Dream more, stress less

A person’s unconscious dream state in a way reflects a movie theatre. It provides a front row seat to the most bizarre pieces of a person’s imagination and memory bank, and displays multiple screen productions per night that perhaps should be upgraded to gold class seats next time through Lucid dreaming.

Its proponents claim learning to lucid dream allows someone to control the content of their dreams so they’re essentially awake while being asleep. They say as the world adjusts to life in a pandemic, this practice could be an antidote to many of the stresses and pressures created by COVID-19.

Society’s fascination with dreams goes back to ancient times, with people in Greece and Egypt seeing them as messages from deceased loved ones or their God of what the future would entail.

Further along in the timeline of life, Aristotle was one of the first to believe that dreams were directly related to a person’s woken experiences. Which was further expanded on with theories and studies by Sigmund Freud who saw dreams as being created directly from the brain, saying “deeper research will one day trace the path further and discover an organic basis for the mental event.”

Modern day understanding of dreams and their function has come a long way since ancient times. It is understood that a person’s most vivid dreams that are easily remembered take place during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of a person’s sleep, with these phases occurring multiple times throughout the night.

During this time, the only muscles that can move are the ocular muscles, allowing for the eyes to shift position and the diaphragm to allow for breathing. It is believed that the body paralyses itself to prevent people from acting out their dreams. 

Jane Teresa Anderson, from Tasmania, is a dream analyst and author who has been helping clients understand themselves through the interpretation of their dreams for more than 29 years. She has explored and researched the importance of dreams for human function.

“Everybody dreams, but not everybody remembers their dreams. The way that we know this is that if you do an experiment with animals and you give them the full amount of sleep in a sleep lab, but you stop them from dreaming, then those animals get sick and die, which is the reason why the experiments aren’t carried through with humans,” she said.

“If you disrupt a human being’s sleep for a couple of nights by allowing them to have eight hours, but just stopping them dream, they begin to become physiologically disrupted and emotionally uncomfortable.”

Dreams place a crucial role in processing the events and emotions of a person’s last 48 hours, without them, the brain would be detrimentally impacted. It allows people to deal with traumatic and upsetting experiences in the comfort of their unconscious state.

Audio: Jennifer Gautier

Since COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019, people’s lives around the world were changed forever, including their dreams. The pandemic has seen the loss of family, friends, jobs, and an extensive time spent in lockdown, with a lot of people experiencing it alone.

All these life changing aspects have resulted in a change in people’s dream state, which has been documented on a website named ‘I dream of COVID’. It is a platform on which people from all different countries could anonymously submit the ‘peculiar’ dreams they had been having due to the sudden switch of lifestyle the pandemic had brought about. 

The site was created as its founder recalled a dream that exhibited people social distancing with no handshaking and thought that it hadn’t taken long for the change of the world to change their dreams. 

The stories published on the site shared aspects of forgetting masks, social distancing and being isolated. Creating lonely and fearful dreams, and nightmares from the new everyday stresses and anxieties that people were facing.

It’s been well documented in sleep studies – such as the one published in Frontiers of Psychology that looks into how lucid dreaming can be used to assist nightmares in PTSD patient – that those experiencing stress in everyday life in turn have a higher number of negative emotions that show up in their dreams. Resulting in escalated anxiety levels once woken.

It’s against human nature to not socialise with others and be so restricted from the outside world.

“The pandemic has triggered high emotions and feelings, so one of the things that contributes most to vivid dreams is experiencing vivid emotion during daytime,” Anderson says.

With dreams being impacted by COVID stresses, dreaming can also be used to control these stresses. This takes the nightly occurrence of bizarre imagery to the next level with lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming can happen on accident or be done on purpose. There are many different methods on how to achieve lucidity in your dreams, with the most common method being the ‘wake-back-to-bed’ technique.

This is where the dreamer sets their alarm usually about two hours before they would normally would and focus on a task for five minutes, whether its reading or folding clothes. Then going back to sleep straight afterwards. This sudden awakening, along with a set focus right before falling back to sleep will wake the brain and assist with the likelihood of becoming Lucid

Infographic: Jennifer Gautier

For lucid dreamer Beck Bertoncin, from Perth, he achieves this state by trying to stay completely relaxed before falling asleep.

“I kind of just lay in bed and I’ve found if I keep my eyes open and just lay as still as possible for as long as I can, I just end up falling into it and falling asleep by myself. But my eyes stay open, and I feel, the moment I I’ve kicked into it, I feel like I sink slower and deeper into my mattress and my bed and I kinda of feel like it’s hugging me a bit,” he says.

Lucid dreaming has become a way for people to live out their most desired experiences that are most likely to never happen. For Beck this was performing at a festival.

“My favourite experience I was on a main stage at a popular festival called ‘rolling loud’ in Miami America and I was performing with my favourite artist ‘juice WRLD’ and I just remember going back and forth, lyric for lyric, bar for bar, the whole time. I could control what I did, I could feel the whole crowd, I could feel the ground shaking with every time they jumped.”

Being able to control a dream to ‘live’ out your imagination has become a type of therapy for those suffering with nightmare disorders. With it becoming a way to reprogram frightening story lines that impact peoples quality of sleep and emotions during their waking day.

“You’re reprogramming your unconscious mind, you’re rewiring your brain, and you’re changing your programming from something that previously stressed you into dealing with it,” Anderson says.

This process is called lucid dreaming therapy and has been taught to patients who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a study conducted by the Institute for Consciousness and Dream Research it was found the 80 per cent of those suffering with PTSD suffered greatly with nightmares that had adverse effects on their waking life.

In this study the patients were taught techniques on how to achieve lucidity while asleep to be able to change the negative occurrences of their dreams into a productive way of solving the stressful situation.

Lucid dreaming therapy has shown to be favourable over one of the most common treatment for nightmares known as image rehearsal therapy. This is where a patient works with a therapist to change the ending of reoccurring nightmares through the discussion of a positive outcome to the experience rather than letting the nightmare continue its own accord.

According to a study published in Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, this is due to lucid dreaming therapy being a skill that once taught and achieved, no external support is needed to change the trajectory of the dream. It’s a completely solo experience.

At the end of the study, those who managed to achieve lucidity to change the course of their dreams showed a significant decrease in depression and anxiety levels, producing calmed and more relaxed dreams. This in turn, produced a more positive experience when awake.

Lucid dreaming has been found as an effective way decrease anxiety levels. Image: Wikimedia.

Implementing lucid dreaming to give people a desirable experience could help those suffering with the stresses of covid, making the stress of losing a loved one or spending isolation alone that bit more bearable.

Although not everyone agrees with the process of Lucid dreaming. Dean Creed, a dream analyst, guide and interpreter from Perth, has warned against the practice of lucid dreaming saying it is a natural process that should not be interfered with, saying dreaming, like pregnancy, needs to be left alone.

“Pregnancy, it’s a miracle, we don’t go in during the nine months and change gene code and alter things and say no, we can select stuff and screen it. It’s all an unconscious process, the miracle unfolds over nine months, and then a profound human being is born very much the same with what we call the self, or the unconscious, it is a process within us,” he says.

Creed believes dreams and their content happen for a reason and altering such a state doesn’t allow for the natural process to occur that’s essential for human health.

However, Jane Anderson believes the process of dreams is necessary but if there is a healthy balance between lucidity and the natural dream state, no real harm can be done if the lucidity is for a healing process and not completely recreational.

“It’s about processing your recent experiences, updating your mindset, trying to make sense of your world. It is a natural process that needs to be complete. So, if you keep interrupting it, to become lucid to say, ‘I’m going to fly’, you’re interrupting that natural process that needs to take place,” she says.

“So, you’re not completing what needs to be completed for your emotional or mental stability. If you know what you’re doing, you know, being able to do the dream alchemy in your dream, you know, reprogram your brain, that’s okay, because you’re jumping into it knowing what the dream is about. I’m going to use this as a healing space and I’m going to do some good work here.”

Mr Bertoncin describes lucid dreaming as an effective way to have a more positive experience throughout the waking day.

“I usually just wake up generally happier and more relaxed. It’s like waking up on the right side of the bed, you just kinda get on with your day, everything just kind of has a kick on it, focus on the better things in the day rather than the worse, it’s just a good start I guess,” he says.

Audio: Jennifer Gautier

Lucid dreaming can ease the stresses of life and allow for the exploration of a person’s imagination, which in turn can lead to a burst in creativity.

A study conducted by The Journal of Positive Psychology found when young adults participated in an increased number of creative activities, there was a positive correlation with their rate of happiness that lasted for numerous days

Hanin Shaqsi is a pop surrealism artist based in Muscat, Oman whose paintings are inspired by her imaginations, lucid dreams, and nightmares.

“I don’t specifically remember my first lucid dream, but it was probably when I was a child. I wasn’t that aware of it until later in life. Whenever I dream of them, I feel like I’m experiencing them in real life,” she says.

“For me, there are times when it becomes too intense to the point, I doubt that there is some message behind it. I had a bad experience with it. For example, the dreams where ghosts are running behind me. They’re the hardest one’s because I could not wake up that easily. I usually dream about me wandering in cities or flying over them.”

“I had this painting called ‘Dimensional Renaissance’. It’s a continued series of my previous paintings, but the concept of it developed when I had a dream of me hiding in a cloud trying to escape a villain. To me, my dreams and some modern artists of surrealism inspired me to create my own pieces,” she said.

Lucid dreaming can be a way for people to explore their creative side. Image: Hanin Shaqsi.

With the pandemic not looking like it will end anytime soon, the stresses of an isolated life will only continue for many around the world. Despite there being a lot more to learn about lucid dreaming, it may possibly be the answer some people are looking for to deal with their COVID-related anxieties and could create a sense of hope and happiness that the world now needs more than ever.

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