Everyone in the world has had a nightmare.
We all know just how unpleasant they can be – we wake up screaming, or bathed in sweat. It may take us some time to fully realise that the mad axe-man who just hacked his way into the bedroom was in fact not ‘real’ in the usual sense of the word. He was a dream. But the dream felt ultra-real: the fear is still there in our pounding heart, the flow of adrenaline through our body, the terrifying scenes in our head.
The problem is, in the vast majority of nightmares, we are not aware that we are dreaming, and so we let fear get the better of us. When we feel fear in the highly thought-responsive environment of the dream world, the dream responds by becoming more fearful. It’s a vicious circle.
Yet in many ways, despite their unpleasantness, nightmares are gifts. They are our unconscious making contact with us, telling us there’s something we may need to work on. They are also full of creative energy. In cases of past trauma resurfacing, nightmares offer us a key to healing.
Studies have shown that lucid dreaming can be helpful in resolving nightmares, and lucid dreaming has had success on programmes involving people suffering from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When we become lucid in a recurring nightmare, we can free ourselves of some of the fear connected to the images because we know that this is a dream and that we will wake up safely in our beds. When fear is removed, we feel more able to change and transform the imagery. Sometimes a nightmare will spontaneously turn into something far less frightening as a simple response to the dreamer’s lucidity and reduced fear.
Lucidity brings us a sense of safety. Since we know that we no longer need to flee from the nightmare image, we can actively guide the nightmare to a positive conclusion. This habit of facing unpleasant situations head-on and reacting with fearlessness can improve not only our dream life but our waking life, as this example from a North Carolina dreamer shows:
I know that I can change a frightening situation in a lucid dream, so I don’t let myself get scared or panic. I never run away from things or persons in my dreams anymore. And the strange thing is that in waking life I don’t run away either, anymore. I face things head on and don’t drag situations out forever. My lucid dreams have changed the way I look at life.
– Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, LaBerge and Rheingold, p.221
How to transform nightmares through lucid dreaming
- When you become lucid, make a conscious effort to calm down and experience a lack of fear. Remind yourself this is a dream and you will wake up safely from this experience.
- Ask the scary dream figure what is wants – does it have a message for you? Can you become friends?
- Send love and light to the nightmare scene – this often results in instant transformation into something far nicer or even funny.
- Actively change the negative elements: if the nightmare is being on a tiny boat in a huge storm, will the sun to come out and the waves to calm. Statements such as ‘All is calm, all is well,’ usually work well, especially if combined with utter faith that this is indeed the case!
- Summon help – ask for a strong friend to come to your aid.
- If all else fails in the nightmare despite being lucid – wake yourself up by holding your breath or wriggling your physical toes. Then try dreamwork in the waking state to unwrap why you felt so powerless in this particular nightmare situation.
Dreamwork following the nightmare can be really helpful, especially if we consciously create a feeling of safety before we begin. In Lucid Writing, a waking version of lucid dreaming that I developed for my doctoral research, integrative resolutions to nightmares can be reached.