What is Lucid Dreaming?
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Most of the time, our dreams are a confusing tapestry of seemingly random images that make zero sense upon waking. But once in a while, everything clicks into place, and we not only understand our dream—but realize that we’re right in the middle of it.
This is what’s called a lucid dream, and while it can be difficult to achieve, it can be worth the effort. Not only are they interesting and fun, but studies have shown that lucid dreams can have benefits for your mental and emotional health, too.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness in which you become aware that you are dreaming. It’s estimated that about half of the population has experienced at least one lucid dream at least once in their lives, and many people attempt to have them more frequently.
While science has confirmed that the concept of lucid dreaming is a real thing, the research is out on whether or not people can control and manipulate their dreams to the extent that some claim. Even so, there are definitely benefits to be had from pursuing lucid dreaming—even if you can only achieve it occasionally.
Some of the benefits of lucid dreaming include:
- Overcoming nightmares: Lucid dreaming is a tool that’s often used in imagery rehearsal therapy as a way to help people who suffer from trauma to visualize a different outcome. Studies found that when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy, lucid dreaming can help to reduce the stress caused by frequent nightmares.
- Reducing anxiety and stress: Because lucid dreaming gives you a chance to face your fears in a safe environment, it can be a helpful tool for reducing stress and anxiety.
- Improving motor skills: Studies have found that people who practice motor skills in a lucid dream show improvement in those skills when they wake up. This could be helpful for people with physical disabilities, athletes, and others who are looking to improve their performance.
How to Start Lucid Dreaming
For some people, lucid dreaming comes naturally—but for others, it can take a bit of practice to achieve. If you’re interested in trying to have a lucid dream, there are a few different techniques you can try.
Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreaming (WILD)
Wake-initiated lucid dreaming is a technique where you go from being awake directly into a dream state. While it sounds simplistic, it’s by far the hardest technique to master.
To do it, you need to lay down and enter a state of relaxation until you experience what’s called a hypnagogic hallucination —a short dream-like state that occurs while you’re falling asleep. When this happens, you need to maintain enough focus and presence of mind to “pull” yourself into the dream.
Consider this an advanced technique and use some other methods to work up to it.
Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD)
This technique is similar to WILD but a little easier to achieve. Before you sleep, you set an intention to remember that you’re dreaming. So while you’re in that same hypnagogic hallucination state, think of a recent dream you had and identify something to signal to yourself that you’re dreaming, like a specific object or action.
For example, if you dreamed of flying, you might say to yourself, “next time I’m dreaming and I see myself flying, I’ll know it’s a dream.” The goal is to embed that idea in your mind so that when you’re in a dream state, your brain will recognize the signal and realize that you’re dreaming.
Recite the phrase in your head over and over until you fall asleep. When you see that signal in your dream, it will trigger your conscious mind to take over, and voila—you’re now lucid dreaming.
Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)
The Wake Back to Bed method is one of the most popular techniques for achieving lucid dreams. You set an alarm for 5-6 hours after you fall asleep, and when it goes off, you stay up for about 20-30 minutes before going back to bed.
Supposedly, when you return to sleep after that brief period of wakefulness, you’re more likely to lucid dream. Just don’t try this if you have issues sleeping through the night or getting enough sleep. Always keep your sleep hygiene top of mind for the best health outcomes.
Reality testing is a method you can use throughout the day to improve your chances of having a lucid dream. Essentially, you train yourself to be more aware of your surroundings and to question reality.
For example, every few hours, try looking at your hands and ask yourself, “Am I dreaming?” It sounds silly, but if you do it enough times, your brain will start to automatically question reality when you see something strange in a dream.
Set a few alarms or reminders throughout the day to help you remember to do reality testing.
Keeping a dream journal is another great way to increase your odds of having a lucid dream. It’s simple: every morning when you wake up, write down everything you can remember about your dreams from the night before. You can use a notes app on your phone or a physical notebook—whatever is easiest for you.
The act of writing things down will help you to remember them better, and over time, you’ll start to notice patterns in your dreams. If you see the same thing happening over and over again, there’s a good chance you can use it as a signal to yourself that you’re dreaming.
How to Wake Up From Lucid Dreaming
No matter how much you’re enjoying your lucid dream, at some point, you’ll want to wake up. While eventually your body will regain full consciousness naturally, you can learn how to control your dreams and wake up on your own.
Here are a few ways you can do it:
- Call out for help or speak loudly in your dream. Yelling is often enough to jolt you awake.
- Blink your eyes rapidly.
- Read something in your dream. Focusing on the words will help to break the dream state.
- Focus on falling asleep. Imagine yourself falling asleep within the dream—it might just help you wake up in reality.
With practice, you’ll be able to wake up whenever you want. But if all else fails, you always rely on a good ‘ole fashioned alarm.
Risks of Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming itself is pretty harmless, but the methods some people use to achieve this state can pose some risks, such as:
- Sleep deprivation: If you’re using the WBTB method, you’re purposely depriving yourself of sleep, which can lead to fatigue and other health problems.
- Sleep paralysis: This is a condition where you can’t move or speak when you first wake up or fall asleep. It’s perfectly normal and not harmful, but it can be pretty scary if you’re not expecting it.
- Derealization: This is when you feel like reality isn’t real. It can happen when you’re sleep-deprived or under a lot of stress. If you experience any of these risks, it’s important to stop practicing lucid dreaming and give your body a chance to rest.
- Depression: Over time, sleep problems or sleep inconsistency can lead to depression.
Lucid dreaming can be a fun and interesting experience with some real mental and emotional health benefits. But it’s not for everyone, and it’s important to be aware of the risks before you start practicing.
If you do decide to give it a try, be sure to start slow, set some ground rules for yourself, and be mindful of your mental and physical health. With a little bit of effort, you might just find yourself in the middle of an amazing dream.
Aspy DJ, et al. (2017). Reality testing and the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams: Findings from the national Australian lucid dream induction study [ABSTRACT]. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fdrm0000059
Cleveland Health Clinic. (2021). What Are Lucid Dreams and How Can You Have Them? https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-lucid-dreaming-and-how-to-do-it/
Mota-Rolim S. (2013). Neurobiology and clinical implications of lucid dreaming. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030698771300279X#b0575
Nutt D, et al. (2008). Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181883/
Saunders D, et al. (2016). Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50 years of research [ABSTRACT]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810016301283
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