Q. I sometimes spontaneously lucid dream. They are usually short-lived, but fun so I want to have more of them. The problem is I've read a few times that lucid dreaming can have a bad effect on certain mental health conditions. I want to know more because I have occasional episodes of derealization and depersonalization. Does my experience seem like a potential problem to you?”
A. By and large, lucid dreaming is a safe, natural experience had by many. But you might be curious about the challenges that can emerge if you embark on a lucid dreaming journey given your personal mental health.
While lucid dreaming has therapeutic potential, there may be some mental conditions that are exacerbated by practicing lucid dreaming. But even if a mental diagnosis is theorized to have more risks, that does not mean that everyone who has that condition will experience negative side effects and should be excluded from practicing it. It really depends on the individual.
Talking with the doctor who manages your condition can help you determine if you should pursue lucid dreaming with more vigor.
This article is not intended as medical advice, but offers a few things you can think about with your doctor or therapist.
What is derealization-depersonalization?
Derealization is a sense of unreality. As if the things or people around you are not real.
Depersonalization is a sense that you, yourself, or your body are not real, or as if you are an outside rather than first-person observer of your experiences.
Derealization and depersonalization are complex psychological constructs with positive and negative dimensions.
The field of psychiatry, of course, emphasizes their negative dimensions, as these dissociative symptoms can be severely disturbing and disruptive in some illnesses (e.g., trauma, dissociative disorders, psychosis, substance abuse). Derealization-depersonalization is also experienced by otherwise healthy people, for instance, in times of stress or after spending too much time in alternative realities (e.g., virtual reality, gaming). If you regularly have these experiences, it's important to seek treatment and monitoring.
But some dimensions of derealization-depersonalization are not necessarily bad. In fact, some even seek to cultivate these qualities of mind during meditative, spiritual, lucid dreaming and self-help activities.
For example, perceptually disconnecting from your body may be a precursor for higher, transcendent states of consciousness in meditation. The Tibetan yoga traditions teach how to recognize the illusory or dream-like nature of the world in an advanced spiritual practice called illusory form. Modern day mindfulness therapies teach how to detach from troubling thoughts and feelings to soften their impact on you—sometimes called defusing or decentering. To dereify (to make less real of) events or parts of your self can help you let go of attachments that cause suffering, or let go of pieces of your identity that aren’t serving you well (For instance, the feeling of anger, or taking what other people say too personally). These are just a sampling of sought after qualities overlapping with derealized-depersonalized mind states.
Is lucid dreaming a dissociated state?
Dissociation is usually referring to a mental state in which we disconnect from what is happening around us. Experiences can range from normal (zoning out during a class lecture) to highly pathological (flashbacks of a post-traumatic stress disorder). Dissociation can be adaptive in ensuring survival during traumatic experiences. It also has the short-term benefit of "numbing" intense emotions, albeit this can interfere with emotional processing in the long-run.
Perception while nonlucid dreaming is also disconnected from physical reality. Theoretically, you could characterize sleep and ordinary (nonlucid) dreaming as a state of dissociation, but this would be a healthy, natural detachment from external reality that aids new learning, memory function, and restoring balance in our minds and bodies.
Becoming lucid, however, is realizing you are in the dream state and that your real body is safely asleep in bed. This form of meta-cognizance would lessen any alleged dissociative features of nonlucid REM sleep. Why?
Recognizing your state means you are more in touch with reality, not less.
While some authors have argued (poorly) that dissociation is a core feature of lucidity, they miss this point, and so far, they’ve failed to address the research problems pointed out by their peers on this topic.
In other words, dissociation is NOT a distinguishing feature of lucid dreaming. Rather, the basis of lucidity is recognizing one’s current state of mind. If you don’t have the explicit insight that you’re dreaming, then you’re not lucid.
How is lucid dreaming related to derealization-depersonalization?
Lucid dreaming overlaps with positive dimensions of derealization-depersonalization.
When fully lucid, …
… you know you are in a dream state, not the real physical world.
… you know your body is a dream body. Nothing more than a mental construction or image.
… you know another person is merely a dream character. Just a mental model of a person.
This level of accessibility to memory, identity, and self-reflection in lucid dreams is the opposite of what typically occurs during pathological states of disocciation.
Furthermore, when lucid, you are in a detached, observing state of awareness. You detach from the realness of the nonlucid dream narrative, and instead connect with knowing your state—what LaBerge calls reference-to-state. A detached, observing quality of mind enhances self-reflection, self-regulation, and decision-making abilities. Cultivating this quality is similarly pursued by meditators. It also has an empirical basis in mindfulness therapy frameworks for treating a variety of mental health conditions.
The mindfulness concept of detachment is sometimes incorrectly confused with dissociation. A detached, observing perspective helps you connect more with what’s really happening so you can respond most adaptively. In contrast, dissociation is a disconnection from reality that causes impairment. Lucidity is associated with the former, not the latter.
Can lucid dreaming worsen derealization-depersonalization?
Research is lacking on this question, but it’s possible lucid dreaming could lead to increasing derealization-depersonalization in ways that are problematic, particularly if you already experience these symptoms or have a history of disconnecting from reality in harmful ways (e.g. mania, psychosis, substance abuse). As dissociative symptoms can worsen with a lack of sleep, you will also want to make sure that over-practicing does not interfere with getting healthy amounts of sleep.
You should also be aware that lucid dreaming tends to co-occur with a variety of anomalous experiences—some of which include the perception of being outside your body. Out-of-body experiences (OBEs), where your focal point of perception dislocates from where it usually is, can occur in lucid and non-lucid dreams. For example you might dream you have a twin body, or that you have a bodiless, bird‘s eye view of a scene. OBEs tend to be reported more often by lucid dream seekers, especially when pursuing wake-initiated lucid dreams or WILDs. Some people purposefully induce OBEs in lucid dreams to access the transcendent aspects of derealized-depersonalized states, but it’s possible OBEs and other related experiences of lucid dreaming can destabilize perception in ways that'd cause difficulties for certain, vulnerable individuals.
Conversely, stretching your perception of reality may be just what's needed to replace unhelpful mental models for relating to the world with healthier ones.
Depending on the source of your symptoms, lucid dreaming might help you better manage the stress that exacerbates your dissociative symptoms in the first place. A sense of safety and psychological flexibility are intrinsically tied to lucid dreaming, freeing you to practice relating with reality more creatively. If derealization symptoms are trauma-related, lucid dreaming can help you overcome old fears and hurts, transform nightmares, and safely rehearse effective responses to trauma triggers. If your symptoms are due to a residual psychosis condition, lucid dreaming could possibly accentuate the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention of reality testing, giving you new tools for having insights into the true nature of your experience.
One more consideration is that if you already have spontaneous lucid dreams, and you haven’t noticed it worsened your symptoms yet, this could be a sign that your mind is perfectly capable of lucid dreaming without adverse consequence. Besides, even if you increase your lucid dreaming frequency, the time you spend in lucid dreams will still be relatively little—at least compared to the time needed in alternative realities (like virtual reality) to see derealization-depersonalization states emerge or persist.
All things considered, it may be best to explore lucid dreaming alongside a licensed clinician who is trained in your condition, and ideally, comfortable working with (or learning about) lucid dreams.
The idea that we can perceive ourselves beyond our minds and bodies, or that the world we know is illusory in nature, is neither new, nor is it necessarily nihilistic. The concepts of derealization and depersonalization can have both positive and negative dimensions. These qualities of mind can be helpful, intrinsic features of lucid dreaming as well as general mental or spiritual well-being. Even though it’s rare for most people to experience, you can encounter problems if you feel too disconnected from reality. If you notice derealization-depersonalization symptoms appear or increase after pursuing lucid dreaming, you may want to discontinue and talk with your doctor or therapist. They may be able to guide you in deciding whether you should discontinue lucid dreaming altogether, ease off a little, or make adjustments to your practice to overcome any negative effects.