Is Lucid Dreaming Dangerous?

Marvin Grocholl
April 25, 2022

Every night, humans dream for a total of about two hours during sleep. Dreams can help form memories of waking experiences and process feelings. Researchers suggest that interpreting and engaging in dreams can also provide deep insights into one's subconscious.

In a lucid dream, the dreamer becomes aware that he or she is dreaming and can sometimes control the course of the dream. People become interested in lucid dreaming in the hope that it will stimulate their psychological and creative growth, allow them to try impossible actions such as creating dream worlds, or even treat nightmares. However, some experts warn against intentionally inducing lucid dreams until more research has been done on the safety of lucid dreaming.

Now the question arises: how dangerous is lucid dreaming really? And who should rather keep their hands off it because of the dangers?

Risks of lucid dreaming

Although more research is needed, some experts suggest that lucid dreaming could have negative consequences under certain conditions. The most worrisome potential dangers of lucid dreaming are psychological problems and sleep disorders.

Mental health concerns

There is much debate about whether inducing lucid dreams is beneficial or harmful to mental health. Some researchers argue that creating lucid dreams intentionally blurs the lines between dreams and reality, and that this can have negative effects on long-term mental health.

However, studies have found that lucid dreaming can actually reduce nightmares in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although not all studies on this topic have been able to replicate this finding, further studies have found that lucid dreaming can reduce anxiety and depression in people suffering from both PTSD and nightmares.

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However, lucid dreaming could pose dangers for people who are plagued by psychosis. Lucid dreaming is associated with metacognition, a form of self-awareness that requires viewing oneself from an outside perspective. Some researchers suggest that this third-person view of the self during a lucid dream is similar to a dissociative mental state.

Dissociation is the feeling of being detached from one's body and having difficulty recognizing what is real and is experienced by some mentally ill people. This mental state occurs in the early stages of psychosis. More research is needed, but initial studies suggest that lucid dreaming is both positively and negatively associated with psychosis. Researchers hypothesize that people who have never experienced psychosis could benefit from lucid dreaming by becoming psychologically stronger.

Conversely, lucid dreaming could endanger those who already suffer from psychosis by making their internal reality - in this case, the dream state - seem closer to reality. Researchers in one study found that intentionally trying to induce lucid dreaming can be associated with depression, dissociation, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia. It is unclear whether people with similar mental illnesses are more likely to attempt to experience lucid dreams or whether intentionally inducing lucid dreams contributes to mental health symptoms, such as disturbed sleep.

Here, causality has not been established. Of the people who experience lucid dreams, those who evaluate the experience as positive and more intense seem less likely to suffer from negative psychological symptoms. Thus, a positive basic attitude may possibly prevent psychological dangers and hazards in dreams.

Dangers of sleep interruption

Since lucid dreams are associated with higher brain activity, it is suspected that they may decrease sleep quality and have a negative impact on sleep hygiene. In this regard, lucid dreaming can be considered a hybrid form of consciousness (consciousness + sleep).

Frequent lucid dreaming could potentially restructure the sleep-wake cycle of the sleeper(s), which in turn may affect emotional regulation, memory consolidation, and other aspects of daily life related to sleep health. More research is needed to determine whether more "awake" sleep during lucid dreaming makes sleep less restful. Some studies have found that more lucid dreaming is associated with poorer sleep quality.

However, a more detailed study found that this association was not significant when nightmares were taken into account. It could be that people who have more lucid dreams also have more sleep-disrupting nightmares, rather than lucid dreaming directly disrupting sleep. In addition, another study found that people tended to feel more refreshed after awakening from a lucid dream.

The only limitation was the following: Participants felt less refreshed after waking up from vivid lucid dreaming in the morning when they were unable to catch up on lost sleep. Sometimes people try to induce lucid dreaming in ways that disrupt the natural sleep cycle and cause fragmented sleep. In these methods of inducing lucid dreaming, sleep is often intentionally interrupted.

Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)

The "Wake Back To Bed" method involves setting an alarm clock to wake you up at night and then going back to sleep a little later. This makes it easier to enter a lucid dream, but it also confuses your sleep rhythm, which can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness.

Senses Initiated Lucid Dream (SSILD)

As with the WBTB technique, in SSILD technique the person wakes up intentionally after about five hours of sleep. Then she switches her attention between different stimuli, such as views, sounds and physical sensations, before falling asleep again.

A famous example is the FILD technique, in which the dreamer taps her bed alternately with two fingers to keep consciousness active via this sense.

External Stimulation

With the help of another person or through technical aids, external stimuli are administered to the sleeper to bring him or her to lucidity during sleep. Similarly, people may ingest substances before bedtime to directly disrupt the systems that regulate sleep.

Because disturbed and inadequate sleep is associated with a higher risk of physical and mental health problems, experts warn that frequent use of lucid dreaming induction techniques may be associated with risks.

Tips for safe lucid dreaming

If you want to practice lucid dreaming, you can use the available research as a guide to reduce the risks and avoid possible dangers. If you are unsure whether lucid dreaming is safe for you or not, or if you suffer from pre-existing mental health conditions, it is important to consult your doctor, a sleep physician or a mental health professional for advice.

Avoid lucid dreaming if you suffer from certain pre-existing conditions or special health conditions

First and foremost, you really shouldn't take any risks if you have pre-existing mental health issues. More research is needed to fully understand how lucid dreaming relates to mental health. Until research can better explain the effects of lucid dreaming, people with certain conditions should not attempt to lucid dream on purpose.

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Because lucid dreaming induction techniques can lead to fragmented sleep, they may not be appropriate for people who already have interrupted sleep due to a sleep disorder. For example, if you suffer from dissociation or psychosis, that is: if you feel you are not connected to yourself or have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, lucid dreaming may exacerbate these symptoms. 

Do not use disruptive techniques to induce lucid dreams

Not all techniques for inducing lucid dreams involve intentionally interrupting sleep. If you want to try lucid dreaming, you should start with techniques that are less likely to wake you up at night. For example:

Devices for triggering lucid dreams

These wearable devices strap around your head like an eye mask. They monitor your sleep using sensors and then attempt to trigger lucidity when they detect that you are in a REM sleep state. Different devices work differently: some use light, others sound as a signal to trigger lucidity during dreams.

Reality Checks

To perform a reality check, you do something to determine whether you are awake or dreaming, for example, by trying to push a finger of one hand through the palm of the other hand. Alternatively, you can count the fingers on your hand. If you do reality checks often enough while awake, this becomes a habit that carries over into the dream. Then, when a person performs reality checks during a dream, it helps them know if they are dreaming. In the dream, the reality checks often don't make sense, for example, you suddenly have six fingers.

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)

The real goal of MILD is to remind yourself that you are dreaming as soon as you fall asleep. This often involves saying a mantra to oneself before falling asleep such as, "I will realize tonight that I am dreaming." 

Although this technique often involves interrupting sleep, another option is to repeat the chosen phrase whenever you naturally fall asleep. Which mantra you choose is up to you. In any case, it should set you up for a lucid dream.

Meditations that induce lucid dreaming

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Meditations increase mindfulness and awareness of one's own feelings and thoughts. Besides these two effects, which can already help from the ground up in recognizing a lucid dream, lucid dream meditations often focus on the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams. In other words, they help you tune into a lucid dream and manifest it mentally.

Keeping a dream diary

Although this method has not been found to be effective in all research, many people report that keeping a dream journal helps increase the number of lucid dreams they experience. To keep a dream journal, write down as much as you can of each dream you can remember as soon as you wake up, even if you wake up during the night. Many people now also prefer recording audios, as it is much faster and easier.

Catch up on lost sleep

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If you decide to induce lucid dreaming using methods that disrupt your sleep, make sure you get enough sleep overall. For adults, the recommended amount of sleep is at least seven hours per night. You may need even more sleep if your sleep has been disturbed by lucid dreams. A little tip from everyday life: Don't set an alarm clock to induce dreams during the week, but do on weekends.

On weekends it is often easier to sleep a little longer. But you can also keep a dream diary, meditate and do reality checks during the week.

Myths about lucid dreams

Due to the fact that lucid dreaming is still a really niche topic, which is not heavily researched and yet goes hand in hand with great enthusiasm, it is surrounded by many myths. So let's clear up the most important ones.

You can't distinguish between reality and dream.

Lucid dreams can feel very real, that's true. However, you will always be able to distinguish between a dream and real life. If you really have any doubts, you can always do a reality check and see if you are dreaming. For example, you can simply count your fingers. In a dream, your hand often looks blurry or you have more fingers than normal. 

You die in real life when you die in a dream.

Movies like Inception have provided for such a myth. However, this assumption is false. People who have frequent lucid dreams may occasionally experience sleep paralysis or false awakenings. These can be frightening, but generally resolve on their own. Dying is very rare in dreams in the first place, and if you really do dream about dying, you still live on in real life. 

You can get stuck in dreams.

This myth is also false. You will wake up again and again. In most lucid dreams you can even wake up on command if you really want to. Although there are not many reasons to do so, most people have the opposite desire: they would much rather stay in the dream longer.

Conclusion on dangers of lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming has not yet been researched very extensively. For this very reason, there are some aspects of lucid dreaming that should be treated with caution. 

For example, if you suffer from psychosis or other pre-existing psychological conditions, you should definitely consult with your doctor or therapist before venturing into the world of lucid dreaming. Additionally, you should exercise caution with sleep interruptions.

It is not yet fully established what effects frequent interruptions of sleep have. What is known, however, is that well-maintained sleep hygiene is an important part of our health. If you want to play it safe, you can use the methods that do not require sleep interruptions.

Reality checks and keeping a dream journal are considered safe and essential parts of the lucid dreaming learning process. Despite the risks, lucid dreaming opens a wide range of possibilities for self-development and you can learn a lot about yourself. With the right approach and the right actions, there are no limits to what you can do in your dreams.