Scared sleepless

Controlling nightmares improves overall health

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:11:35 PM

It’s that same bad dream. You’re taking your final exam and don’t understand a single question. Certain of failure, you panic. A moment later, your heart is pounding and. . .you awake in your own bed.

While some believe recurring nightmares are caused by daytime anxiety, these dreams—and the lack of sleep associated with them—can affect your job, your relationships and your overall health. Yet, according to Antonio Zadra, a professor in the psychology department at the Université de Montréal, you may be able to get rid of these nightmares while you sleep.

Knowing that recurring bad dreams affect people’s psychological and physical well-being, Zadra set out to evaluate a technique to stop them. The technique, called “lucid dreaming,” involves learning to become fully aware that you are dreaming while you are still asleep. A sleeping person who is fully aware that he or she is dreaming can decide to wake up or even alter the dream, like a director controlling a movie.

“It’s the ability to change events, characters and the ‘storyline’,” emphasizes the psychologist, “that will help you get rid of the dream for good.”

For the process to work, says Zadra, the subject has to remember at least three or four dreams a week.

“The main thing,” he points out, “is to become familiar with your dreams so that you are ready to change parts of them when you realize you are dreaming. Keeping a diary of your dreams is a good way of doing it.”

Initially, your control will be minimal—perhaps you’ll change the colour of a wall—but gradually you will be able to introduce new characters, change the setting, or change the ending so as to transform nightmare into personal triumph.

With a great deal of motivation and perseverance, it is even possible to turn the lucid dream into an instrument of creativity. For example, a writer could experiment with introducing different characters into a scene to see what comes of it.

“However, you mustn’t be too demanding,” Zadra warns. “You never have total control of a dream.”

But who knows where our dreams may take us?

Antonio Zadra’s research on the therapeutic use of lucid dreaming was funded under SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants Program.