Transforming Nightmares through Lucid Dreaming

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 shine the light of lucidity onto a nightmare, the possibility for positive transformation of the dream imagery is huge. 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 and creativity can improve not only our dream life but our waking life. We become fearless: we learn to face difficult life situations head on instead of fleeing from them. Lucid dreaming can change our outlook on life.

The moment 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. Sometimes a nightmare will spontaneously turn into something far less frightening as a simple response to the dreamer’s lucidity and reduced fear. The basic rule of “thought-responsiveness” in lucid dreams says that dreams react to fear by growing more fearful. If we stay calm, the dream tends to become calm and beautiful in response.

When we learn the art of lucid dreaming, a happier, nightmare-free dreamlife may only be one calm breath away!

Six steps to transforming nightmares through lucid dreaming

  1. 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.
  2. Ask the scary dream figure what is wants – does it have a message for you? Can you become friends?
  3. Send love and light to the nightmare scene – this often results in instant transformation into something far nicer or even funny.
  4. 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!
  5. Summon help – ask for a strong friend to come to your aid.
  6. 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 is a kind of waking lucidity because we bring our conscious attention to the deep unconscious material of the dream, and can guide and transform it in healing ways.

In Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming, I share the story of a man I worked with who had a recurring nightmare of standing helplessly on the top of a cliff while a fleet of ships crashed onto the rocks below. He had been having the nightmare for six months and was suffering from a prolonged creative block that was making him miserable. Using my transformative Lucid Writing technique, he mentally re-entered his nightmare and wrote without stopping to think or judge. To his amazement, instead of crashing onto the rocks, the ships rose into the air and flew to safety! For the man, this felt like a huge breakthrough as he finally realised that “even the most terrible things can change.” He was able to move from his stuck, blocked position and become creative in his life again. Those nightmares never returned.

We can transform nightmares while lucid in a dream or while awake during dreamwork. We do not have to suffer in our dreams! We can learn any lessons they may have for us, and move on in our lives with greater strength and wellbeing.

For those wanting to take a closer look at how dream lucidity can transform nightmares, I’ve created this short video:

About the author: 

Clare R. Johnson, PhD, is the author of Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming: A Comprehensive Guide to Promote Creativity, Overcome Sleep Disturbances, and Enhance Health and Wellness. Vice President of the global dream community, the International Association for the Study of Dreams, her other books include Dream Therapy (in the US/Canada: Mindful Dreaming), and novels Breathing in Colour and Dreamrunner.

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