“There’s nothing more self-defeating than dreaming you can’t fall asleep.” ~M.L., oneironaut, on sleep-state misperception
Being awake when you are supposed to be asleep does not have to be a negative experience. Those prone to insomnia often dread going to bed, ruminate on the fact that they are not sleeping, and worry about how fatigue will affect their functioning the next day. The interpretation of our sleeplessness often contributes to a cycle of negative thoughts and actions that worsen insomnia. Since sleep medications are not optimal, treatment providers face the challenge of helping their patients weaken their negative biases toward sleep, develop healthier sleep patterns, and find the motivation to change their habits. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is the gold standard, non-drug treatment that can be very effective, but it may not resolve insomnia for everyone. For some, an alternative approach may be found in lucid dreaming therapies.
What makes lucid dreams (LDs) exceptionally unique from typical dreaming is that the dreamer is explicitly cognizant of dreaming while dreaming. This awareness allows you to make a deliberate choice in what you dream about, which can make lucid dreaming highly rewarding and motivating. Though someone with insomnia interprets wakefulness at night as dreadful or at minimum inconvenient, skillful lucid dreamers know that nighttime wakefulness is an opportunity to hone the art of lucid dreaming. Not only do lucid dreamers welcome wakefulness at night, they sometimes deliberately induce it to improve their chance of lucid dreaming when returning to sleep.
Lucid dreaming theoretically may be able to assist the insomnia-prone in a (i) by reframing wakefulness at night to be a more positive or useful experience, or (ii) by increasing motivation to learn skills that are conducive to lucidity and reducing insomnia. Below is a practical take on how lucid dreaming might provide a path toward healthier sleep.
Look Forward to Nocturnal Wakefulness
Insomnia breeds negative judgments about the fact that we are supposed to be asleep, which perpetuates stress and sleeplessness. Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, can foster a much more positive attitude toward the night. The experience of going to bed can become one to look forward to. Instead, reframe any periods of wakefulness as an opportunity to practice lucid dreaming skills. Here are a few examples of how being awake at night may not be so bad after all:
In behavioral treatments of insomnia, it is recommended to get out of bed when unable to sleep, and engage in a quiet wakeful activity like reading—until sleepy enough to return to bed. This is done to reduce the conditioning that takes place in which we subconsciously associate the bed with wakefulness rather than rest—also known as conditioned arousal.
Periods of planned or spontaneous sleep interruption are known to assist in having lucid dreams. Some people call this technique, Wake-Back-to-Bed. Researcher Stephen LaBerge has found that a period of sleep interruption increases the odds of becoming lucid (See An hour of wakefulness makes lucidity more likely when combined with mental techniques), which has been replicated in other studies. To practice the sleep interruption technique:
Awaken after about 3-4 REM periods (roughly 4.5 or 6 hours of sleep).
Stay awake for about 30 minutes engaged in a quiet activity (e.g. reading).
Return to sleep with the intention to become lucid.
Sleep Interruption shares features of stimulus control techniques, such as getting out of bed when unable to sleep and performing a mildly engaging activity like reading a magazine. For lucid dreamers, it is usually recommended they read about lucid dreaming, journal their dreams, practice
MILD, or engage in other tools that promote lucidity and restful sleep.
Remembering dreams is a prerequisite skill for lucid dreaming. For those struggling with insomnia, a more positive interpretation of sleeplessness might be to reframe awakenings in the middle of the night as an opportunity to recall and/or record dreams. The act of engaging in a constructive and potentially pleasant activity during awakenings is incompatible with the mental rumination that usually occurs when we are not asleep at night. Similar to the stimulus control recommendations (getting out of bed when unable to sleep), recording dreams may offer a mildly engaging activity to perform during that time, or perhaps even one to look forward to.
Read other tips on dream recall here.
MILD technique for inducing lucid dreams can be practiced anytime, but can have more impact if practiced during awakenings of the night when you are close to REM sleep.
At bedtime, set the intention to become lucid in dreams of the night, and remember dreams upon waking.
Upon waking, memorize the dream, and practice the 3 ‘R’s:
RESCRIPT: Rescript the dream you just woke from as if you recognized you were dreaming. Don’t forget details such as what made you realize you were dreaming, and how you responded to the dream more lucidly. Try to make the new version of the dream have a better outcome.
REHEARSE: Put yourself in a relaxed state, and visualize yourself back in the dream. Rehearse the rescripted version of the dream in your mind. This is sometimes called re-dreaming.
REMIND: Before returning to sleep, remind yourself to remember you are dreaming during your next dream.
Again, such techniques are incompatible with the mental rumination that characterizes insomnia, and reframes the experience of being awake as positive or useful. MILD is one of the most important, if not the most effective, techniques for inducing lucid dreaming. We are more likely to succeed at prospective memory tasks (aka remembering to remember we are dreaming) when the opportunity is close at hand. When combined with insomnia management strategies, the next dream might occur sooner than you would think.
Wake Initiated Lucid Dreaming (WILD)
Wake Initiated Lucid Dreaming (WILD) differs from typical lucid dreams in which we become lucid during a dream that is already in progress. During WILD, lucidity is maintained through the transition from waking to sleeping. It is a fascinating experience to consciously witness the body fall asleep. An experience mostly known to adept yogis from ancient worlds is in fact accessible to the modern West. Middle-of-the-night awakenings present an opportunity for those with insomnia to implement practical tools conducive to WILD, let alone reducing insomnia. Some inter-related tools include:
Relaxation: Behavioral treatments for insomnia often include skill teaching for deep relaxation, self-hypnosis, Yoga Nidra, and visualization. All of these are tools are useful within a lucid dreaming practice, particularly WILD techniques. 61-point relaxation, in particular, is known to have trance-inducing properties leading to falling asleep. The tool is good for beginners who are prone to distraction during typical meditation.
Mindfulness: Mindful awareness involves learning to be aware of present experiences without judging them as good or bad. This open and observant attitude is useful for inducing WILD and coping with the sometimes bizarre or uncomfortable, sensory experiences that interfere with lucidity in wake-to-REM sleep transitions. Mindfulness also shows evidence in combatting insomnia. The opportunity for lucid dreaming could also help to motivate the learning and application of mindfulness skills. Additionally, lucid dreaming and practicing WILD techniques can enhance mindfulness. Many avenues of learning mindfulness strategies are available to the public.
Meditation: Meditating on the present moment or other objects of attention can assist in falling asleep. Popular meditations that contribute to falling asleep and WILD include the Body Scan, counting, or observing hypnagogic imagery, though many other techniques exist. In Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga, some meditation practices involve being lucid in other stages of sleep through out the night, not just during the vivid, story-like dream states commonly associated with REM sleep.
Recognizing Sleep State Misperception: A contributor to insomnia is a state known as paradoxical insomnia, or formerly as sleep-state misperception. This is when you believe you are or have been awake, when you've objectively been asleep. Sleep state misperception commonly occurs in stage 1 'light' sleep when you have awareness of your body in bed and your mind active and thinking, yet you are still in light sleep albeit misperceiving your state. The stress of believing you're not sleeping can contribute to more arousals over the night. Insomnia-prone individuals tend to have more hypervigilance at night, but this vigilance may actuallbe a characteristic that helps them correctly identify not just when they are asleep, but also when they are dreaming (or close to dreaming). Moreover, sleep-state misperception is an interfering factor in WILD techniques, as I've discussed here. Learning to recognize variations in consciousness during sleep could dually target insomnia and lucidity induction by finding the right balance between the vigilance needed for lucidity and hypervigilance contributing to insomnia.
To learn more about WILDs, see Chapter 4: Falling Asleep Consciously in Stephen Laberge’s book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990).
Lucid dreaming is a platform for experiencing more beauty, positive emotions, and fulfillment. It is useful in overcoming nightmares and resolving unconscious conflicts that contribute to insomnia. In addition to being an adaptive response to insomnia, lucid dreaming encourages practicing the art of re-scripting and re-dreaming when awakening from nightmares or unpleasant dreams, which is part of an evidence-based treatment for relieving stressful dreaming (Imagery Rehearsal Therapy) and the MILD technique. Many practices associated with developing a lucid dreaming practice promote the learning of healthier behaviors that can generalize to waking life, reduce stress, and by extension, improve insomnia (See Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, by LaBerge & Rheingold, 1990).
While there is overlap between lucidity induction tools and CBT for insomnia, lucid dreaming is not yet established as an insomnia treatment and could exacerbate insomnia. Still, the heightened vigilance and wakefulness of those with insomnia are qualities that can aid lucid dreaming. For some, learning lucid dreaming may give novel tools to better manuever between wake-to-sleep transitions and reframe the stress of the night as a positive opportunity to explore consciousness.
Insomnia treatment and Cognitive Behavior Therapy for insomnia are best learned with the assistance of a trained professional.
Standard sleep hygiene guidelines can be found here: Healthy Sleeping Tips.
The Veterans Administration has developed a helpful mobile application to assist learning of sleep promoting tools. See CBT-I Coach for more information.