The induction of lucid dreams has become very popular and widespread in recent years. Although the general consensus is that lucid dreaming is natural and safe, scientists are beginning to wonder if lucid dreaming has any possible side effects or risks. Although much more research is needed in the field, lucid dreaming seems to have the potential as a therapeutic tool in mitigating depression and PTSD.
Preliminary evidence does suggest that lucid dreaming has a positive impact on mental health overall, but there is a lack of studies focused on specifically examining the risks. Being aware of the dream state allows the dreamer to engage in self-exploration, creativity, empowerment, and spiritual & transpersonal exploration that leads to healing and transformation. Lucid dreaming can be learned and has been successfully utilized for the treatment of nightmares in many studies, although the neural changes contributing to these results are not completely understood.
This article dives into both sides- the potential risks and the potential benefits regarding mental health. What has research discovered so far, and what is still unclear?
The mental health benefits of lucid dreaming are still unclear mainly because many current studies are limited in sample size and consistency. Dream control is another variable that has been shown to be a huge factor in results. Most lucid dreamers tend to have low dream control, and many experimenters struggle to induce lucid dreams to be observed while in the lab. However, what we do know is that experienced lucid dreamers, with higher levels of control, are shown to experience more of the mental benefits.
Even veterans with PTSD whose nightmare distress decreased showed an increase in dream control. Also, students reporting high levels of dream control reported fewer psychopathological symptoms than those reporting low dream control. This means that the frequency of lucid dreams alone is not as beneficial as higher levels of control and confidence within the lucid dream itself. High-intensity lucid dreamers are not necessarily less distressed compared to non-lucid dreamers, however, they are less distressed compared with low-intensity lucid dreamers, according to a 2018 study.
In one 2009 study, lucid dreams were found to be associated with increased mental health and self-confidence. Another earlier study from the 90’s exploring lucid dreams and personality found that lucid dreamers were socially bold, dominant, experimenting, enthusiastic, and warm. Lucid dreaming can facilitate internal self-exploration, allowing the dreamer to better understand new and old emotional experiences through insightful inner dialogues with their conscious and subconscious minds.
The dreamer can learn to recognize unintegrated and fragmented parts of themselves by studying dream characters, environments, and other re-occurring dream themes and nightmares. These themes may highlight the origins of depression and trauma, providing the opportunity for the dreamer to rewrite depressive thoughts, patterns, and memories. This suggests that the benefits may not be due to the lucid dream directly, but more so the mental thought process lucidity can invoke.
Several participants in a 2021 study reported feeling an increased sense of awareness, happiness, and relaxation in their waking state after having mindful and spiritual experiences in the lucid dream state. Some even stated that these experiences would linger for months at a time. Although lucid dreaming has been shown to influence the management of mental conflicts in a positive way, it still should be paired with qualified therapeutic support in order to have a positive effect on waking life.
Many studies have assessed the use of lucid dreaming treatment for chronic nightmare sufferers so that they can gain control over their nightmares by altering the ending and narrative of the dream into a more pleasant scenario. EEG data of lucid dreamers’ brains have shown that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is activated while lucid dreaming, which is normally deactivated during non-lucid REM sleep.
This pattern of activity can explain the increase in reflective cognitive capabilities that characterize lucid dreaming.
The possible adverse consequences of lucid dream induction have barely been investigated. Studies that have looked at this are focused mostly on the deliberate induction of lucid dreams, as opposed to natural or spontaneous lucid dreams. There are two main reasons why frequent lucid dream induction may be theoretically hypothesized to be an impediment to mental health for some people.
The first reason is due to possibly disrupted sleep quality with induction techniques such as WBTB (Wake Back to Bed). People who obsess over inducing a lucid dream may lack sleep quality and sleep hygiene due to constant sleep interruption.
The second reason is possibly blurred reality–fantasy boundaries, in which a person may become confused about what is real and what is a dream, leading to further dissociation from reality.
Since lucid dreaming is a hybrid sleep-wake state of consciousness, it may cause further confusion for someone who already has trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. A 2016 study by Mota et al. suggested that lucid dreaming is not recommended for people with psychotic tendencies because it may further empower deliria and hallucinations, favoring internal over external reality.
It is uncertain whether or not potential risks pertain specifically to those vulnerable to dissociation and schizophrenia. Lucid dreaming can’t yet be considered innately positive or negative. Researchers say its value depends on characteristics of lucidity and mental stability. Thus, further research is needed to answer these questions with confidence.