First, what are nightmares?
Nightmares are the most intensely frightening dreams we can have. The word Nightmare originates from the Old English ‘Maere’ – an evil spirit thought to lie on top of and suffocate the sleeping person. Because these terrifying dreams occur at night, pairing the word Night with Maere became ‘Nightmare’.
Generally, dream content can range from extremely pleasant to extremely unpleasant. Dreamers often have disturbing dreams and might be unclear about whether they qualify as nightmares, per se. It is mostly subjective, but there are some criteria for how one might differentiate a nightmare from other disturbing sleep experiences:
- Nightmares typically occur during REM sleep (more prominent in the final third of the night), so they’re very vivid, realistic, scary dreams.
- The dreamer usually abruptly wakes up from nightmares, whereas people usually sleep through less severe bad dreams.
- Nightmares are not the same thing as night terrors, which are more common in kids, occur during a different stage of sleep (during the first third of the night), and are not remembered by the individual who had the night terror.
- There are all sorts of bad dreams – haunting dreams, fearful, anxiety dreams, disturbing imagery, etc. Any of these kinds can be a nightmare if the intensity is turned up high enough for you to make the call and define it as a nightmare.
What are lucid nightmares?
Despite the high emotional intensity during nightmares, most people don’t realize it is a dream until after they wake up. But this is not always the case. Sometimes one can become consciously aware, or lucid during the nightmare. It’s the same cognitive shift of awareness as in normal (more pleasant) lucid dreams but in lucid nightmares, it may still be terrifying.
Lucid dreams vary in many ways, one of which is the level of lucidity one can attain. The spectrum ranges from non-lucid up to fully lucid.
So, regardless of what level of lucidity you have achieved, the content of the dream can still vary; we can’t always choose where we are, who shows up, or what they might seem to want. Sometimes dream characters can be weird, and even outright terrifying.
But the good news is, depending on the level of lucidity you attain, you CAN work with these disturbing dream characters or situations (let’s call them dream-images) – the key is remembering that these dream images, in some coded way, represent a part of you or something you’re trying to work through. Let’s get into some helpful concepts about dreams, lucidity, and nightmares.
5 Lucid Nightmare Fundamentals
1. Most non-lucid dreams are not pleasant
When we remember a dream, upon first inspection, the imagery and context may seem nonsensical, random, or irrelevant. Occasionally the meaning is obvious, but more often than not, it takes a bit of interpretation to really figure it out.
Pro tip: Think about dream imagery symbolically or metaphorically, rather than literally. Images in dreams are representations of more complex subjects or objects, just as photographs or movies are in waking life.
Many people may report similar or even identical dream images, but one image may mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to someone else. Dream imagery also influences the wide range of emotions we experience in dreams; in fact, most reported dream content is unpleasant. The degree of unpleasantness; how disturbing the dream is might put it into a ‘nightmare’ category.
3. Nightmares can be useful
Despite the disturbing nature of nightmares, they can reveal important issues that we might be neglecting. Dreams seem to be the mind’s way of associating recent experiences (things that happened today or yesterday) with past experiences (things that might have happened years ago, or during childhood), and the lessons learned from those experiences.
Nightmares are the mind’s natural process of sorting out serious issues, or concerns. It’s akin to creative problem-solving, but these are the toughest problems people encounter in life.
All of our daily problems can range in pleasantness from something like “I don’t know where we’re going to go for breakfast tomorrow” all the way to “I just found out someone I love has a terminal illness”, or you can imagine something worse.
The individual has to deal with these problems and the mind will inevitably try to solve them in dreams. It’s an adaptive and preventive biological mechanism we all possess. Essentially, nightmares are simply unpleasant because these dreams are trying to solve the most unpleasant problems from waking life.
Nightmares can address something horrible that has already happened in the past, or an impending threat; something likely to happen in the future. Nightmares could even occur in response to something the individual isn’t even consciously aware of, but is concerned about subconsciously.
In dreams, the mind processes experiences and lessons from the day and applies them to values learned from the past. For example, being prepared for important responsibilities like an upcoming test or competition.
When life presents challenges that make us feel so unprepared that we actually feel threatened, our dreams intensify, bringing the urgency of the situation to our attention.
It’s the mind’s way of telling us: “DEAL WITH THIS PROBLEM!”. So nightmares serve us by helping us identify legitimate problems and reminding us to try to solve them. Again, dream imagery represents something meaningful. When we focus less on the negative emotions from nightmares, and more on the underlying meaning of the nightmare, we see that more often than not, it’s just good advice from our subconscious.
3. Conscious and Subconscious:
To help provide a framework for understanding lucid nightmares, we should clarify the difference between these two terms.
- Subconscious refers to all the very real and influential aspects of the mind that we are just not aware of. Some clear examples are memories – we can bring certain memories from the subconscious up into conscious awareness with little effort. But the subconscious also entails our drives, desires, predispositions, fears, apprehensions, etc.
- Unless one becomes lucid or remember them upon awakening, dreams are entirely subconscious processes.
- Conscious refers to aspects of our mind or experiences that we are aware of. Of course, consciousness involves sense perception, but it includes more than what we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. We can also be aware of how we feel, what we want, what we don’t want, what we fear, etc. Most importantly, one characteristic of consciousness is our ability to make decisions; to choose, to influence, to respond rather than react.
- If you can get lucid, you become consciously aware during the dream state. If you wake up after the dream, the best way to bring dream content into conscious awareness is to write down all you can remember.
4. Nightmares are Made of Mental Projections
No matter how frightening dream imagery gets, remember this fact: They are merely symbolic representations, projections, aspects of your own self that are crying out for help. Knowing this can help us work with nightmares or lucid nightmares and attempt to solve the problems revealed in the dream.
What are projections?
The Jungian concept of a projection boils down to this: Projections are like photographs. Let’s say you’re looking at a photograph of your parents. The photograph is an image of your parents; it represents your parents, but it is not actually your real parents. Those real people exist or existed in the real world and live or lived their own lives.
Now, when you think about your parents, you have thousands of images in mind along with memories, emotions, lessons all associated with the experiences you’ve had with them . These images and their associations combine to form your mental projection of “Your Parents” (you can apply this to any subject or person) and your relationship with, perception of, and feelings about them.
But they are not actually your parents, they are just mental models seen through your mind’s eye, drawn from memory. Imagery + meaning = representations perceived through the lens of conscious awareness. Through that lens, through that mental projector, the representations, or the images are the projections. Kind of complicated, but interesting, no?
So, despite how vivid and intense nightmares seem at the time, try to remember that they are projections and representations – they’re not real. Remembering that can render them harmless because how scary is a mental model when you know it’s just a mental model?
When you become lucid in a nightmare, remember that what you’re experiencing is just a projection that represents important problems in your life.
5. We Can Manage Lucid Nightmares
Lucidity means clarity of the fact that you’re dreaming during the dream. So if the dream happens to be a nightmare, and you know you’re dreaming, simply recognize that you don’t have to react with fear, helplessness, embarrassment, or panic.
During a lucid nightmare, you have options – you can choose how you want to deal with the situation. There are thousands of accounts in which lucid dreamers have dealt with nightmares, we have a common pattern of outcomes based on their conscious choices made during these dreams.
Options During Lucid Nightmares:
So put yourself in this situation: You are running from some scary bastard in a nightmare and you’re terrified. It seems like everywhere you go it finds you, it always knows where you are hiding, and you just can’t get away… impending doom.
But wait, how does it know where you are when it can’t see you? Ah! It’s because you’re dreaming! You do reality test to make sure you’re dreaming, and yes, definitely… this is a dream.
But, the demon-terminator thing is still chasing you, what do you do??
You can A. keep running and hiding, and hope this time, since it’s a dream, he won’t find you (consider what your level of lucidity would be in this scenario).
B. Since you’re lucid, you know you can change scenes altogether and leave him back there in that awful place while you bail and fly to … the beach. (higher level of lucidity in this situation)
C. Since you know it’s a dream, you can take out a rocket launcher, fire a rocket at him and blow him up. (maybe just as lucid as option B.)
D. Come out from your hiding place, face him with confidence, and ask him “Hey, who are you? What’s the problem here? Why are you chasing me?
So, which one do you choose? None of these are wrong answers, but consider one thing: How would you choose to deal with a serious problem in waking life? If you accept that dreams are the mind’s attempt at solving problems, and this dream is presenting you with a serious problem…
Should you keep running from your problems? Should you just ignore it and go to the beach? Should you strike down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger? Or should you face it head-on from a position of strength and confidence, try to understand it, accept that it is a part of your life, and try to solve it?
In waking life, the best approach is not always clear, but you have a choice in how to deal with it. Choosing is a conscious process. And during lucid nightmares, you also have a choice simply because by becoming lucid, you’ve brought your conscious volition into the dream.
Mindfulness and Lucid Nightmares
Mindfulness teaches us how to manage our emotions in stressful, difficult times. This is why the mindful approach to dreams, sleep, and lucid dreaming can be so valuable. While meditating, we observe our mind’s activity; it’s like a window into our subconscious processes.
Meditation helps us see our own mental chatter, the stream of background thoughts, the internal monologue, the narration of our experience in any given moment. When we meditate, we watch the mental activity and then bring attention back onto the breath to stay present. This serves, in part, to change our perception of what happens to us in life, including our perception of our own thoughts.
We take a step back, just breathe, and observe our emotional state as it is, without judging it as good or bad per se. This helps cultivate a healthy relationship with our mind while awake.
But again, what about our mind during sleep and during dreams? Just as we ruminate on our past and worry about our future while awake, nightmares reveal that we do the same thing in dreams. When we get lucid in dreams, and in nightmares, we can take the same mindful approach and choose responding rather than reacting on impulse.
Try it! Imagine having a lucid nightmare. Picture a nightmare figure, imagine knowing that you’re dreaming, and just observe what the figure looks like. Notice how you feel. Don’t get consumed by the negative emotions; they don’t define you. Just recognize that they are present.
And just observe that you are creating the imagery you see. It’s not some separate entity that can hurt you, it is merely a representation of something you need to deal with. Because your mind is creating it, your mind knows what it represents – I recommend asking it questions! Ask what it is, why it’s here, and how you can help.
If you try this during a real lucid nightmare, chances are It will change its form into something more pleasant and tell you what it represents.
We go into this in much more detail in the app. Download here and check it out!