When I was a kid I used to have this recurring nightmare. In it, I was at a party and everyone I knew was there. Then, out of nowhere, I’d look around and it would hit me: Something was wrong. This gothic, sprawling mansion wasn’t my house. I must be asleep.
Feeling disoriented, I’d turn to someone and whisper. “This isn’t real. We’re in a dream!”
And the person, who looked very much like someone I knew and loved, would look back at me — voice dropping an octave. “No, it isn’t, Allison.”
Then their eyes would flash red — just for a moment — and they’d turn back to whoever they were talking to. The room looked just like before. Only now I was filled with complete terror. I knew I was dreaming but I couldn’t figure out how to wake up.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was having my first lucid dreams.
“Lucid dreaming, scientifically defined, is simply the moment that you become aware that you are dreaming whilst you’re dreaming,” sleep expert Matthew Walker tells me.
He goes on to say that colloquially most people believe that being lucid means you can manipulate the dream, but he insists that just recognizing that I was in a sleep state made me a natural lucid dreamer. Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science, and author of a best-selling book about sleep and dreaming called Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
Considering that he’s an expert on many aspects of the connection between sleep and wellness, lucidity included, I knew Walker would be able to help me understand why I have lucid dreams and hoped he could even help me control them. These days about half of my lucid dreams are nightmares similar to the one I had as a child. The others are sex dreams. Those are more fun, by far. But what they have in common is that in either case, I’ve never actually been able to exert any control while I’m dreaming. And who doesn’t want to be able to do that? You could blink yourself to the beach or some other relaxing reality.
But even more important than my fantasies and my curiosity about my own lucid dreams was this: Walker has said in interviews and papers that he believes sleep itself is a form of therapy. He’s found in his research that sleep and the dream state (or lack thereof), connects to our mood and mental health. He believes that through our dreams, we work through emotions, making us better able to process them in the daytime.
“The theory,” he says, “is that dream sleep is a remarkable state because it’s the only time during the 24-hour period where the brain shuts off a stress chemical called noradrenaline.”
Noradrenaline can trigger anxiety. But during REM sleep our brain lets go of it. Walker believes that it’s this state of sleep which allows us to process and heal from the events of the day without being flooded by anxiety and fear.
“During dream sleep we actually reactivate emotional memories that we’ve experienced,” he says. “Like difficult scenarios or traumatic memories. But we’re replaying memories in a brain state that is devoid of this stress chemistry.”
Healing anxiety while sleeping? Sign. Me. Up.