Could lucid dreaming be the answer to avoiding persistent, recurring nightmares?

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Jasmine Loh
Jasmine Loh is a final-year student at Singapore Management University. She is deeply interested in unique psychotherapeutic treatments.

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“At some point, I think I couldn’t really tell if I was dreaming or in reality. I could go to sleep and wake up multiple times, never actually knowing when I was actually awake” recounted Ng*. Ng is a self-proclaimed lucid dreaming practitioner and is also a 22-year-old law student in Singapore.

Having been plagued with frequent nightmares since he was a child, Ng had always dreaded the moments before he fell asleep, knowing that he would have to surrender control over his thoughts. What was actually six hours of sleep could see many repeated lifetimes pass, or full-length action-packed horror sequences, and he would wake up feeling uneasy and unrested.

Ng’s nightmares were usually about his ongoing struggles with his parents or about his poor grades in school. His repetitive nightmares were starting to take a toll on him, and he eventually found himself worrying excessively about sleep and dozing off midway through class. He initially thought he had issues with sleep, and after seeking medical help from a sleep specialist, he returned home armed with an arsenal of sleeping pills. Unfortunately, they only made his nightmares more vivid, while ensuring they lasted longer.

Feeling forced into a corner, he turned to anti-anxiety drugs that he bought from some of his shadier contacts. He was assured that these were what was necessary to maintain good grades in school, and it seemed like almost everyone at school was abusing them anyway. The pills added an almost psychedelic angle to his dreams, and the usual characters in the dream became gigantic, coloured blobs. However, the dream was still accompanied by feelings of unease and discomfort.

When Ng finally chanced upon the technique of lucid dreaming while browsing through Reddit, he thought he finally found the solution. Lucid dreaming is a type of dream where the dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming. During a lucid dream, the dreamer may gain some amount of control over the dream characters, narrative, or environment.

A personal account by 19th-century writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden described lucid dreams:

In these lucid dreams the reintegration of the psychic functions is so complete that the sleeper remembers day-life and his own condition, reaches a state of perfect awareness, and is able to direct his attention, and to attempt different acts of free volition. Yet the sleep, as I am able confidently to state, is undisturbed, deep and refreshing.

When we sleep, our brain alternates between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. In REM sleep, the brain is extremely active, heart rate and eye movements also increase. Lucid dreaming, like most dreams, usually happens during REM sleep. While most lucid dreams happen randomly and dreamers are not intentionally creating these dreams, there are also well-detailed techniques to purposefully enter a lucid dream.

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD) is one such technique. Research done by the University of Adelaide has shown that a specific combination of techniques will significantly increase one’s chances of entering a lucid dream. MILD involves waking up after five hours of sleep and then repeating the intention to remember that you are dreaming before returning to sleep. This is done by repeating the phrase “The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming.”

Dr Aspy, Visiting Research Fellow in the university’s School of Psychology explains that the MILD technique “works on what we call prospective memory – that is, your ability to remember to do things in the future. By repeating a phrase that you will remember you’re dreaming, it forms an intention in your mind that you will, in fact, remember that you are dreaming, leading to a lucid dream.”

It has been suggested that people suffering from chronic nightmares could benefit from this ability to recognise that they are indeed dreaming. Becoming lucid (realising that one is dreaming) during a nightmare allows one to alter the nightmare storyline during the nightmare itself. Researchers conducted a pilot study in 2006 to evaluate the effects of the cognitive-restructuring technique lucid dreaming treatments (LDTs) on chronic nightmares. It found that LDTs were effective in reducing nightmare frequency.

In another study, Spoormaker, Van den Bout, and Meijer investigated LDTs for nightmares by testing eight subjects who received a one-hour psychotherapy session, consisting of lucid dreaming exercises. The results revealed that nightmare frequency had decreased, and sleep quality of these participants had slightly increased.

Ng’s journey with lucid dreaming started progressing quickly once he had his first lucid dream, and his nightmares were soon completely gone. He also began delving into more advanced techniques and methods to ensure that his nightmares were well-controlled. For instance, he found that upon his initial entrance into a lucid dream, everything seemed blurry and hazy, and he felt like he was at the cusp between non-REM sleep and a lucid dream. Specific actions like rubbing his hands together when walking around in the dream would make the environment he was in appear clearer and give him more control over what he was doing.

To Ng, it almost felt like a free-for-all test environment where there were no real consequences, and he could test out different play-by-play scenarios. When he felt a nightmare approaching, he could quickly alter the recurring scenes to an alternate storyline.

Lucid dreaming could potentially be a useful psychotherapeutic tool for individuals suffering from chronic nightmares. As an extension, it may also have some benefit in treating anxiety and depression.

*Name changed for privacy

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