If Your Uncontrollable Life Is Making You Anxious, Try Controlling Your Dreams

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Photo: David Soanes Photography/Getty Images

Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us is exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

There is a scene in the third Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which a classroom of Hogwarts kids lines up to practice fighting boggarts, magical creatures that take the form of whatever it is you are most afraid of. The best way to fight a boggart, the students learn, is with your mind: Picture the thing you fear, only made ridiculous. A giant spider suddenly slips around on roller skates; a menacing cobra morphs into a benign jack-in-the-box.

This is like that, only in your dreams. Not many serious scientists are studying dreaming; even fewer are studying lucid dreaming, or the state of being aware you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. But among those who are, some are putting forth an intriguing new theory — perhaps lucid dreaming could be used as a therapeutic tool to treat anxiety or phobias, a kind of exposure therapy that takes place safely in the subconscious.

According to one estimate, about 50 percent of people have experienced lucidity in a dream at least once. For some, lucid dreaming does not venture much beyond awareness; they simply know they’re in a dream. But there are different degrees of lucidity, and all the way at the other end of the spectrum is the kind of trippy world-building reminiscent of the 2010 movie Inception. People who are skilled at lucid dreaming can interact with the dream, controlling their own behavior or summoning certain people or things to appear. Those who are really good “are often then able to control not just their own behavior, but things like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be in this scene — I’ll just make this dissolve and I’ll dream about something else,” said Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist who studies dreaming and teaches at Harvard Medical School. If you’re aware you’re dreaming, then you’re aware that the images you’re seeing were created by your own mind. And if that’s true, why can’t your mind construct something different?

A handful of studies have suggested that lucid dreaming is an effective way to treat those haunted by chronic nightmares, including those brought on by posttraumatic stress. This is very early days in terms of research, cautioned Adhip Rawal, a psychologist at the University of Sussex who this summer wrote a piece for the Conversation on lucid dreaming and emotional healing. Still, the results are “promising,” he said. The process is similar to what’s known as dream incubation — that is, rehearsing a scene in your mind during the day so that at night it will appear in your dreams. This typically involves things like “thinking of an alternate ending [to the dream] at the moment when the attacker appears, or the fire breaks out, or whatever,” Barrett said. “How would you like things to happen differently?” Imagine the scene often enough when you’re awake, and you’ll know your plan well enough to execute it in your sleep, or so goes the theory.

Beyond nightmares, another branch of the research suggests that you can use lucid dreaming to improve your performance on certain tasks in your waking hours. Again, there are not yet many studies here. But the ones that exist have found that if people become lucid enough in their dreams so that they are able to practice some specific task — in one experiment, that was tossing a coin into a coffee mug — they’ll get better at that task when they’re awake. “It has been well established that athletes who mentally rehearse an activity can improve their performance,” Daniel Erlacher, who studies exercise science at the University of Bern, has said of his research, “and it makes sense that dreams can achieve the same effect.”

The idea that lucid dreaming may have therapeutic potential seems a bit woo-woo, to put it mildly. And yet, to Rawal, findings like these are not so surprising, as they tap into two of the most prominent theories concerning the purpose of dreaming: one, that dreams function as a kind of dress rehearsal for the waking hours. “We dream about things that could be a potential physical or social threat to us in our waking life,” he said. “And dreaming about them helps us deal with them when they actually come around in waking life.”

And two, that dreams help us with emotional processing. “What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are,” University of Cambridge social psychologist Sander van der Linden wrote in 2011 for Scientific American. “Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfils an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety.”

If you have spent the past year having nightmares about Zika or Donald Trump, it’s for good reason: When your dreams delve into your fears, you’re better able to face them when you’re awake. “Emotions are the central stuff that dreams are made of,” Rawal said. “And dreaming about emotional stuff helps us work these things through.” This is true in lucid dreams, yes, but in regular dreams, too. “So the lucid-dreaming aspect is really just something that would follow from something that we know already,” he continued. “Maybe, when this natural process of emotional processing in dreams isn’t working — maybe we can rectify that by bringing awareness to the dream, and then be able to consciously influence how we want to process that material we find in dreams.” If your dreams aren’t helping you deal with your social anxiety, to refer to one real example, perhaps if you seized control of the narrative, they would.

It makes sense, in theory. The real trick, then, may be turning the theoretical into the practical, by teaching people to lucid dream. Theories abound, but the most effective strategy seems to be to make a habit of asking yourself periodically during the day some version of, Am I dreaming? “Take this question very seriously,” Barrett said. Does anything about your surroundings, or yourself, appear a little off? “Just entertain the idea, and try to figure out if there is anything odd or dreamlike or not likely going on — something that might indicate this is not waking life,” she added.

It’s also worth coming up with some consistent, testable check-in, she said. You may recall the spinning top Leonardo DiCaprio’s character used in Inception, which wouldn’t function properly if he was in someone else’s dream. This is (kind of) the same idea. Certain mundane real-life things — especially, for some reason, light switches and timepieces — tend to behave strangely in dreams. Flip on a light in a dream, and music may start to play; check the time on your smartphone, and it might read 90:90. If you start checking these things several times a day when you’re awake, that habit will carry over into your dream (as any new or learned behavior tends to do); with any luck, when you notice the second hand on a clock circling furiously backward, you’ll realize you’re in a dream.

Rawal believes that almost anyone can at least improve their capacity to become aware within their dreams; other researchers, including Barrett, are more skeptical. Lucid dreaming is a difficult thing to master, something that is becoming clearer the more neuroscientists learn about what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming (non-lucid and lucid alike). The midbrain areas, which are associated with memory, are fairly active when you are dreaming. But the prefrontal cortex is quieter than it is when you’re awake. That’s important, Barrett said, because this is the region that’s responsible for much of the thinkier thinking that we do: reasoning, planning, and moderating our behavior. We need this part of the brain to alert us to oddities in our environment, Barrett explained, and it’s not clear yet that everyone can be taught to override that natural brain functioning in order to lucid dream.

But for those who can be taught to lucid dream — and studies are beginning to suggest that some people can indeed learn — this may turn out to be an effective treatment, either by itself or in tandem with other therapeutic methods. Really, it’s a matter of the psychological community catching up to something that some people are already doing. Rawal has interviewed people who were terrified of spiders, for instance, who learned to lucid dream about their fear. “Eventually, when they are confident enough to approach spiders in their dreams, they can start manipulating the size of the spiders,” he said. “Then it becomes a playful relationship, almost — that changes the relationship to the thing in the dream, and it can change the relationship to the thing when they’re awake.”

A (former) arachnophobe named Rebecca Turner tells a similar story in an online forum. “I said out loud ‘you’re a cartoon,’ and watched the spider animate into a much less scarier figure,” she writes. “I felt relieved and empowered … In later dreams, I asked spiders, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘What do you want?’ Sometimes their answers were helpful. Other times, they were nonsensical.” Either way, she said, it worked. “Ever since,” Turner continued, “I have felt different about spiders in real life.” Perhaps the divide between dreams and reality is more navigable than we think.