Most of us have experienced bad dreams at least occasionally since childhood and some of us have the misfortune of having them regularly.
Anxiety, depression, poor health, and unresolved problems in our lives can all lead to nightmares and there’s not always a lot we can do to fight back.
Or is there?
In truth, a lucid dreamer has plenty of strategies in their arsenal for escaping or even conquering their nightmares.
This article will introduce you to some of these strategies and give you examples of how they might be used.
How to Prepare: The Importance of Reality Checks
The first step to defeating your nightmares and overcoming your fears with lucid dreaming is to, well, lucid dream.
Ideally, the second a nightmare starts, you’d have the foresight to reality check and realize it’s only a dream.
So how do you do that?
The answer is really quite simple: whenever anything scary or unfortunate happens, reality check.
Even if you’re absolutely sure you’re awake, reality check.
What this will do is create a habit that, over time, will carry over into your dreams.
You’ll be much more likely to reality check at the start of a nightmare, helping you realize you’re dreaming and thus regain control.
So, you know you’re dreaming, but you’re still in the middle of a terrible nightmare.
Strategy 1: Remind yourself that you are safe
Once you realize that you’re dreaming, remind yourself that you are safe.
You’re not in any danger and are in fact lying cozy and secure in your bed.
Just like a scary movie or game, what you’re experiencing now may be frightening, but it’s not real.
In one of my earliest lucid dreams, a monster stood next to my bed, grinning at me with teeth each the size of my hand.
Instead of panicking and treating the danger as if it were real, I stared at it with the same morbid curiosity I might stare at a frightening costume.
The monster stood there, unmoving, even as I walked away.
The moral of the story is: if you remain calm, so will the dream.
Strategy 2: Replace fear with anger
What if you’re not calm?
What if your nightmare has you too riled up to walk away?
Dreams respond to emotion. If you can’t stay calm, the next best thing is to change the emotion.
Instead of feeling afraid of the monster or threat in your dream, get angry.
Treat the threat as if its an uninvited guest in your home.
Yell at it, demand what it’s doing there, tell it to get lost!
Anger can give you a sense of power that might very well shift the balance of the dream in your favor, causing the threat to weaken or even disappear entirely!
You might even manage to chase it away.
Strategy 3: Play a character
Dreams are all about expectations.
If you expect something to happen, the dream will likely make it come true.
If you’re having a nightmare, often you expect something bad to happen to you.
You may feel like the character in a horror movie, running from the threat until it finally catches you. So how can you change this narrative?
Easy: play a different character.
Act like the monster instead.
Turn around and chase what was chasing you. Or be the superhero, saving others and defending them against the threat.
Or if you want to be a less martial hero, you can be the one who turns around and asks the monster what’s wrong.
Once you change your role from being the victim, you may find that your nightmare ceases to be frightening.
Play your cards right and you might even have fun with the new story!
Strategy 4: Have a Laugh
We’ve talked about changing your character—but what about changing your nightmare’s genre?
Believe it or not, it’s not that hard to turn horror into comedy.
In one nightmare I had, I was stuck in a haunted house full of ghosts that sang eerie, unnatural melodies.
Just as the dream was becoming too frightening for me, I thought of an idea: I began singing Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” at the top of my voice.
At this absurdity, the ambiance of the nightmare was totally destroyed.
A few beats in and the ghosts started singing “Hollaback Girl” as well. Suddenly, the dream wasn’t horrifying; it was hilarious.
Laughing at things takes their power away.
Nightmares are no different.
Strategy 5: Change Dreams
Sometimes, there’s no point sticking with a bad dream.
So how can you switch a bad dream for a better one?
The easiest way to force a change of dreams is to make it impossible for your brain to continue where it left off.
My favorite strategy here is to close my eyes and spin around very quickly until I have no idea what direction I’m facing.
Because my brain doesn’t know what I should see when I open my eyes, I often find that the entire dream changes, leaving my earlier nightmare behind.
If you’d like to exercise more control, you can also keep your eyes closed when you stop spinning and try to imagine the scene you’d like to see when you open your eyes.
Once you do, sometimes you’ll get lucky and find yourself exactly where you wanted to be.
Strategy 6: Wake Up
And then there are times where it’s time to pull the plug entirely.
Even if it means waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes it’s better than spending another moment in a nightmare.
So how do you do it?
Take advantage of the one thing your body can’t help but do while you’re asleep: breathe.
Change your breathing pattern as much as possible and keep changing it.
For example, take one deep breath, followed by three short ones, and then a medium one.
Then, choose a different pattern.
Try to make it as unpredictable as possible.
Confused by the perception of your erratic breathing, oftentimes your brain will wake you up, just to be on the safe side.
Think of it as the eject button for those emergency cases where you need out of your dream as soon as possible.
Strategy 7: Try, Try Again
Waking up from a nightmare can be an oddly frustrating experience, especially for us lucid dreamers.
“How did I not realize I was dreaming?” you might wonder.
“If I had known, I could have changed everything!
I could have saved myself/my family/my friend!” If only you had a reset button to do it all over again!
Here’s a secret: you do.
If you’re the daring sort who wants a rematch against your dream, try to remember as many details as you can from your nightmare.
As you doze off again, replay the dream in your mind, trying to keep it as close to the “real” thing as possible, again and again.
With focus, you may be able to get the dream to replay once more—this time while you’re actually asleep.
Even if you couldn’t overcome your fear the first time, a do-over—with an extra shot of awareness—can give you a second chance.
Can lucid dreaming make my nightmares worse?
In my experience, lucid dreaming doesn’t specifically make nightmares worse.
However, as you develop your lucid dreaming skills, you may find that all your dreams become more vivid and memorable—including the bad ones.
This can lead to worse nightmares, but also the opposite: more satisfying good dreams, as well!
Can these strategies work on recurring nightmares?
These strategies can potentially work in any dream in which you can achieve lucidity—in other words, in any dream where you know you’re dreaming.
If you have any recurring nightmares where you can never achieve lucidity, no matter how obvious the dream may seem, it may be rooted in some more deep-seated psychological issue, such as a traumatic memory or phobia.
In such a case, the best way to deal with such nightmares would be treating the underlying cause, not the symptoms.
This can mean seeking therapy or other forms of mental health care.
Know that there is nothing wrong with reaching out for help and that therapy can lead to better sleep and dreams overall, both lucid and non-lucid!
Can I use lucid dreaming as a form of exposure therapy for overcoming phobias?
Lucid dreaming may feel like magic, but it isn’t a form of mind control.
If something causes you to feel uncontrollable fear in real life, it will likely cause you to feel uncontrollable fear in a dream as well.
What’s more, dreams aren’t rational, which means the danger presented by your phobia may actually be worse in a dream than it is in real life.
For this reason, I would advise against intentionally triggering your phobia in your dreams—at least until you have some control over them in reality.
Once you do feel more comfortable in real life, you might consider confronting your fear in your dreams—though be sure to discuss any attempts with your therapist/psychiatrist/psychologist first!
Nightmares can be annoying at best and terrifying at worst.
But with lucid dreaming, we don’t just have to be passive victims.
Whether you face your fears with a calm face, laugh instead of scream, or just opt-out of the dream entirely, you have strategies at your disposal.
They will help you to overcome your nightmares and replace fear with a sense of safety and control.