
There are several techniques to influence dream content, including practicing waking visualizations, or most notably lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is characterized by knowing that you are dreaming while asleep, and thus you may be able to change or influence the dream narrative as it is occurring. Lucid dreams are often very positive experiences, and this may then spill over into waking mood, setting a more positive tone for the day.
Lucid dreaming is often considered a "hybrid" state because features of waking consciousness re-emerge in lucid dreams. In the brain, there is increased wake-like activation, particularly in the frontal area of the brain, which is associated with cognitive control and self-reflection. This is in contrast to typical dreams, during which we have little self-awareness or insight into the fact that we are dreaming. In order to experience lucid dreams, a variety of techniques can be learned such as visualization before sleep, imagining becoming lucid in a dream, and setting the intention to become lucid in sleep.
The authors of a recent study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine thus set out to assess whether lucid dream training could improve insomnia symptoms, along with waking mood symptoms, under the hypothesis that through lucid dreams individuals could reduce the negative content of their dreams thereby ameliorating sleep and waking mood symptoms. The final sample included 48 adults (22 males and 26 females, mean age 28.83 ± 8.67 years) who were not experienced in lucid dreaming.
Participants in the study first completed baseline questionnaire measures of insomnia, anxiety, and depression symptoms. They then attended four training sessions over the course of two weeks, during which they learned about techniques for inducing lucid dreams. These included techniques for improving dream recall, practicing checking whether they were awake or dreaming throughout the day, noticing unusual elements in their dreams that could clue them in to the fact that they are dreaming, setting the intention to become lucid, and visualizing becoming lucid in dreams. Participants were encouraged to practice these techniques at home.
One month following the completion of this training, participants were asked whether they had experienced at least one lucid dream since training. They again completed questionnaire measures of insomnia, anxiety, and depression symptoms.
Thirty-seven of the 48 participants reported attaining at least one lucid dream, whereas 11 did not experience any lucid dreams. Overall, participants showed a decrease in insomnia, anxiety, and depression symptoms. Further, those who experienced a lucid dream had a greater decrease in their insomnia and anxiety symptoms compared to the individuals who did not have a lucid dream.
In fact, 25 of the 37 successful lucid dreamers no longer met the criteria for insomnia at the end of the study. The majority of those who did not lucid dream (10 of 11 participants) still met the criteria for insomnia. In other words, those who did not lucid dream showed less of a treatment response to the training. It was also found that those who did not lucid dream had higher anxiety at baseline, suggesting lucid dream training may not have been as effective in more anxious participants.
Overall, the findings suggest that lucid dream training could be a treatment approach for insomnia, with the caveat that the training was not as effective in 11 of the 48 participants who did not have a lucid dream. Whether the training could be done over longer periods, or additional training techniques could improve the success rate of the intervention remains to be seen. The fact that the less responsive individuals also had higher anxiety suggests that perhaps lucid dream training is better suited to individuals with more mild symptoms.
The results nevertheless are promising and suggest future research is needed on the effectiveness of lucid dreaming as an intervention compared to or in addition to more traditional treatments for insomnia.
Ellis, J. G., De Koninck, J., & Bastien, C. H. (2020). Managing Insomnia Using Lucid Dreaming Training: A Pilot Study. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 1-11.