Why some people are finding therapy in lucid dreaming during lockdown

Could controlling your dreams be the answer to finding more peace in life?

by Abby Moss
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18 November 2020, 8:00am

There are many different techniques in order to accomplish lucid dreaming. There are also side effects to be aware of. More information can be found here.

The current upheaval to normal life isn’t just boring, it’s causing a lot of mental strain. The UK is “sleepwalking” into a mental health crisis, as put by The Guardian, who spoke to a range of highly-concerned experts on the topic last week. “The sheer numbers of people developing problems — and some may not be fully-fledged or reach the threshold for diagnosis — will escalate,” said Professor Roshan das Nair, a clinical psychologist from the Institute of Mental Health. Research by The Centre for Mental Health has predicted that up to a fifth of the population will need some form of mental health support as a result of coronavirus, with 15% of those expected to be people under 18. 

In lieu of adequate support, and struggling under the weight of that increased pressure, many are turning to alternative forms of therapy. For some this has meant trying psychedelic drugs like mushrooms. For others, microdosing small quantities of LSD have offered a balm for lockdown. But for those uninterested in dabbling with drugs, lucid dreaming might offer something.

Lucid dreaming is the seemingly paradoxical ability to recognise that you are in a dream and to control the events of that dream. Although this might sound like the stuff of a science fiction movie, lucid dreaming is unequivocally real, and has been proven to exist in a number of scientific studies, some dating back to the 1970s.

Lucid dreaming is also being studied for its therapeutic capabilities, particularly for conditions which cause recurring nightmares such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. By recognising a nightmare as not real, and by controlling the events of a nightmare and confronting frightening things within it, researchers feel that people suffering from trauma or mental health conditions may be able to make major lasting breakthroughs.

Charlie Morley has been teaching lucid dreaming for ten years and has seen a significant increase in interest in 2020. “I think being forced out of our daily routines has invited us to look inward,” Charlie says over Zoom from his home in Bermondsey. “Plus there’s the simple explanation that people are sleeping more. REM sleep is almost exclusively limited to the latter part of sleep cycles, so a person who is getting a couple more hours of sleep, say getting up at 8am instead of 6am, is likely to have more dreams. More dreams, more opportunities for lucid dreams.”

“One of the functions of dreaming is to process what’s happened to us during the day. It’s called day residue. Say you’re going to the office, you might see 500 faces in passing in one day. With less day residue to process in a dream, the mind can start to dig back and look at the really funky stuff.” — Charlie Morley

Charlie has a four step plan for people who are interested in getting into lucid dreaming, which he calls the “Four Ds”. These are: dream recall (practicing remembering your dreams upon waking), keeping a dream diary, dream signs (recognising recurring themes in your dreams that might trigger you to realise you are dreaming) and dream planning (thinking ahead of time what you’d like to explore within a lucid dream).

Charlie also thinks that lockdown could be a useful time to get into lucid dreaming for another reason. With less going on in our days, our dreams will be less busy too. “One of the functions of dreaming is to process what’s happened to us during the day. It’s called ‘day residue’. Say you’re going to the office, you might see 500 faces in passing in one day. Now, we’re stuck within our four walls, in a day we maybe see our partner and our cat. With less day residue to process in a dream, the mind can start to dig back and look at the really funky stuff.”

One person who has been using lucid dreaming for its therapeutic potential this year is Aya. Aya taught herself how to dream lucidly when she was 10 years old, but has found the practice especially beneficial this year. Not only has Aya had to deal with the stresses of living through a global pandemic, but on 4 August she also saw her home town, Beirut, destroyed. Lucid dreaming has provided her with a safe place to work through trauma.

“I think a huge part of me couldn’t deal with my feelings about Beirut, I tucked it away, but it started to manifest in different ways and was interfering with my daily life,” Aya says. “My brain said: no, if you don’t want to deal with these things when you’re conscious, we’ll do it when you’re asleep.” As a long-time practitioner of lucid dreaming, Aya has been able to create a complex and developed world within her dreams. “This might sound weird, but I created a woman. She stays beside a bridge, and every night when I dream she asks me what we’re going to work through. Sometimes I can get something worked out within one dream session, sometimes it needs several weeks.”

“I wouldn’t recommend lucid dreaming to anybody with dissociative tendencies. That’s dissociative personality disorders, derealisation disorders. Without a stable platform, lucid dreaming could contribute to a person losing their bearings.” — Andrew Holecek

Andrew Holecek, an author of multiple books and scientific papers on lucid dreaming, including a practical guide The Lucid Dreaming Workbook, echoes Charlie’s sentiment. “Right now, we can take a look at the contents of our minds without the distractions of everyday life,” he says from his home in Colorado. Like Charlie, he strongly believes in the therapeutic, even life-changing, power of lucid dreaming, saying that the most developed and carefully thought through lucid dreams can have profound effects. “Wake up from one of those puppies and it can change the entire course of your life.”

Both Charlie and Andrew agree that lucid dreaming is, by and large, an extremely safe practice, but Andrew points out one exception. “I wouldn’t recommend lucid dreaming to anybody with dissociative tendencies,” he says. “That’s dissociative personality disorders, derealisation disorders. Without a stable platform, lucid dreaming could contribute to a person losing their bearings. If anyone with any of these conditions was interested in lucid dreaming, I’d certainly advise them to not do it, or at least to speak to their psychologist first.”

But Andrew also sees a lighter, more fun side of lucid dreaming, which might have a particular appeal right now while travel and other forms of entertainment are unavailable. “Simply from an entertainment perspective, there’s nothing like it,” he says. “You can do anything, truly. You can fly around, you can do whatever you want.” Research is also beginning to show that lucid dreaming can contribute to literal physical improvements in a person’s waking life, including improving the performance of athletes. The Journal of Sports Science put forward evidence from a small case study that hinged on the premise that “a mental simulation of physical behaviour is neurologically the same as a ‘real’ enactment of that behaviour, with the difference that the former does not extend to bodily movement, while the latter does.”

Andrew says he practices piano within his lucid dreams. This is because the parts of the brain that are active during a lucid dream are the same as the parts that are active in our waking life. In short, your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and a lucid dream. Go see your favourite band, stroll down a sandy beach, drink a pint — on a purely neurological level, it really happened.

People thinking of getting into lucid dreaming now, while they’ve got more time on their hands, might find that the practice goes far beyond a lockdown hobby. As far as the experts are concerned the potential is endless. “I truly believe lucid dreaming could become a new form of higher education,” says Andrew. “I find that when people discover this, they get pretty jazzed about it. They suddenly realise ‘Oh gosh, I never knew all of this was available to me’. It opens up whole new vistas of the mind.”

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mental health