Scary Semi-Lucid Dream: What's Going On?
August 15, 2006 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Recurring, scary sleep/dream phenomenon. What is it? How can I change it?

For the last 10-15 years, I've sometimes had a semi-lucid dream which always follows the same pattern. I've never heard of anything quite like it anecdotally or in sleep literature, though it strikes me as something of a cross between a lucid dream and "night terror"/sleep paralysis phenomena. Are there any sleep phenomena experts/enthusiasts out there who might have a clue as what's happening? Or any lucid dreamers who could recommend tips for taking this dream in another, more positive direction?

(Sorry, BTW, for the verbosity of what follows -- just don't want to leave out a significant detail). Here's the pattern:

1) I realize I'm dreaming and think "Oh, cool, I'm finally having one of those lucid dreams! Let's have some fun!" Sometimes, one of the first things I want to do is look into a mirror. I usually appear somewhat differently than I would normally -- e.g., I'm a different age or sometimes even a different gender. This mirror thing usually scares me a bit.

2) The dream environment refuses to remain stable; e.g., I'm walking down a hallway and it starts to turn into a forest.

3) I focus on something (e.g., an object, or even my reflection in the mirror) and try to prevent it from morphing into something else.

4) Object morphs anyway, usually into something increasingly terrifying (i.e., the longer I let it morph, the more scary it becomes -- e.g., a table lamp morphs gradually into a hideous monster). I try to change the dream somehow (e.g., move to another location), but fail. I realize that I could wake up, but I'm determined to keep trying.

5) A strong auditory halluciation occurs -- often an electrical buzzing sound, but it could also be whispers or voices -- sound gets increasingly loud.

6) As sound gets louder and object gets scarier, I feel something tingling/pressure sensations all over my body -- I used to describe it as feeling like hundreds of wings flapping against me, though it sometimes also feels like an electrical current or light muscle spasms.

7) As sound/scary object/physical feeling all get stronger, I start to feel as if some malevolent force is attempting to assualt or "invade" me. At this point I become both genuinely afraid and, strangely, sexually aroused. (To clarify, I don't believe some force actually is trying to invade me, it just feels this way in the dream). I feel so overwhelmed by the sensations that I fear losing myself in them -- i.e., I fear that my "self" will somehow be "erased" in the maelstrom of sensation.

9) I decide to wake up. For the first few moments of waking, I find myself quite disoriented (not sure where I am), and aspects of the dream continue (e.g., the sound continues, or fluttering feeling in my body). Fortunately, reorientation happens quickly -- in a few seconds, I'm fully awake, remember where I am, and the strange sensations are just a memory.
posted by treepour to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I only get plain old sleep paralysis, but I've found I can prevent it by drinking a large glass of water immediately before sleeping.
posted by RobotHero at 2:07 PM on August 15, 2006

I had recurring dreams about tornadoes and finally I just decided to let one snap me up. Nothing really happened and from that point on the dreams didn't seem so scary because I knew that it wasn't real.

Why not let that force take you over? Might be a bit difficult the first few times, but after a while, it will become boring and routine.
posted by idiotfactory at 2:17 PM on August 15, 2006

Best answer: I'm not a "dream expert" per se, but I usually have great luck interpreting some of my own dreams. Personally, I don't think you actually have a sleep disorder (ie night terror/paralysis) but I am not a doctor. This could be completely off base, but...

It seems like your entire dream is about fear of change and fear of being "out of control." The very onset of this dream is characterized by the idea that you might have control of your dream situation -- a lucid dream that you can shape and manipulate ala "let's have some fun!"

But you really don't have control of the dream, and that's where the scary part comes in. You look different in the mirror. Your environment starts to change. Ordinary objects become monstrous (like a lamp!) because you don't have the control over them you thought you did. The more stuff changes, the scarier the dream is.

Ultimately, this culminates in the manifestation of some kind of "force" that's invading you. You fear that you might "lose yourself," that this terrible change will fundamentally alter who you are. It seems clear to me, in this dream, that you're terrified both of change in your life and your lack of ability to control it. As you say yourself, you believe that these life changes might somehow obliterate the "you" you've become. I've had issues with recurring dreams like this in the past, and in my experience, whenever i'm able to move past the issue that's plaguing me in the dream (metaphorically) the dreams stop. I know they're crappy in the meantime, though!

PS: Maybe the sexual thing has something to do with being aroused by dominance, but it could also just be a weirdo dream thing.
posted by theantikitty at 2:51 PM on August 15, 2006

Best answer: Sounds like a hypnopompic state. That is, when you become lucid, the excitement is partially waking you up and the dream turns into an unpleasant hypnopompic hallucination. See also Sleep Paralysis, which is usually a hypnopompic state.

A feeling of vibrations or painless electricity through your whole body, and buzzing or whooshing sounds, are also far from unheard of in some hypnagogic states. (These are well-known by users of the WILD and related techniques, including myself.)
posted by abcde at 2:58 PM on August 15, 2006

Oh, and as to preventing it, if my theory is right then trying to stay as calm as possible as soon as you become lucid (always a good idea to help stay asleep) should help to keep this from happening.
posted by abcde at 3:02 PM on August 15, 2006

I have some anecdotal experience that may help you (it definitely helped me). Note: This doesn't have anything to do with the physical things you're experiencing, but touches on the "taking the dream in another/more positive direction" stuff.

A few months ago I kept dreaming that I sold my home and was devastated by the decision. I would wake up, see this yellow chair by my bed and realize it was a dream in one of those "Oh my god I'm so glad that was a DREAM" moments.

The regret was so intense and the dream so frequent, that I began to actually fear having the dream. I got to the point (in my dream) where I would dream my wake up sequence and realize that I really had sold the house. (Then I'd wake up, see the yellow chair, omigod that was just a dream and repeat.)

Upon the suggestion of my shrink, I started to mentally prep for the dream before falling asleep. I had a good idea what the dream was about, so I sort of repetitively posed ideas, questions and suggestions to my subconscious.

Some examples of what I'd repeat as I fell asleep:

  • When I dream about selling the house tonight, give me a clue as to how this relates to <fill in the blank>; or

  • If I start to feel devastated by my decision, remind me that it's not really happening and I'll be just fine.

  • Remarkably, this worked really well. My dreams stopped being so scary, I got a glimpse into how I was feeling/processing some stuff and I stopped having them.
    posted by 10ch at 3:15 PM on August 15, 2006

    Try to keep a log of your sleeping position, what you ate/drank that night, how tired you were when you have these dreams, what the temperature was like, etc. And anything else you may find relevant. There might be some sort of physical trigger.

    It took me nearly 20 years to figure out that I am almost guaranteed to have weird-ass dreams like yours when I sleep on my back. FWIW, I also get sleep paralysis when I sleep in this position.

    I've also noticed that I am prone to lucid dreaming when it's overly warm in my bedroom, if it's raining out, or there's some other sort of subtle external stimulus going on. I guess that wakes up a tiny part of my brain, which then tries the best it can to deal with all the randomness that is my dreams. From what little I've read about lucid dreaming devices/techniques, use of external stimuli is one technique to achieve this state.

    Since I can't always control my environment, I just go with the flow when these dreams occur. I'll stay calm during the dream, and then go right back to sleep should I wake up. So, there is a mixture of prevention and acceptance going on in my case.
    posted by Sangre Azul at 3:16 PM on August 15, 2006

    I don't mean to be flippant, but maybe if you stop regarding the dream as meaningful it wouldn't be as disturbing. What if it's something as simple as your subconscious trying to wake you up to get up and go to the bathroom? Like Sangre Azul said, it is probably a physical trigger.
    posted by Araucaria at 4:27 PM on August 15, 2006

    Response by poster: Thanks very much for the comments, all. I think the antikitty and abcde both hit the nail(s) on the head. There are aspects of the dream that pertain to fear of change (a dominant theme in my life right now) . . . yet, based what I read in the Wikipedia entry that abcde linked to, I think it is, at the same time, most likely a hypnopompic state.

    Thanks again!
    posted by treepour at 7:28 PM on August 15, 2006

    I've had those dreams before, usually when I'm really tired. The only way to prevent them from getting scary is to just go with the flow.

    OT - I just heard Samuel L. muthafuckin' Jackson say "blogosphere" on TV.
    posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:29 PM on August 15, 2006

    I used to have similar dreams when I was very young - 4 or 5. They still give me the shivers: I'd see a large, blank glowing white rectangle which filled me with a sense of peace. Then, one by one, little black creepy-crawly type things would appear round the edges and gradually fill the white space.

    The more black things appeared, the more I'd be suffused with a sense of terror and a sense of me being "eroded". Finally, the black things would fill the entire space and I would wake up screaming, unable to verbalise the horror.

    My advice:

    1) Next time, try not to look in the mirror in the dream. Do something *different*

    2) Carry a notebook around for a week and note down the times during your day when the dream occurred to you. Look at your notebook after a week and try and figure out what happened directly before and after those incidents.

    It might be a mixture of hypnopompic experiences mixed with a nightmare thrown up by your subconscious trying to prod you into realising something.
    posted by unmusic at 4:44 AM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

    As long as I can remember I've had dreams *very similar* to that too. When I was younger (Although... I'm 19 now so younger wasn't all that long ago... Let's say, middle-school aged...) they freaked me out a lot.
    Like Mr. Gunn, they usually happen to me when I am really tired. I still find them too disturbing to continue sleeping when I have those dreams so what I do is I'll recognize what's going on, wake myself up, and then put on some music or something to distract my mind; I've noticed that if I just keep trying to go back to sleep it will keep happening.
    And on a side-personal-anecdoteish-note: I'm guessing you're probably older than me, maybe a lot older than me, but I've always had very strange and vivid dreams and I actually had a benign form of nocturnal epilepsy when I was going through middle school which I think had a lot to do with it. During that time I learned that its actually considered, not normal I guess, but unexceptional to go through benign epilepsy (benign meaning not permanent) during your adolesence. This was told to me by several doctors during that time, some that I was close friends with and some that I wasn't, so I accept it as legit medical fact. I doubt you're going through adolesence but, who knows, that's just another possible explanation. If it helps, at the time that I was being diagnosed with this thing, I got an EEG reading while I took a nap and my mum, who watched this happen, said it was obvious something was odd, even to a non-doctor, when the needle on the EEG machine started bouncing up and down like crazy.
    Maybe if it *really* bothers you, you should think about getting an EEG scan. But I don't think you should bother. I doubt there's anything substantial you could do to stop it even if you did have abnormal brain patterns or something...
    posted by emmatwofour at 8:53 AM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

    When lucid dreaming, it's best to exert as little control as possible. Think of the dream like a soap bubble; if you are not gentle, it will pop.
    posted by Eideteker at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2007

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