What is lucid dreaming and how can it reduce insomnia, anxiety and depression?

Cover Image for What is lucid dreaming and how can it reduce insomnia, anxiety and depression?
Nicole Hennig
Nicole Hennig

Dr. Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science and Director of the Northumbria Sleep Research Laboratory. As an expert in behavioural sleep medicine and a Practising Health Psychologist under the HCPC, Jason splits his time between researching the pathophysiology of sleep disorders and his applied work in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia.

Why do we dream?

We normally think of sleeping as a passive process; you lay quietly with your eyes closed etc. But, in reality, we use just as much energy at night, as we do during the day. The difference is that instead of expending physical energy moving around, it’s internalised in a range of brain functions, that include dreaming, which ultimately help us to process, rest and recharge.

One theory about why we dream is to try to cope with the emotional self. The first part of coping is acknowledging the problem, this is something that might happen in the first part of your sleep. Then by the last part of the night, you've dealt with that problem and you can have a happy dream. The research on why we sleep does support this. When we study people's dreams, they go from being negative in the first part of the night to very positive in the second and last parts of the night.

What happens when we dream and why?

There are a few very distinct stages of sleep. At night, as our brains start to calm down and we enter the first stage of sleep, where essentially we go from simply being relaxed to being asleep.

Stage two is deeper and you begin to dream while you sleep. When we talk about dreaming, we're talking about vivid, exciting, and sometimes frightening dreams. Here you review everything you experienced throughout the day to determine whether you need to keep that information or get rid of it. In stages, three and four of sleep, the brain begins the process of fixing any bodily systems that require attention.

Once that cycle is complete, you go back into light sleep and then into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is the stage of sleep that is most associated with dreaming—the fantastical, vivid and unusual dreams you sometimes remember. The two main functions of REM are to consolidate memory and regulate emotions—both crucial aspects of why we dream.

What’s the best way to feel rested when you wake up?

As sleep works on 90-minute cycles, the key to feeling rested is to make sure you finish each sleep cycle. Most of us have experienced the feeling of waking up and feeling fully refreshed—the likelihood is that you’ve woken up at the very end of that sleep cycle. Re-organising your sleep timing into 90-minute blocks, where you actually wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, is the key to waking up feeling refreshed, ready for the day and not groggy at all.

How often do we dream and why do we remember dreams?

We dream every time we go into REM. As the night progresses, the amount of REM increases. The first time that you actually experience REM is about 90-100 minutes after you've fallen asleep and then it can occur repeatedly throughout the night as you cycle through the different stages of seep.

We remember our dreams when we wake up during REM. It means that we haven’t progressed into a lighter stage of sleep and therefore still have the memory trace of what was going on at that point in our mind. We've done studies with people who say they never dream and when we wake them up during an REM phase, they actually remember all kinds of weird and wonderful things.

How does insomnia affect dreaming?

We know that people with insomnia dream differently from people who sleep normally. Their dreams are typically associated with problems they are having in their waking life, so they tend to dream more negatively and remember more.  Again it’s all about how often you wake during the night and whether you’re waking during the REM phase of sleep. When it comes to insomnia, there are lots of interesting areas of study that are looking for ways to alleviate symptoms—for example, lucid dreaming.

What is lucid dreaming and how could it help people with insomnia?

The general definition of lucid dreaming is being consciously aware that you are dreaming. Some people go further and suggest that in order to lucid dream, you should be fully controlling your dreams as well. If you’ve never experienced it before you might worry about lucid dreaming anxiety but in most cases it’s enjoyable and completely fascinating.

I have a colleague in Quebec doing research on people with insomnia and their dreams. As part of her research, she would wake people during REM sleep and ask them about their dreams, noticing that their insomnia would improve in the morning every time she had woken them up during the night. Initially this didn’t make any sense. Why would waking people up in the night resolve their insomnia? However, we soon realised that if you become aware that you have been dreaming, you must also then accept that you have been asleep. In a lot of cases, people with insomnia think that they're awake throughout the entire night, but in fact they're actually sleeping.

We decided to look into how we could get people to acknowledge that they're asleep, without actually disturbing the sleep itself, and came up with the idea of lucid dreaming. We set out to train people with insomnia to lucid dream to see if it actually improved their insomnia—and it did! In repeated studies, we saw that not only did they get better in terms of insomnia, but we also saw reductions in anxiety and depression as well. We saw a marked improvement across their entire mental health.

Is waking up in the middle of REM bad for you?

No, we don’t believe waking up during REM is particularly negative. The largest impact you will find if you wake up during REM is that you’ll be more likely to remember the dream you were having. It also goes without saying that the more you wake up during the night the more likely you are to experience tiredness and a reduced quality of sleep overall.

What causes lucid dreams and can you train yourself to have them?

There are a variety of lucid dream techniques; one of which is called the MILD technique—the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams. We have adapted that to  teach people with insomnia to do it themselves, creating a lucid dreaming guide if you will. The first technique is about keeping a dream diary where you write down as many details about your dream as possible, highlighting anything particularly unusual. This reinforces two things: the ability to remember and recall your dreams, and the ability to identify the difference between being awake and being asleep. Then, when you're awake the following day, rehearse the dream over and over in your head. This will begin to reinforce the idea that you can put yourself back into the same dream the next night should you wish.

Other lucid dream techniques include fact-checking, which many people have a lot of success with. The premise is to repeatedly check touch and count your fingers 1-2-3-4-5-style throughout the day. If you do that frequently enough during the day, you will start to feel an instinctive prompt to continue the routine at night. So, when you are asleep, you might find yourself counting your fingers. But, seeing as you won't have the same visceral response as when you were awake, you might be able to realise that you are in fact dreaming.

Finally, just before you go to bed, reinforce the goal of controlling your dreams by picking one thing you underlined from your morning dream journal and focus on it. It’s all about practising these techniques until you start to see results. ​​

What’s interesting is that when we taught these techniques to students over two half day sessions and made sure they practised them over the course of a month, believe it or not, 77% of our participants found they could have a lucid dream experience.

Are there any potential risks involved with lucid dreaming?

To be honest, at this time we don’t know the whole picture. Thankfully, a scientist in Israel has conducted a study looking at whether the impact of lucid dreaming itself is positive or negative. And the short answer is that it's positive. They found that lucid dreams led to more creativity and problem solving, even  for something not associated with the lucid dream.

Can lucid dreaming techniques help with mental health concerns?

We can certainly use dreams to help with anxiety and depression. People with PTSD, for example, often have a lot of nightmares that can be difficult to manage. During the daytime, we ask individuals to recall those nightmares and then ,through visualisation, help them to change the endings of the dreams from negative to positive. We’ve also used this approach with children when they have nightmares. In many ways the lucid dreaming experience is similar (if not the same) as the visualisation technique, except we're doing it while somebody is asleep instead of awake. By inducing a lucid dream we give individuals with PTSD the opportunity to take more control over the narrative of their dreams, allowing them to hopefully reach a positive dream by the end of the night.

Is there anything that we can eat or should avoid eating in order to help us induce lucid dreaming?

Some people take melatonin to help regulate their body clock (known as your Circadian Rhythm), but studies suggest that it doesn't really affect dreaming. Melatonin helps with the timing of our sleep, but as it doesn't necessarily change the dynamics of REM, it’s therefore not likely to change the dynamics of dreaming or induce lucid dreaming.

There isn’t any conclusive proof to say that certain foods can help induce lucid dreaming per say, but there are studies where we've given people artificial supplements such acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. In those instances, we have seen increased chances of lucid dreaming, but it's a bit hit and miss.

Conversely, there are certainly things we should avoid if we want to maximise our chances of a lucid dream experience. Most dairy foods, for example, increase the amount of mucus your body produces, making you more vulnerable to waking up at night, which isn’t what you want. Things such as kiwi fruits, tart cherries, olives and nuts (specifically walnuts), tend to increase the quality of our sleep so would be good foods to integrate into your diet.

What’s the best way of improving sleep quality overall?

The top tip for getting a good night's sleep is to never try to sleep. You should also make an effort to put the day to bed mentally before you physically go to bed. Have a nice hot bath around two hours before bedtime, it tricks you into thinking that you're asleep by calming your nervous system and preparing your body for sleep. Finally, in terms of lucid dreaming, don’t forget to try the techniques mentioned throughout the day and keep practising consistently.

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