Monsters From Under Your Bed, Now Living Inside Your Head? Try Lucid Dreaming.

Lucid Dreaming as a Form of Alternative Treatment


  • Bella McQuade McMaster


Nightmares are both a symptom and an instigator of mental health issues; recent research on lucid dreaming has found it to be effective in treating nightmares - could lucid dreaming be a new way of treating mental illness?

`Why do nightmares happen? Some scientists believe dreams serve no function while others believe they could be a continuation of information processing and memory consolidation, helping individuals adapt to any emotional or physical stress occurring in their waking life. Nightmares are characterized as dysphoric dreams that often feature the endangerment of one’s survival or more broadly threaten their sense of emotional/physical security. They are often associated with several kinds of psychopathology including anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Nightmares are sometimes understood as an effort by the subconscious to cope with some traumatic experience that the individual has yet to emotionally resolve. 

While they may serve as a sort of coping mechanism, nightmares frequently disrupt sleep quality which has a myriad of negative effects on the individual. Sleep is essential for bodily functioning, it is a period of restoration considered necessary for good mental health as it has a large impact on productivity. Adequate levels of sleep provide more focus, consciousness, and overall better performance while inadequate levels promote restlessness, laziness, and often confusion as to why this is happening which leads to depressive thinking. Nightmares reduce sleep length/quality which reduces mental well-being - so what can lucid dreaming do to help?

Lucid dreaming is an area between dreaming and total consciousness characterized by an awareness that one is in the dream state with the ability to concentrate and make decisions. Lucid dreaming allows for dream enhancement, an increased vividness accompanied by the ability to witness - and in some cases the ability to control - one’s dream activities. Merely having a lucid dream leads many individuals to believe it has an overall positive impact on their mental health and the research seems to support this claim. The COVID-19 pandemic actually saw an increase in nightmares and lucid dreaming - possibly as a result of the loss of agency due to the lockdowns and the ability to remedy that in the dream world. Nightmares are frequently left untreated because of the lack of medications for sleeping issues; other medications one may be taking might even be the cause of such nightmares. This has led individuals to engage in lucid dreaming as an alternative form of self-diagnosed therapy, some of whom claim lucid dreaming has lasting impacts like having no nightmares for years. The goal of lucid dreaming for treating nightmares is to change the negative valence of the dream to a positive one. With its free and easily accessible nature, lucid dreaming could be the next major treatment for nightmares and associated mental illnesses.

Lucid Dreaming as a Skill

Assuming that the individual has the physiological ability to visualize within the mind, dreaming is considered something that happens to everyone at any time - not so much a skill as it is a natural bodily process. Lucid dreaming, however, is not something that comes so naturally. While 50% of the population reports having lucid dreamt at some point in their lives, only 20% claim it to happen at least once a month. If meant to be used as a form of treatment, it must become something that can be controlled rather than a rare phenomenon. 

The frequency of lucid dreams can be increased by using different strategies. One example may be reality questioning whereby throughout their day the individual questions themself on whether they are currently dreaming by observing their surroundings. The idea is that as the individual becomes accustomed to evaluating their environment they will do so in the dream state as well, making it easier for them to recognize they are in a dream and enter lucidity. Since dream-like events rarely occur in real life, virtual reality (VR) training is being investigated as a mechanism that allows individuals to become more familiar with dream-like environments, in turn helping them to more quickly recognize they are dreaming and enter lucidity. Although in the early stages of testing, VR training seems to show at least a moderate effect in increasing lucid dreaming frequency. This only further supports lucid dreaming as a skill one can improve on. 


Does Lucid Dreaming Lower Sleep Quality?

Being consciously aware and possibly in control of one’s mind and therefore dreams while sleeping does bring up questions on whether lucid dreaming may lower sleep quality rather than improve it, however, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, lucid dreaming with a strong sense of control and confidence in one’s lucidity has been shown to increase positive affect and lower distress while dreams in which the individual does not control and is uncertain of the dreaming state experience a higher negative effect. There have been no negative effects of having a lucid dream on the feelings of being refreshed in the morning, rather, there seems to be a positive effect on feelings of refreshment after having lucid dreamt.


Lucid Dreaming for Battling Nightmares

Nightmares tend to happen frequently to those who undergo extreme stress, get overwhelmed by their own problems, are physically and mentally exhausted, or have experienced something very traumatic. These factors lower sleep quality and cause a decrease in daily performance. How can lucid dreaming help? Some individuals struggle with terrifying and recurring nightmares that cause severe stress in the dream state that can also carry into their waking lives. Lucid dreaming provides a way for the dreamer to take control over their negative thought patterns which improves their sleeping and even waking lives. Realizing that they have the power to control what they previously thought was uncontrollable led many to recognize the same power available to them in their waking lives. Individuals who used lucid dreaming to combat recurring nightmares saw differences like a better appetite, more energy and motivation, higher self-esteem, and an overall decreased desire to stay in bed. The effect of lucid dreaming therefore reduced or entirely prevented nightmares which in turn had positive effects on the individual's overall mental wellbeing. 


Lucid Dreaming for Battling Insomnia

According to the DSM-5, insomnia can be defined as unsatisfactory levels of sleep with a difficulty in falling or staying asleep for three or more nights a week continuously for over three months - even with plenty of opportunity for sleep; this leads to distress and dysfunction during waking life. Those suffering from insomnia report dreams that are overall more negatively valenced, including higher levels of negative self-referencing as well. It tends to mirror their waking lives which are characterized by stressful situations, anxiety, and low mood. Lucid dreaming allows these individuals an opportunity to master dreams in a way that lowers their negative tones and contents and reduces negative self-talk. 

The lucid dreaming induction techniques typically used for insomnia include: normalizing dreams, engaging in reality checks, using affirmations to promote lucidity, as well as visualization and autosuggestion prompts. It has been reported that after as little as one month of training using these methods, there were reductions in anxiety and depressive symptomatology with the largest reduction actually being in insomnia symptoms. Through lowering insomnia symptoms, individuals have better quality sleep which aids the body’s restoration process; this in turn promotes better mental health due to more productive daily functioning.


Lucid Dreaming for Improving Waking Emotions

Lucid dreaming betters sleep quality by making it a more positive and ideally more long-lasting process, but what does that mean for its effects on waking life? While lucid dreaming, there appears to be an increase in brain activity (at least during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase); however, the restorative function of sleep, which may be measured by the subjective feeling of being refreshed in the morning, is not negatively affected in any way by lucid dreaming. In contrast, nightmares tend to cause immediate negative influences on an individual’s waking mood - referred to as nightmare distress. Lucid dreaming allows nightmares to be reduced in frequency and intensity, creating a much more positive dream space; having positive dreams fosters waking peace of mind and dream mindfulness correlated with increasing levels of self-reflection following sleep as well. 

Those who lucid dream tend to feel more vigorous and satisfied the following morning which is attributed to the spill-over of satisfying lucid dreaming experiences to waking life. With high lucidity, individuals have been able to build physical, creative-thinking, and problem-solving skills in the dream space which leads to the actual improvement of those skills in real life. Lucid dreaming forces the dreamer to practice managing mental impulses, emotions, and conflicts which benefits them in waking world problems too. Increased ability to master emotional awareness within a dream pushed individuals to recognize that they could also implement change when experiencing stressful situations in the waking state as well. 

People who suffer from a variety of illnesses such as depression or insomnia gain empowerment through lucid dreaming which is linked to increases in self-confidence and better mental health. The positive mood that is associated with lucid dreaming may even have increasing benefits for the individual over time in contrast to nightmares which only cause more detrimental effects over time. Therefore, lucid dreaming directly impacts sleep quality to create more positive waking moods, overall positively affecting mental health/improving mental health issues.


Lucid Dreaming and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Why Does Any of This Matter?

The frequency of nightmares increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but so did the frequency of lucid dreams. With the pandemic came a significant loss of freedom as most of the world was on total shutdown; lucid dreaming then became a mechanism by which individuals could regain some sense of control. The pandemic was filled with long periods of social isolation, fearing the possibility of one’s own death, and the fear of losing one’s family or friends - all factors that increased rates of stress. Major dream themes included: mental suffering, fear of getting the disease, and overall significant changes in daily habits as a result of the lockdowns. The emotional intensity of these dreams seemed to also increase individuals’ dream recall frequency which could be a factor in the increase of lucid dreaming; being able to recall dreams allows the individual to more easily identify when they are in a dream environment and therefore enter lucidity. Poor sleep quality leading to waking up more times throughout the night combined with more hours available to rest since the majority of the world was halted also likely contributed to this increase in recall frequency. While most may consider the pandemic to be over, there are still many ramifications communities are left to deal with - especially on the individual level. 

As poor sleep quality, especially due to nightmares, has been shown to have negative effects on waking life, lucid dreaming may be one of the best options for remedying this issue. The pandemic caused a lot of individuals to spiral and suffer from things beyond the corona virus itself and the fallouts remain today. Lucid dreaming, beyond its capacity to treat nightmares, can improve sleep quality which positively impacts the individual’s mental wellbeing and productivity as well. 


Lucid Dreaming Induction Techniques

How does one lucid dream? Lucid dreams can be elicited from either a waking state, called wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILD), or from a sleeping state, called dream-initiated lucid dreams (DILD). Although there are a variety of techniques available, there seems to be one that proves more efficient than the rest: the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD) method. The MILD method is a dream-initiated cognitive and behavioral lucid dreaming technique. The MILD method goes as follows: dreamers go to sleep and set an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night. Upon waking, one should begin imagining a previous dream whilst trying to convince themself to remember dream signs, should dreaming occur again. The dreamer then returns to sleep and the goal is that they would soon become lucid. The idea behind this technique is that by waking the individual and having them return to sleep in a hazy, dream-like state, they will more quickly enter another dream and therefore be more likely to realize it once it has happened. 

The MILD technique is considered by researchers to be the most effective lucid dreaming induction technique, however, since dreams are specialized, unique experiences, there have been several other methods that have worked on an individual basis as well. One comes from combining two different cognitive-behavioral techniques that are a combination of dream and waking initiation: the reality test (RT) and dream diary. The reality test method involves attempting to enter lucidity in dreams by repeatedly asking oneself “Am I in a dream?” at random points throughout the day while inspecting their surroundings. The purpose of this is that if the individual forms the habit of checking if they are in a dream, then once they are actually in a dream, they will ask themselves this question and be able to enter lucidity. The dream diary then has individuals right down their dreams immediately after waking; this is done in hopes of the individual becoming more aware of what their dream state looks or feels like so that the next time they enter it, it will be easier to recognize and become lucid. A combination of the two methods seems to be more effective than when either is done on its own. Lucid dreaming induction techniques are the key to successfully lucid dreaming in a somewhat controllable nature which will help those who suffer from nightmares take their power back, raise their sleep quality, and therefore better their mental health; the best part of all - it can be done from home without the need of a therapist!


Lucid Dreaming as an Upcoming Form of Treatment

Lucid dreaming as a form of clinical treatment has been being investigated for some time, but is ultimately still in the early stages of development; however, its possibility as a feasible treatment option has several benefits. With a lack of available, prescribable sleep medicines, symptoms like nightmares can often be left untreated but, what if lucid dreaming was an option? Some individuals do not respond well or simply do not want traditional forms of therapy such as, for example, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), and so instead they continue to suffer from poor sleep. Lucid dreaming, since it is free and accessible to relatively anyone, then becomes a much-needed option. Being rid of nightmares through lucid dreaming improves the individuals’ quality of sleep which is known to have a myriad of positive effects on their waking emotions and overall mental health. Lucid dreaming can take effect quickly, sometimes being able to alleviate nightmares after just one session; this is beneficial to the individual because they have likely been struggling with this issue for a long period of time, but also means lower costs than any long term treatment that more often than not requires multiple treatment sessions. Therefore, lucid dreaming is a new and exciting method of treatment that benefits the individual by indirectly aiding their mental health as well as providing alternative options that may be more accessible to the everyday person.


Final Thoughts

So long as an individual has the capacity to dream, lucid dreaming seems like a viable option for treating nightmares. The restorative function of sleep relies on one’s ability to actually be able to reach and stay in the sleeping state - something those with insomnia or nightmares struggle with. Lucid dreaming as a skill one can build and practice using induction techniques such as the MILD method would help these individuals better their sleep quality; this would improve waking mood and overall daily productivity that then benefits the individual in even more ways by enhancing their mental health while also lowering depressive or anxious symptomatology - at least to some degree. Lucid dreaming as a legitimate treatment option would change the lives of countless individuals who suffer from a lack of adequate sleep quality and its many repercussions on mental wellbeing.



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