Becoming lucidly aware while dreaming is probably the most effective way of escaping from nightmares. In fact, many of my early lucid dreams arose from moments of sheer terror in a nightmare, which triggered my conscious brain to think: hang on, what on Earth is going on here? I must be dreaming!
Knowing that I now had control of the dream, I then had two options. I could either take the short cut and shout "WAKE UP!" - or I could confront the source of my fear and figure out the meaning of the nightmare in real time. At first I took the short cut but as I built more confidence I began to question my nightmare figures and learn some really insightful things about my unconscious.
In this article I'll explain the best way for beginners (including children) to become lucid in their nightmares and take control of that evil bogeyman. You'll soon learn that nightmares are actually a very handy backdoor to lucid dreaming, and that the nightmares figures themselves provide an excellent opportunity for some self-psychotherapy, in order to heal real life fears and anxieties.
In the West, the meaning of nightmares is to reveal our darkest inner fears in literal and symbolic forms. We all deal with them at some time in our lives, but few people consider lucid dreaming to escape from nightmares.
The most common nightmare is the classic fear of being chased - either by a monster, witch, demon, vampire, madman or other fearful entity. According to dream analysis this reveals our evolutionary fear of being hunted by the wild predators from our ancient past.
Other nightmare themes include the death of loved ones, falling, being physically injured, creepy crawlies, and being trapped. Some people experience recurring nightmares which signifies an ongoing psychological issue. Fortunately, lucid dreaming offers the perfect platform for dealing with recurring nightmares.
You are more likely to suffer from nightmares when you are:
Drinking alcohol takes its toll by suppressing all REM sleep for the first few hours of the night. By the time the alcohol wears off, you begin your REM-rebound, with vivid dreams that are more emotionally intense than usual. This can lead to nightmares if you have any particular issues making you feel anxious.
Certain medications can also increase nightmares, such as L-dopa for Parkinson's Disease, and beta blockers for heart conditions. However they may also raise dream intensity, which causes greater self-awareness and lucid dreams.
Since I began lucid dreaming, I've learned some good ways to deal with nightmares. The first step means becoming lucid - so that you can think clearly in the dream and apply some conscious logic. For adults and children alike, the best way to do this is ask yourself if you are dreaming during the waking day. This is called a reality check. In particular, check your reality when unexpected things happen or when you feel particularly emotionally charged or fearful.
Another way to increase your self-awareness in dreams is to become highly self-aware during the day. Look at your hands right now. Examine the skin in detail, see all the tiny little hairs and indentations. Rub your fingers together and pay attention to the sensation it creates. You have now intensified your awareness of your hands. Do this with other things; appreciating the space around you and in particular how you interact with it. You will be able to perform this same task when lucid in a dream, and the richness of the dream reality may be shocking.
Next time you are experiencing a nightmare, you are much more likely to have a sudden jolt of self-awareness. You'll question the reality of the dream and with that comes instant lucidity. Your senses will become supercharged and the dreamworld will intensify and become much more lifelike. (If you only become semi-lucid, try these techniques to increase your lucidity.)
Now you have two options to escape from your nightmare:
Note that confronting a nightmare figure doesn't stop you from having nightmares ever again - but it does last to rest the issue at hand.
In facing my fears, each nightmare-turned-lucid-dream became a personal triumph and nurtured a healthy mentality of dealing with anxiety. To show you the outcome of such events, here are two real life examples of lucidly escaping from nightmares.
I'm running around an old, dark house with a group of young children who I feel I must protect. We're being chased by an ugly vampirish creature with long fingernails and gray skin. Every time he catches up with us, he smiles at me sickeningly and then another child goes missing.
We keep running away but the walls keep moving, creating small hiding places but then exposing us again to the monster. At last, we find a safe hiding place under a dusty old bed. With some relief, it occurs to me that now it's morning and daylight is streaming in. I climb out and dust myself down, remembering how vampires can't come out in daylight. Then I suddenly realize: I'm dreaming!
I move into a bright room and there he is, standing awkwardly, like he is embarrassed about the whole thing. I realize I have absolutely nothing to fear, elated that I'm lucid dreaming.
I float through a big window, laughing at him and his stupid chasing game and he looks ashamed. He doesn't even try to follow me this time. I float out into the sunlight and begin my lucid adventure.
I'm walking down a hallway with my dad when a dark pointy figure grabs me by my ankles and flings me down the hall. My body smashes hard against the wall. The creature marches over, picks me up and does it again. I feel sharp pain and am terrified. But the fear is so intense, I realize I must be dreaming.
I don't waste any time. I march up to the silhouette man and grab him by the shoulders. "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME!" I shout. His aggression immediately turns to sadness and childish frustration. "I can't reconcile this," he says, shoving a notepad in my hands. He has scrawled the words "be loved, love yourself" referring to a philosophical debate I had been having earlier that day: Is it more important to love yourself, or be loved by someone else?
Clearly, my conclusion was at odds with my unconscious. There was absolutely no symbolism required. My inner child was acting out with a massive tantrum - and demanded my attention. Yet it is only when lucid that I have the opportunity to resolve such issues face-to-face.
Instead of fearing the pointy figure or wanting to banish him, I now feel empathy for him. He hasn't understood. So I explain my reasons as if he is a child. Draining away both physically and emotionally, the creature leaves and I wake up in awe of the childish element that arose from my unconscious self.
Escaping from nightmares is actually how a lot of children and teenagers begin lucid dreaming naturally. It is the emotional intensity of the dream that can trigger lucidity, and from there the lucid dream world is your oyster...
So keep practicing reality checks and raising your self-awareness. Next time you have a nightmare it could yield a very pleasant surprise. And if you can, have the courage to confront your nightmare figure - it is a wasted opportunity not to!