Is Lucid Dreaming Scary? A Look at Lucid Nightmares and Sleep Paralysis

Updated on May 15, 2019
Howard Allen profile image

Howard is a regular lucid dreamer. He likes finding ways to increase his lucid episodes and enjoy the dream world.

So, you've heard about lucid dreaming and want to give it a try. The possibilities sound great, but you might be concerned. Is it scary?

The simple answer is no. Lucid dreaming is less scary, on average, than regular dreaming. Being lucid means we know we're dreaming, and this goes a long way to explaining why these dreams aren't usually scary. In a regular dream, we genuinely think we're experiencing whatever situation we're in. While lucid, we know that we aren't, so our fear isn't as great.

Does this mean lucid dreams are never scary? No. Things don't always work out the way we'd expect. We'll look at these lucid dreams and nightmares a little later.

Another place where things can get scary is during sleep paralysis. Many people find this frightening, but it's not a regular part of lucid dreaming. We'll look at this a little later, too.

Are Lucid Dreams Frightening?

A regular lucid dream is unlikely to be frightening. Even if you're not controlling the dream in any way, you know it's not real and nothing can hurt you.

Here's an important thing to be aware of: when a lucid dream turns bad we usually lose our lucidity.

Lucidity can be a difficult thing to hold on to. Just because you get lucid in a dream doesn't mean you'll retain that awareness throughout. There are a few ways this can cause a problem while dreaming:

  • You get lucid but have no definite plan, you start playing along with whatever unfolds, and then you're back in a regular dream.
  • You're lucid, but it's low-level—you know things aren't real but you react emotionally and then it slips away.
  • You're lucid at a high level but something nerve-racking happens, you panic and get swept up.

Here's an example of the first or second situation.

You're lucid in a supermarket. You look around at all the food and people. You want to see an old friend, but you're not sure how to go about it. You hope you'll see the person in the crowd. You wonder if you could leave the store and go find them. You hear a thump from behind; someone has fallen down. Concerned people gather around and call for help. You go over to check it out.

At this point, you're wrapped up in the situation. If it takes a worse turn—you get blamed for the accident, someone physically threatens you, or there's an unnerving scene change—you're now in a full-fledged bad dream.

Here's an example for situation #3.

You're lucid in a field. You want to fly, so you float into the air, cover a little ground, and then come back down. You're about to use a method to create a dream character you'd like to see when you notice something in the distance. There's a lion bearing down on you. Fear hits you suddenly. Your lucidity vanishes in an instant as you start running.

This bad (formerly lucid) dream is in full swing.

A lion is coming at you. How you react determines how your dream goes.
A lion is coming at you. How you react determines how your dream goes.

Can You Stay Lucid During a Nightmare?

Yes. Your lucidity won't always dissolve when things get intense. This is especially true if you're an experienced lucid dreamer. Your mind will be used to the type of infringements that rob you of your wits.

Sometimes, this can make the experience worse. Now, there are two layers to the problem. First, there's the bad dream experience, just like in a regular dream. Second, there's the panic of trying to escape the dream in general, and wondering if you'll be able to wake up.

Fortunately, this fear of getting stuck in a lucid dream is unfounded. You will eventually wake up. A lucid nightmare just feels longer than other dreams because it's so memorable and emotionally charged.

Still, that doesn't mean we want to suffer through these visions if we don't have to. Let's take a look at two ways we might improve the situation.

  • Preventing lucid nightmares.
  • Waking up faster from a lucid nightmare.

How to Stop Lucid Nightmares

Ideally, we could avoid having a lucid dream, which should be enjoyable, turn into something frightening. The main way to do this is to stay calm, which goes against all our natural inclinations. For this reason, it takes some practice to stay even-tempered when something scary happens.

If this can be accomplished, the nightmare won't even start. Let's go back to example #3 above, where an approaching lion threatens our good time. If you can stay unconcerned, the dream won't go bad. Imagine opening your arms to the lion, inviting it toward you. You pet it, say it's nice to see it, and then tell it to run off now.

This works because your mind is creating everything about the scene. If you suddenly feel terrified, your mind is going to give you a story to support that. If you're not worried, the scene accommodates that feeling.

Admittedly, this isn't easy. How do you get to the point where you'll react appropriately? Try this:

Throughout the day, imagine some frightening intrusion into a normal scene. Practice reacting like it's no problem at all. Briefly interact with the potentially scary element, and then dismiss it.

You'll have to run scenes like this for quite a while, but eventually this new reaction will carry over into your dreams.

There are some other things you could try before the lion reaches you. If you can keep your presence of mind, you could:

  • Close your eyes and imagine a pleasant scene, believing it will appear when you open them.
  • Spin around for about 5 seconds, again thinking of a new scene.

Obviously, lucid nightmares won't be the same every time. You'll have to run these simulations on every bad dream you have, and imagine new ones as well. Try to feel the fear while doing this. Your emotional response has to be linked, that is, it has to be the trigger, for your calm reaction.

How to Wake Up From a Lucid Nightmare

Most people's knee-jerk reaction to forcing a wake up is to scream, hit themselves, throw themselves into a wall, or otherwise inflict punishment on themselves. Honestly, sometimes these things will work. They're just not the most reliable, never mind enjoyable, techniques.

On this point, I'm going outside my experience because I haven't regularly wanted to wake up from lucid dreams, so I haven't tested what methods are effective. I remember rare experiences from years ago when I panicked and used the just mentioned method of trying to brutalize myself into consciousness. The results were mixed.

A popular wake up method is to close your dream eyes for a few seconds and then open them suddenly. Your real eyes might open, too. This works because our eyes aren't paralyzed like the rest of our muscles during sleep. They still move, so it's possible to transfer your dream eye control to your real ones.

A warning, though: if your eyes open and it doesn't jolt you awake, you might find yourself in sleep paralysis.

Is Sleep Paralysis Scary?

In the world of dreams, sleep paralysis has a bad reputation, and deservedly so. Most people find it very frightening. It can happen in a regular or lucid dream, or when you're awake.

During sleep paralysis you're aware—often lying in your own bed—and unable to move. Auditory hallucinations such as buzzing, vocalizations, and other droning is common. Visual hallucinations—a vague presence, monsters, or other shadowy figures—are a regular part of the experience. Very often, there's pressure on the chest, like a weight or tightness.

The foreboding sights and sounds, combined with an inability to run or protect yourself, quickly spikes the fear level.

Getting Out of Sleep Paralysis

Lucidity is a prerequisite to using any method of escape. If you aren't naturally lucid during these episodes, attaining lucidity is your first priority.

You can use the same method as above for lucid nightmares. Several times a day, imagine yourself experiencing sleep paralysis. Make sure you hear the sounds, see the sights, and, above all, feel the emotions of it. Be sure not to move at all. Tell yourself you're in sleep paralysis, and everything's fine. Nothing can hurt you.

If you can achieve this state of mind during the experience, you can try to get out of it. My preferred method is to start wiggling my toes and fingers. It doesn't matter how little they move. I just keep trying. Gradually, they'll move more and more, with the control spreading into the arms and legs. Soon, I'll have enough muscle power to roll out of bed or sit up. Now, I'm in a regular lucid dream.

The key here is to desensitize yourself to the fear, in much the same as you would for a lucid nightmare. The good news is, it's easier to do this with sleep paralysis than for other types of scary lucid dreams. Most people's paralysis experiences are very similar, if not identical, each time they happen. Due to this, you can narrow your focus, imagining the exact scene you'll later experience.

Shadowy images can occur in sleep paralysis.
Shadowy images can occur in sleep paralysis.

What About False Awakenings?

This is another way lucid dreams can get derailed. You're having a good lucid time when you wake up. Except you haven't really. If this process repeats a few times, it gets unsettling and panic can set in. You feel like you're caught in an endless loop.

The same methods described above can also be used to deal with false awakenings.

What If it Doesn't Work?

Not everyone's lucid nightmare experiences are the same. In addition, how easy it is to reach lucidity, and how robust it is, varies from person to person.

The methods here could take a long time to seep into your dream world. Keep working on your emotional responses to these sorts of dreams, and try not to get discouraged if progress is slow. The techniques here just might not be suitable for your case.

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