A recent study offers evidence that lucid dreaming may be an effective tool for overcoming irrational phobias. Just under half of participants who confronted a fear through lucid dreaming reported a reduction in fear after awakening. The findings are set to be published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
During a lucid dream, a person becomes aware that they are dreaming and may even be able to influence the course of their dream. Lucid dreaming has been scientifically studied in the lab and tends to occur during REM sleep, the stage of the sleep cycle associated with rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming.
Psychology studies have suggested that this type of dreaming can be used for therapeutic purposes, for example, to reduce the occurrence of nightmares and improve sleep quality. The researchers behind the new study wanted to investigate whether lucid dreaming might be helpful for treating fears and phobias that are unrelated to dreams. Within a lucid dream, a person can explore a frightening situation from the physical world while remaining in a safe environment.
“We study everything related to phase states like sleep paralysis, lucid dreams, false awakenings, etc,” said study author Michael Raduga, the founder of the Phase Research Center. “One of the main goals is to research its application opportunities. Many lucid dreaming practitioners report overcoming fears and even phobias due to their practice, and we decided to know more about it.
For their study, Raduga and his co-authors recruited an online sample of 76 people who were familiar with lucid dreaming. These subjects were asked to induce a lucid dream and then to confront an object of their fear within the dream. The participants reported their level of fear before the dream and during the dream. After waking up, they indicated whether their level of fear increased, decreased, or stayed the same compared to before their lucid dream.
The researchers were able to analyze reports from 55 participants. These results indicated that most participants’ initial fear levels were high, with 71% reporting strong fear before the lucid dreaming. Upon waking up, 51% of participants reported that their fear stayed the same, and 49% reported that their fear decreased. Notably, none of the participants said that their fear had increased after the dreaming.
Before conducting their study, the researchers had hypothesized that the intensity of the fear experienced prior to the dream would have an impact on fear reduction. They explain that “the target emotion must be felt clearly for a psychotherapeutic effect to occur.” The results supported this hypothesis, revealing that greater fear before the lucid dream was associated with a higher likelihood of decreased fear upon awakening. Of participants who reported strong fear before the dream, 62% reported decreased fear after waking up. Of those who reported low/average fear before the dream, only 25% reported decreased fear after awakening.
“If a person has phobias, which make them suffer, it is possible to get rid of the problem while being asleep,” Raduga told PsyPost. “The easiest way is to learn how to induce lucid dreams and then deliberately encounter the source of the fear in there.”
Participants’ change in fear was not associated with their level of fear during the dream, their gender, their experience with lucid dreaming, their method of inducing the lucid dream, or the way they came out of the dream (e.g., awakening because of a sound, deliberately waking up).
Since lucid dreaming occurs with rapid eye movement, the practice calls to mind a therapy technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This therapy focuses on treating negative thoughts and feelings that are tied to unprocessed memories while repeatedly moving the eyes in a specific way. The study authors say that future research should explore this potential association between EMDR and lucid dreaming.
“More studies are needed in this direction, because we made just a glimpse in the direction of overcoming phobias,” Raduga said. “We didn’t encounter any negative issues during the study, but it doesn’t mean they did not exist. We must find all of them. Also to induce lucid dreams, some knowledge is needed. So it’s not easy to achieve a similar result in general.”
Overall, the findings suggest that lucid dreaming has potential therapeutic effects concerning the treatment of phobias, especially if the phobia is intense. Since the level of fear experienced during the dream was not found to affect participants’ fear reduction after awakening, this suggests that the precise act of confronting one’s fear is what is important. The authors propose that future experiments on this topic might ask participants to communicate with their fear upon encountering it in the dream.
“In the future, we’re anticipating many similar studies from other research groups,” Raduga said. “It will help all of as to know more about lucid dreaming application areas. Probably, many other psychological problems could be solved in the dream world.”
The study, “Overcoming phobias by lucid dreaming”, was authored by Zhanna Zhunusova, Michael Raduga, and Andrey Shashkov.