Lucid dreaming is an awe-inspiring experience where anything is possible. Lucid dreamers fly, train high-performance skills, confront fears, and explore the edges of their imagination. It can feel exhilarating, like a world of endless possibilities. The images of the dreamworld can also be incredibly vivid, with experiences sometimes more intense than waking life experiences. So it's reasonable to ask, is lucid dreaming scary?
The short answer is no, lucid dreaming is not scary, on account of our nervous system’s unique brain chemistry during sleep and REM cycles. Without norepinephrine (the precursor to cortisol, a stress hormone), a fear response is biologically extremely unlikely while dreaming, including while lucid dreaming.
The long answer takes us deeper into the sleeping brain’s unique chemistry plus lucid dreaming's significant potential therapeutic benefits – including overcoming fear, enhancing skill development, and supporting psychological healing. We will get into all of that and more in the following article. We will answer the following questions:
Lucid dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep, so the chemical makeup of the brain during the REM sleep cycle sets the baseline for lucid dreams. Norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline and the precursor to cortisol) is generally absent from the REM cycle, leading to a state of fearlessness even in the face of otherwise scary events. At the same time, the brain continues to be flooded by dopamine, a critical compound in memory formation and learning.
Norepinephrine is a product of the sympathetic system, responsible for our “fight or flight” response. It is released in small doses throughout the day, and in larger doses when a situation that triggers the fight/flight/freeze response occurs, such as being attacked, being in a car accident, or other high-stress scenarios. During REM sleep, however, norepinephrine is absent. This gives the brain and body a break from the stress hormone, while allowing the dreamer to relive intense or scary events without the stress response normally associated with these high-stress scenarios.
Just as important as the absence of stress hormones during REM sleep is the presence of dopamine (often referred to as the pleasure hormone or reward-anticipation signal) that provides feelings of satisfaction and motivation as well as enhancing memory, mood, learning, coordination, and sleep.
We recommend lucid dreamers capitalize on the chemical construct of the REM sleep cycle to:
The REM sleep cycle is when we have our most vivid dreams. As lucid dreaming occurs during this cycle, they can feel incredibly realistic and detailed. It may feel as though all of your senses are heightened and your experiences of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are even more intense than what you would experience in real life. Colors may seem more vivid, your sense of smell may be sharper, sounds may be clearer, tastes may be stronger and your sense of touch may be even more sensitive. Let’s say you’re walking along a trail in the countryside during your dream - the color of the leaves may seem incredibly bright, the sound of them crunching underfoot as you walk may seem louder and more clear, the taste of a wild blackberry that you pick may burst in your mouth.
While what I just described is most commonly a pleasant scenario, for people who experience recurring nightmares, the heightened sensations experienced during lucid dreaming will also heighten the sense of fear. While lucid dreaming offers us the opportunity to explore different possibilities within the dreams that haunt us, the ultra-reality requires our courage to confront an intimidating scenario to exert our agency and empower ourselves to change the outcome.
Lucid Dream Therapy (LDT) utilizes lucid dreaming to treat a range of conditions including:
For those using lucid dreaming as a tool to overcome fears, phobias, or traumas, intentionally recreating the setting that causes fear can be intimidating. In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, the researchers found the following benefits related to lucid dreaming and nightmares:
“Another benefit identified was the reduction of nightmares with lucid dreaming. This finding adds to mounting subjective reports and case studies of successful nightmare reduction through the use of lucid dreaming. Notably, users reported self-prescribing lucid dreaming therapy. Though nightmares are common, they are often left untreated due to a lack of emphasis in sleep medicine. Some users described lasting impacts from the use of lucid dreaming, even experiencing no nightmares for years.”
Those seeking LDT can find psychotherapists or sleep experts who have experience working with lucid dreaming to provide them with exercises and tools to help them understand and process their experiences.
Sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are often mistaken for one another, leading to confusion about these distinct sleep phenomena. Although both involve intense experiences during sleep, they are entirely different experiences and differ significantly in their manifestation.
Sleep paralysis, which is a state of temporary paralysis upon waking, is a startling occurrence where individuals find themselves unable to move for a few seconds to a minute, often coupled with vivid dream-like hallucinations. This contrasts with lucid dreaming, where the dreamer maintains consciousness and actively participates in the dream scenario, often possessing the ability to control the dream's narrative and environment. While both phenomena involve the temporary immobilization of the body, they occur during different stages of sleep, with sleep paralysis emerging during the transition from a dream to wakefulness, while atonia (the characteristic paralysis of REM sleep) occurs during lucid dreaming and REM sleep.
There is another major difference between sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming: sleep paralysis is linked to the presence of stress hormones, while lucid dreaming takes place in a generally stress-free phase of sleep: rapid-eye movement or REM. Overall, while sleep paralysis can be highly stressful, lucid dreaming typically is not.
Atonia – bodily paralysis during sleep – is a defense mechanism, preventing the body from acting out dream behavior in real life. During REM sleep, muscles have reduced tone, preventing movement. This is healthy and normal, protecting us from nighttime injuries.
Lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep when the chemical dopamine is present in the brain, allowing the dreamer to enhance their motor coordination. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science affirmed that participants who practiced lucid dreaming with minimal distractions during their dream state were able to significantly improve their dart-throwing accuracy in waking life.
This and other studies have revealed lucid dreaming’s effectiveness in enhancing a range of skills, including sports performance and cognition, enhancing the dreamer’s abilities in waking life.
Lucid dreaming is most commonly not scary due to the chemical composition of the brain during REM sleep. Specifically, the way our brains prevents the release of norepinephrine makes dreams (and lucid dreams) devoid of fear.
This unique chemical landscape of the REM sleep cycle can help lucid dreamers confront fears, harness cognitive capabilities, and even find therapeutic relief from various psychological challenges. Lucid dreaming ultimately presents an array of opportunities for personal growth and psychological healing.
With its capacity to promote self-awareness, creative exploration, and enhanced cognitive functioning, lucid dreaming continues to reveal its profound impact on our understanding of the human mind and its potential for personal development.