How To Control Your Dreams & Stop Nightmares In 7 Steps

Photo: K Petro & IgorZh / Shutterstock
person floating in bed

Your heart is racing. You are ducked behind a dumpster on a street you haven’t walked since high school. Someone is chasing you. You can feel your heartbeat in your ears.

You reach into your pocket for your phone and realize that it's broken. When you go to put it back in your pocket, you realize you aren't wearing pants.

All of the sudden you are in your bed, gasping for air. It was all a dream.

Nightmares can be traumatizing. There are cases where some people can dream so vividly that they develop PTSD from the memories of these dreams. Some people are afraid to go to sleep because sleeping can be more stressful than waking life.

But what if there was a way to control your dreams? Luckily, with some practice, you can do just that.

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What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is the concept of being aware that you're dreaming, even though you are asleep. Some people report that the dream feels very real, while it's a bit blurry for others.

During a lucid dream, the dreamer is able to control the landscape, characters and narrative. It's essentially being able to control your own subconscious storytelling. Think of it as watching a movie in your mind, and you being the director who decides what happens next.

While lucid dreams are thought to occur during REM sleep, some scientists believe it can happen outside of the REM cycle. It's estimated that about 55% of people have experienced lucid dreaming at some point in time.

Thanks to the tireless work of researchers and sleep scientists, there are certain lucid dreaming techniques used to remain aware and conscious while controlling your dreams.

Methods Used to Lucid Dream

Reality testing: Also called reality checking, this form of mental training involves taking time out of each day to see if you are dreaming. Because your metacognition is similar in both your dream and waking states, this training will increase your awareness.

You might perform a series of tests throughout the day, including looking in the mirror to make sure your reflection is normal, touching or looking at your hands, or even pinching your nose to check if you can breathe.

Wake-initiated lucid dreaming (WILD): This technique is said to keep your mind consciously aware while your body sleeps. It involves laying down until experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations.

Wake back to bed (WBTB): This method helps you enter REM sleep while still being aware and conscious. After waking up after having had five hours of sleep, you stay awake for 30 minutes and then go back to sleep.

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD): Though it's a bit similar to the WBTB method in that you wake up after five hours of sleep, the MILD technique involves telling yourself multiple times that the next time you dream, you will realize that you are dreaming.

Benefits of Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is not only helpful in allowing you to escape your nightmares, but there is evidence that it has other benefits.

Having the ability to control your dreams can alleviate anxiety and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Being in control can give a person a sense of empowerment as well, and lead to a boost in self-esteem.

Lucid dreaming can also improve motor skills. One study found that performing tasks in one's mind can increase the person's ability to physically repeat those same tasks. This could be something as simple as clicking your fingers on a surface.

In addition, lucid dreaming is thought to help people improve their problem-solving abilities and even boost their creativity.

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How to Control Your Dreams with Lucid Dreaming

If you suffer from chronic nightmares or other mental health issues, the steps below will help you learn how to control your dreams and have a lucid dream. That way, if you're having a nightmare, you can change the narrative and control the outcome to sleep more peacefully.

1. Write all your dreams down in a journal.

The first thing to do if you want to have lucid dreams is to start keeping a dream journal. Keep this journal right next to your bed.

Every night when you wake up from a dream, whether it be when your alarm goes off or in the middle of the night, write down everything you remember — every single detail is important.

2. Before bed, read about your past dreams.

Before you go to sleep, review your dream journal. This should bring about some familiarity with your dream worlds.

Once you become familiar with your dreamscapes, you will be more likely to recognize them when you are actually dreaming.

3. Pay attention to your body and what you actually look like.

Examine your body, primarily your hands and feet. When you’re dreaming, a lot of times your extremities will have some distortion to them. Perhaps your hands will be larger or maybe they will be really tiny.

This is something you will have to practice in waking life until it becomes a habit for you to recreate in your dream world.

4. Take note of unusual situations or strange things that happen.

Once you are dreaming, you may notice that your electronics are inexplicably broken. If you look down and your phone is dead and it had a full charge a minute ago, that is an indicator of a dream.

Cracked phone screens, cut TV wires, smoking microwaves or toasters are all signs to look for.

5. Ask yourself how you got here, in this moment.

The main indicator that you are in a dream is the appearance of people who shouldn’t be there. Perhaps it's an aunt who died years ago or a childhood friend with whom you haven’t spoken in years.

If these people are interacting with you, with no explanation to how or why they are there, you are dreaming. This should be obvious.

The trick, however, is to practice this in your waking life, reminding yourself how you got to the moment you are currently experiencing, with the people you are with.

For example, tell yourself, "I called Matt and asked him for coffee. I got on the subway and we met outside the coffee shop. We walked in together, and now we're in line and ordering."

If you start training your brain to think like this is your waking life, the hope is that it translates to the way you process your thoughts in a dream.

6. Practice pushing your finger through your hand.

While you are awake, take your pointer finger and try to push it through your palm. Do this with the expectation that it will work.

The idea is that if it does eventually go through, it should be a trigger to let you brain know it is, in fact, dreaming.

7. Say your mantra.

When you fall asleep, you should practice saying a mantra — something along the lines of “I know I am dreaming.”

Say it over and over again, 100 times or more. Hopefully, when you do get to sleep, you will know it's a dream and will be able to stop a potential nightmare. And once you become aware that you are dreaming, you should be able to control them.

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Kaitlin Kaiser is a writer and former YourTango contributor who covers love and relationships, astrology, pop culture, and lifestyle topics.