How Lucid Dreaming Could Help Treat PTSD
Can confronting nightmares lead to real-life closure?
Art by Roc Morin
The recurring nightmares began when Dr. Glen Just was five years old. Every night, soldiers would capture him, drag him onto a submarine, and drill a hole into his back as he screamed.
Just now believes these chronic nightmares to be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by years of maternal abuse. He remembers his mother repeatedly smothering him in his crib. When she thrust his face into the pillow, her hand pressed down on his spine in the same place that the drill would penetrate in his dream.
He lived with his nightly terrors until college when he discovered self-hypnosis and succeeded in "reprogramming" his dreams. In a trance state, the student rehearsed the onset of his nightmare, and "like a remote control changing television channels," practiced transitioning to the dream of his choice. "I selected a dalliance with a beautiful woman," he explained. "She would appear, and I would have a relationship with her to the point of coitus."
Without realizing it, Just had taught himself to lucid dream—essentially to "wake up" inside of a dream and manipulate it. He isn't the only one. For months, I have been involved in a project collecting dreams from around the world, and have met a surprising number of people who can lucid dream at will, allowing them to live out their wildest fantasies as they sleep.
While virtually ignored in America until recently, lucid dreaming has flourished in cultures as diverse as Buddhist Tibet, Aboriginal Australia, and ancient Egypt, where the hieroglyphic for "dream" was an open eye. In all of these cultures, lucid dreaming was viewed as a way to access divine aid and insight.
As a new therapist in the mid 1950s, Just was eager to promote the healing potential of lucid dreams for PTSD sufferers like himself. Unfortunately, his ideas were denounced by the psychoanalytic establishment.
"They believed," Just lamented to me, "that any direct intervention [in a dream] contributes to the neuroses, so it was forbidden."
While that kind of strict Freudian ideology is no longer prevalent, lucid dreaming is still mostly unacknowledged in modern-day therapy. Dr. Joseph Green is a rare exception. For several decades, the therapist has employed lucidity techniques in his practice that build upon Just's early experiments. Instead of merely "changing channels" on a nightmare, for example, Green often recommends confrontation.
"A girl came to me after being bitten by dogs," he began. "She had this recurring dream of being chased by two dogs and hiding behind a tree. I told her, 'The next time you have that dream, and you're hiding behind that tree, I want you to say, "This is just a dream, and I can do whatever I want."' At our next session, she said, 'I did what you told me to do. I stepped out from behind that tree and I faced the dogs. I said, "I want you to turn into hot dogs." And they did, and I ate them.' She never had the nightmare again."
Green echoed the claims of several other lucid dreamers I spoke with when he insisted that "if you become lucid, and you face your nightmare, it will never return."
When a patient comes in complaining of recurring nightmares, Green actually sees it as a blessing in disguise. Lucid dreamer Jared Zeizel agrees. "It's weird to say," the co-author of A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming confessed, "but I love having nightmares because nothing helps me get lucid faster." His recurring dreams of zombies in high school provided an ideal entranceway into lucidity. "That was my first reality check," he explained. "Whenever I'd see a zombie, I'd know that I was dreaming."
It's a simple realization with profound consequences. Suddenly, the dreamer becomes nearly omnipotent in an environment that feels as real as anything in waking life. From personal experience, I can only compare it to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment—a single thought that brings immediate liberation from the world. Significantly, the original Sanskrit word for enlightenment is bodhi, which literally means "to awaken."
Zeizel spent his adolescence pursuing typical lucid dreaming activities like flying, sex, and fighting, but now he dedicates most of his time toward personal growth. "One the most meaningful things I do, is I'll ask for a negative version of myself to appear. I call him Dark Jared. He's a very gaunt-looking, shadowy clone," he said. "I'll have a telepathic conversation with him. Sometimes it gets scary because I can feel a negative pressure from him trying to influence me. Dark Jared is connected to an anxiety and to bad habits that stem from a part of my subconscious which he represents. I'm able to ask him questions like, 'Why are doing these bad habits?' and he can respond. When Dark Jared is there, I embody Light Jared, and I'm able to separate the negative elements of myself from the positive elements. Just the act of seeing that negativity as separate helps. When I wake up, if I feel anxious, I know that I can separate from it."
While Zeizel's doppelgänger is an intentional reflection of himself, consciousness researcher Ryan Hurd believes that all elements of the dream are reflections of the dreamer. He spoke about a friend who had regular nightmares of being chased by monsters. At Hurd's encouragement, the friend asked one of the creatures why it was pursing him. The monster replied, "I'm disappointed." The man reported feeling a powerful emotional reaction, and upon waking, was able to explore and address the ways in which he had disappointed himself.
Hurd's own psychic wounds were less metaphorical. "There was a long-term cycle of bullying in my dreams left over from my elementary school days," he shared. "But, there was one dream where I was being chased by a bully, and I was just so angry. My anger was so intense that it made me lucid. I decided to turn around and face my enemy. We were both about 10 years old. I told him, 'Listen, all we have to do is accept each other. That's it. I'm not going anywhere.' I said this, even though I really wanted to leave. I felt so much hatred coming from him—all these projections about how I was weak and small. But then, he suddenly got this look on his face, and he got it. He realized that he didn't have to attack me. I felt a strong love for him. When I woke up, I felt ecstatic. And, I don't have bullying dreams anymore."
Hurd's description of ecstatic love echoes that of many lucid dreamers. Emotions and states of consciousness during dreams are often reported to be more vivid, more pure, and more universal than those felt in waking life. Another common theme is existence without a body, accompanied by a diminished ego presence. These phenomena are reminiscent of hallucinogen-induced mystical states, whose healing powers are becoming increasingly apparent in a growing body of psychedelics research. Even the dreamscape itself can serve as a conceptual example of the divine unity that characterizes many religions. The dream is generated by the dreamer's single consciousness, yet produces a multitude of characters that appear as discrete individuals to the dreamer. Upon waking, the separation between these persons is revealed to be an illusion.
The ability to summon and engage with people in dreams has important implications for grieving as well. Dr. Green spoke of a patient whose friend had been killed a few feet away in a Vietnam firefight. The veteran carried the haunting memory for decades until the therapist encouraged him to meet his comrade in a dream. The veteran was able to tell his dying friend, "Get up. The war is over. We're going home." The wounded man smiled, stood, and they walked off the battlefield together. The alternate ending provided instant closure for the patient that endures to this day. Green reports similar results from bereft clients who have contacted departed loved ones in dreams. "The deceased almost always says, 'I'm OK,'" Green noted. "They almost always look their best—like they're in the prime of their life." The therapist himself still regularly finds comfort in dream meetings with his dead father.
For many lucid dreamers, these kinds of intentional therapeutic uses remain unexplored. "Like most people," Rebecca Turner explained, "the first application I discovered for lucid dreaming was escapism." Turner, who runs the popular World of Lucid Dreaming Facebook community, described an adolescence filled with shyness, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In lucid dreams, however, she stated, "I could do anything. I could fly, and sing, and do awesome gymnastics. It was liberating." Best of all for Turner, the feelings of liberation and mastery have raised her confidence and well-being in waking life too.
Turner insists that lucid dreaming has also boosted her creativity and problem-solving abilities. The dream-space offers limitless opportunities to experiment and to pursue different solutions with instantaneous results and zero risk. Increased subconscious access also spurs novel and counterintuitive solutions. Turner cites numerous examples of dreams that have changed history—inspiring accomplishments as diverse as the theory of relativity, the sewing machine, and even a few Beatles hits.
The potential benefits are clear, but as Turner cautions, "It's not an easy solution for the average person. [Lucid dreaming is] something that takes commitment over time." The process typically involves keeping a thorough record of dreams every morning (in a journal or with an app like Shadow), analyzing them for themes, and performing regular reality checks. Even then, for many individuals, lucidity is elusive.
Dr. Ursula Voss may be about to change that. In a recent experiment, the Goethe Institute professor was able to induce dream lucidity in her sleeping subjects through electro-stimulation of the scalp. If pursued, and commercialized, the breakthrough could bring about a day when we will all have instant access to our deepest desires and our most authentic selves.
Follow Roc's latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.