Lucid Nightmares – Fear, Initiation, and Beyond

Cernunnos by Gary Bonner

Cernunnos by Gary Bonner

Fear as Projection
Sometimes there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. Fear plays a huge role in lucid dreams because fear can manifest exactly what we don’t want to see. In lucid dreams this well-known phenomenon is called the expectancy effect. When we become self-aware in dreams, we are initially excited, but then we may see something out of the corner of our eyes that we didn’t expect. Like the flash of a dark figure moving from behind the door to the other side of the room. Fear blooms, and we may actually promote the scariness of this dream figure by projecting fear onto it.

This is a classic lucid nightmare scenario that I have heard about countless times. The only piece of information we know about this strange dream figure at this point is that it arrived here on its own… this is the fear of the unknown.

A little crack in the dam caused by fear can easily cause a tidal wave of the “worst things”… including hybrid memories of past traumas and victimhood projected onto this dark figure. Cognitive science provides a helpful metaphor here. The neural pathways that connect fear to certain past experiences are so strong, they are like deep grooves in a dirt road, making it the easiest path for our minds to follow.

It often feels like a part of us wants to go down this road. Fear is a thought addiction in this way, feeding on itself, retraumatizing our wounds by “proving” that the world really can be hurtful and we are not safe. In these cases, the next step in lucid dreaming development is to strengthen courage and resolve. This is the power of “No” and countless nightmare sufferers have successfully practiced lucid dreaming to rewrite these harmful personal myths.

Although research is still in its early stages, there is some indication that lucid dreaming can help break the repetition of nightmares associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have a counselor or a minister, tell them about these dreams and they may be able to provide further help with strengthening the ego through lucid dreaming.

Protecting Yourself in Fear-based Dreams

For non-PTSD lucid nightmares, a technique that has worked for me and others I know is to literally “stand your ground.” This means first you have to find your ground. Where in the lucid dream are you safe when suddenly threatened” Seek a place you feel safe; this could be a childhood bedroom, a high hill in the dream landscape, or a counsel room.

A more immediate way to protect yourself is to draw a circle around you with the intention that nothing can harm you here. Speak your truth and your boundaries: make them explicit. These are rituals that work in the real world as well as the dream world.

Another route is to ask for a guardian or a helper. Who shows up may surprise you but accept their support. And of course, at any point you can wake up. “Game over” is what I say when I bail on a lucid dream that has moved beyond my safety level.

Don’t worry, for better or worse, the opportunity to face these fears will arise again.

Masonic Initiation Stairwell in Sintra, Portugal.  Image by AntonioVi.

Masonic Initiation Stairwell in Sintra, Portugal. Image by AntonioVi.

Craving for Initiation
In other cases, especially for young men, there is a real craving for confrontation in lucid dreams. Sometimes we go “looking for trouble,” but get more than we bargained for. I believe this need has been completely overlooked and misunderstood in the West. The appearance of violent and morbid themes, and sudden painful attacks by powerful forces or unknown figures in response to this desire may be a call for initiation.

These themes tend to arise in people who are first attracted to lucid dreaming as a way to “control your dreams.” That’s because we may have a deep drive to face a challenge, but don’t really know what this challenge is all about. The call for initiation is an ancient part of life that has been forgotten in today’s society, but the psychological need remains to be put to a test.

Answering this call looks different for everyone, but this much I can say for certain: lucid dreams that spontaneously reveal a showdown or a ritual sacrifice require both courage as well as, ironically, the ability to surrender. These are qualitatively different than “victimhood” dreams that are steeped in personal history. They often take place in wilderness settings, or near other elements such as fire, bodies of water, or clearings in the forest. They may feel more real than waking life, with a crystal clear awareness, very different than the intense emotionality that comes from the usual emotional nightmare.

In these lucid nightmares, I recommend gratitude and humility. “Death” in these dreams can usher in new creative potentials. According to cross-cultural research into initiation dreams, the most common themes of initiation dreams are ritual dismemberment, death, and rebirth. So these morbid themes sometimes have a process of their own, and death of the dream ego (in the dream) can bring new, unforeseen possibilities.

Health Warning Nightmares
Sometimes, dreams can provide early warnings for disease, cancers, and other health issues. Anecdotes abound for these dreams, and they are well-known by medical doctors, hospice staff, and death workers. Repetitive nightmares that become more and more insistent and direct may be a “wake up call” trying to get a message through – especially when you wake up immediately after a shocking image! In this way, sleep disturbance from a nightmare can make it easier to transfer an intuitive body message into waking consciousness.

As an example, here is a short interview of Wanda Burch, who discovered her breast cancer from a series of disturbing dreams.

Overview of Tactics for Lucid Nightmares

Lucid nightmares may contain a jumble of the themes I”ve listed above. In dreams we slide between personal memories and mythic landscapes in an instant. So here is a potpourri of tactics and attitudes that could be helpful, depending on the scenario.

  • Find safe ground, whether than means a specific location in the dream or simply a reminder that “I am safe here.”
  • Know your boundaries, whether you choose to transgress them or not. Knowing boundaries is a explorative process, but over time it will make navigating lucid nightmares easier. Especially true for nightmares with sexual and violent content.
  • Ask for a helper or guardian. Dream researcher Robert van de Castle has done some amazing work charting how our minds easily promote “internalized self helpers”…. if we remember to ask for them.
  • Ask threatening dream characters how you can help them. Sometimes they just have something they need to tell you. Be a good listener, and don’t tell them they are just a part of yourself! (Its amusing, isn’t it, that we usually forget that our dream ego is also not real).
  • Give a gift to threatening dream figures. I look in my pocket, and often find the gift there. This works well, assuming that you really can give the gift honestly.
  • Cultivate gratitude. Do it in your daily life, and it will spill over.
  • Take up a body practice such as yoga, tai chi, or any work that emphasizes balance and breath. Lucid dreamers statistically have excellent balance, and developing it further will promote longer and more satisfying lucid dreams.
  • Explore your core beliefs. I”m gonna have to talk about this more some other time, because this is such a rich topic on its own. In a nutshell, the more explicit you understand what you really believe about how the universe works, the more confidently you will navigate lucid nightmares. This doesn’t mean you can’t be open to change; in fact, the more you explore these beliefs the more opportunities to deepen, or overturn, these beliefs are presented.
  • If you have a spiritual practice, try chanting or prayer in the lucid nightmare. These practices are designed to lower stress, after all, and they may tap into forgotten sources of trust from your personal past.
  • Last but not least, be flexible in the moment, and trust in yourself.
  • And, if all else fails, get out while the getting’s good. game Over.

Please add your own tactics by commenting below!


  1. says

    Thanks, Ryan. I don’t often have lucid nightmares but I enjoyed this series. My most recent lucid nightmare was a series of false awakenings, which only added to the nightmarish aspect.

  2. says

    As mentioned, I have only had marginal experience of lucid dreams, all of it possible. Haven’t really had nightmares since I was young whipper snapper. Last one I remember I was stabbed in the stomach, which instantly made me wake up. When I awoke, I was choking on a large mount (about 1/3 a pint) of thick saliva. I don’t know if anything can be read into that?

  3. says

    Thanks Richard for the interest! I am pursuing traditional print publishing for that paper. However, I am currently collecting dream reports for lucid nightmares to continue this work. So email me if you want to participate.

  4. Michelle Siegel says

    I have had frequent dreams of hauntings in rooms or homes I’m dreaming about. I can sense at the onset of stepping into the house, the room that is haunted, and that I shouldn’t go there, but I do. These dreams have awakened me, and frightened me, but I finally decided that these are my dreams, and I can control them and my safety. So, before I go to sleep, I tell myself I will not dream of hauntings in a room, a house, a person, etc., etc. I have not had these dreams since I began this exercise.

  5. Kristi says

    I am glad I found your site. I thought I was alone in this. I have never personally met someone who has the dream experiences I have, so when I talk to people about it, it’s a little far fetched for them to grasp.

    First off- I can remember dreams I had when I was 5. I am now 25. I dream nearly every night, always have. I always remember my dreams in vivid detail and they are usually nightmares. When I was 15 I had my first lucid dream. I was able to control things like magic. I have only had a few of those. I do, however, have lucid nightmares. They happen in common dreams I have. For instance, I frequently dream about driving over a bridge that ends up going straight up into the air- it’s terrifying. Up to that point, I am unaware of dreaming. The minute the bridge turns into a hellish roller coaster I realise I am “trapped” in a nightmare. I have no control of the outcome, I am just conscious in a nightmare and am forced to go through it until I die. I always wake up just before I die. I think the same thing each time, “please no, just wake up, please don’t do this”. It is utterly terrifying. This also happens in my other common dream themes, dreams that involve the beach or swamps or murky swimming pools, dreams of snakes, airplane crashes, lost in haunted houses…. Anything I commonly dream about, I usually become aware it’s a dream and am trapped right up until something horrible is about to happen. The only common dream I have that doesn’t turn lucid are dreams of the end of the world and Jesus coming.

    My dreams are awful. I never have pleasent dreams, everytime I fall asleep, even for a catnap, I have nightmares that feel real- they are so vivid….. I don’t want to end these dreams because they have been here my entire life and are a part of me- but I would like to find someone to talk to who is knowledgable about dreams so I can make some sense of them. I feel totally alone about this and I feel like they have to mean something, they are just too vivid and emotional to be random brain junk….. Would you know of anyone I could speak with about them?

    • Hannah says

      I have had the same problems with lucid nightmares since i was a child. I have a breathing technique that I use once I figure out its a dream. Breathe as hard as you can. Suck in air and keep doing it. It will wake you up. Let me know if that helps. I also sleep on my side and never on your back!!!

  6. Liam says

    Ryan thanks, i will try asking for help and offering gifts (a bit of reverse psychology i love it! i’m still going to get my limbs hacked off)
    i have a simlilar problem to kristi, the only lucid dreams i’ve had recently have been awakening in the middle of a knightmare that usually involves unimaginable pain(why don’t i wake up? i’m usually screaming this in the dream)

  7. says

    Kristi – somehow your comment slipped by me, sorry! your lucid nightmares seem to be about powerlessness, so the hidden opportunity in these encounters is a chance to be courageous and to stand up for yourself. As scarily real as these dreams seem, you are in a safe place, and there’s nothing to lose because you know what happens when the roller coaster crashes! I had similar dreams all through my twenties, so you are in good company. If you are looking to find someone to talk to about your dreams, I recommends seeking out a certified dreamworker or a counselor who specializes in dreams. the website is a good resource for this.

  8. says

    Liam, thanks for following up. when the pain in dreams transgresses into waking reality — that is a wake up call! it may also be a symptom of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea in which the transfer between sleep stages is jagged, resulting in sleep paralysis and microawakenings. you can take an online sleep apnea questionnaire anonymously here:

    pain can be metaphoric too for resistance to something we do not want to accept or acknowledge, much in the same way that anger can mask other more vulnerable emotions. the remarkable thing about lucid dreams is we have the opportunity to face the pain and surrender to it, or to ask the dream “why is this happening?”

  9. Liam says

    Ryan, I scored fairly low on all the situations. Even though I can’t wake up it’s not always the case, there is a point from awake to lucid that I know can’t be crossed or I won’t be able to wake myself up, it’s feels like I’m pinned to the bed, like sleep paralysis but not as scary(that takes imense concentration to awaken, focusing every bit of attention on one limb, even when my eyes are open I’m still mostly paralysed. Though now I just get a leg going and kick my wife until she shakes me awake. I have told her if I start kicking you, please wake me up immediately because I’m having a horrible expereience!!)I think I may be coming across a bit negative as most of the dreaming was positive (now taking it slow, had forgotten how amazing/weird it is!) but the bad was so bad it put me off, however I shall persevere.
    Very cool website by the way.

  10. says

    Liam, sleep paralysis doesn’t have to be scary. as maybe you’ve discovered, it can launch directly into more lucid dreaming or an OBE. fear is optional. My wife has also learned to recognize when I’m in SP or a lucid dream because my breathing often changes dramatically. However, I’ve asked her not to wake me up because I want to be there. If you want, email me and we can continue this dialogue in private (cogo to my about page): I’ll be happy to help you figure out what your SP triggers are so you can at least have more control when the experiences happen.

  11. Travis Zolnikov says

    I noticed a comment that stated that you were collection lucid nightmares. I had my first and only lucid dream / nightmare on Monday night.

    Bascially I became aware and realized that I was reading a text (specifically 3 pages of faded yellow paper or scrolls) which had much evil writing on it. I remember thinking to myself how can I know this information or recall this writing from my dream. I had never scene it before the writing and words were as plain as day.

    At this point I was very aware as if I was awake and in partial control of the dream. I can not recall what was written but it was purely evil as almost as if it was a spell. I was being forced to read it and I realized that Satan was there and forcing me to read it. At that point I became very scared (for as a child demonic possessions and things like that had always absolutely terrified me), but then realized that fear was what he wanted. I managed to break his grasp and then call upon Jesus and God to please help me. I remember two beings (no shape or form but there were two of them) come rushing in, like an incoming wind, help me or run the devil off and at that point everything just fades to black. The next thing I know I was awake in AM. I never actually woke up from this dream.

    The feeling I get from it was that this not a dream per se, but an actual happening. This event that unfolded as far as I am concerned truly happened, mayhaps on a different plane or level, but regardless, was not fiction of my imagination.

    My friend sent me this link after i described to her what had happened. I was pretty upset when I woke up in the morning.

    Best Regards,

    • says

      Travis, thanks for sending this powerful dream – I too would call it an “encounter dream.” Dreams may happen while we are sleeping, but they are psychologically real and can affect our lives as much as what happens to us in the waking world. Your action in the dream to call on your faith was a good choice, and I hope other readers read about what happened next. In lucid nightmares, it is important to harness the power of our beliefs to break through the traps of fear. This is an effective strategy if you are religious or a secularist. I think this dream exhibits great courage! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Caitriona says

    Hi Ryan, reading this has been a revelation. I’ve always had vivid dreams and nightmares, where I know I am dreaming and some dreams that repeat or continue on like a chapter in a book with years between the dreams. It can be interesting (especially ones where I visit new cities) but my recent nightmares are full of potent fear maybe you could give your opinion. The fear is in relation to two rooms, they are old rooms of a house that doesn’t really exist, I dream I live in a different newer part of the house and try not think about these rooms. I feel real fear at the thought of being in them. It seems so real that after the last dream it took me days to realise they were not part of the last house I lived in that I had added them on in a dream.

    • says

      Caitriona, thanks for joining the discussion. I have had similar dreams so let me venture a guess, but keep in mind that this is merely a “projection” of my lifeworld onto yours, so it may or not be accurate. When I dream of houses with old rooms and have fear about them, these rooms contain old emotional material that wants to be addressed. Houses are also a common “metaphor” for our body, so it could be that the message also involves health. what happens in these rooms (for me) is never as scary as my fear is strong…. usually it is meeting a dream character who needs attention, acceptance, or understanding. So my advice, next time this comes around, is to gather your courage and your knowledge that you are in no danger, and enter the room with an attitude to help. This attitude (compassion) is really the antidote to fear. Feel free to contact me (via my about page) if you want to continue this exploration in private message.

  13. Caitriona says

    Ryan thank you for your reply. I will try to follow through on your suggestion. It is time I took control of the dream- thanks again. Happy Christmas.

  14. Aram says

    Ryan, I didn’t have a lot of lucid dreams yet in most of them i wake up because of excitement almost immediately, I’m working on this through techinques descrbide on the net. however the last two times I was lucid it was a nightmare, in seconds after becoming lucid the dream turned into a nightmare when a clone of me (though i couldn’t see his face i knew it was a clone or some sort of spawn of me) suddenly out of nowhere started to fight with me, i tried to punch him but as usual in dreams this was nearly impossible, after my attempts to assault him he fled and i started to chase him, after he got trapped he was forced to turn around and face me, now i could see his faced, he/I , i don’t know how to address it, had a menacing demons face. i awoke because of the shock after seeing his face.

    my next lucid nightmare started like the first, i became lucid after i looked into the mirror and realizing something wasn’t right, seconds after becoming lucid i saw my reflection in the mirror changed into the demon and at the sight of this my body was shot through the air like a cannonball, i landed on the floor where i remained unable to move for some time, i remmeber thinking ”wait I’m dreaming and I’m lucid, so i can just do whatever i want, why can’t i just get up?” while thinking this i noticed the door and heard somebody was coming through door very slowly, I said to myself ”if the person walking through the door can be manipulated by me I am indeed dreaming, if not, this is all real and I’m in hell or something”. Slowly a body without arms legs and head glided through the room, after multiple attempts to make it go away i (falsely offcourse) realized i was either in hell or some other supernatural stuff was going on and this was all real, this thought scared me so bad i awoke again.

    lately I am having some trouble with myself and after doing some research on the net I found out I’m very likely suffering from psychopathy. though this discovery was after the two lucid nightmares i feel there’s a connection.

    i was wondering one thing, why is it that i didn’t have my normal lucid powers? somehow even though i know i’m dreaming but I’m bound to the scenario without any influence?

  15. says

    dear Aram, thank you for sharing these powerful experiences. You are providing a service to everyone by your honest descriptions!

    first off, if you do feel like you are suffering from some kind of psychopathology, I recommend finding a therapist in your town. Many are sliding-scale and some are even free. do a search on google and use your yellow pages, or try a hotline number to talk to someone anonymously. there is no shame in this, as many of us suffer from psychological illness at one point in our lives.

    as for your lucid nightmares, these are classic examples that show that being lucid doesn’t mean you’re in control of the dream. when we’re dreaming, we are accessing the parts of the brain that stimulates strong emotion, and lucidity alone cannot balance this flood of emotion such as fear and terror. in dreams, our sense of self is mixed up with “other”, so if we are terrorized, our dream characters will be terrible. it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. next time, rather than fighting your enemy, try making peace with him. ask what he wants, or how you can help him.

    the second dream sounds like it has elements of sleep paralysis – in which you may have been feeling the REM paralysis of your body during the dream. in these situations, it’s best to remain calm and remember that fear brings more fear, just as gratitude or trust can bring new possibilities. (also true when looking in a mirror during a LD) to wake yourself up, try wriggling your toe. also, staring at one point in the dream with intense focus can cause a dream to disperse.

    rest assured, these lucid nightmares are normal and you’re on the path! lucid dreaming gets better with practice.

  16. mondo says

    i have dreams that seem to have traped me from age 7 to 19
    im walking up this one and only one hill then i come up to a
    house slowly walking closer and closer all of a sudden the door creaps open when i am close to grabing the door handle stun,chill’s ran down my back thru my body, slowly entering the room i take off my shoes by the door to keep it from closing, waking into darkness with little lighting from the open windows of the full moon light out, as i get the to stairs in front of me i look to the side as if a shadow walked by just see couchs cups out on the coffie table into the darkness behind it leading the dinning room to my left an empty room and no windows then a sound i heard before intering the house i turn around to the front door closing flinching to keep it open it shuts close chilling feeling once again with more frighting into my body standing in the dark inside the house scared, waving my arms around til i find something to lead me around the house yet stuck i cant move freaking out, shouting,i cant move!!! over and over….silence no more wind no more creeking…a sound of someone taking a breath in the distance dark my breathing slows down trying to listen to wheres its coming from?????…..closer and closer the breathing gets the more i get scared as it get highyer i know this thing behind me is tall it cant be a human sounds like an animal,i cant move trying to run yet slow inch by inch i move closer to the front door then my arms get pulled back as if im a puppet im still moving forward to the door i know because its what i have been facing ever sence it closed on me..finaly get the stranght to walk to the door…but the breathing is right behind me, so i stop………breathing becomes right beside my right ear and louder and faster its gets my fear is coming back…so i use that fear to run out that door and as i ran out i my shoes are back on but so happy to be out of there as i came closer to running down the hill i came up from…it became a cliff i stop,stun as i hear the breathing get closer….i hear the shouting of a animal i never heard before as i turn i see what it is,so i turn to my left i see another trail as i began to run it push’s me off chill’s of no explanation comes over me….so i wake up to the same feeling and my hearts pounding, trying to calm myself down.

  17. Nancy Evans Bush says

    Ryan, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions offline. You have my email address; will you give me a contact for you?

  18. Joleen Grace says

    I have called for help when I was surrounded by the demons in a lucid dream, even when they tricked into going into their realm when I was not lucid yet. An angel-like figure….usuallya woman appears..sword in hand yet it is never needed. The demons scatter and before I have a change to ask her all the things I want to ask her, I wake up. Angels/Dikini never speak. At least they never have to me. They give me a knowing look, the look of a solider following orders. I can feel their light and yet the strength they offer is terrifying in its completeness. I have only ever called for them when I most deperatly need them. The battle belongs to me until it gets to a point where the demons/asura are not fighting fair.

  19. Joleen Grace says

    ps. I have died in lucid dreams also. However, once in the demon realm…real pain can be inflicted….some of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. Anyone else experience anything similar?

  20. Faris says

    well I haven’t tried lucid dreaming yet, but I was scared about the nightmare thing, but I waited till dawn to sleep coz light reduces the feeling of fear (nightmares).I also listened to some old rock n roll songs like hound dog and whole lotta shakin’ because rock n roll makes me feel happy. (btw I am only 13 :))

  21. Christian says

    I’ve been trying to lucid dream ever since I stumbled upon the subject about a week ago.

    Here’s my story however:
    I’ve only ever had one lucid dream that changed my beliefs. I used to be a hardcore atheist, trying to disapprove God in every way, be it forums, Youtube, you name it. But…this one dream I have had has shaken me to my core beliefs, and now I’ve turned Agnostic because of the confusion.

    I woke up in a 1950’s kitchen (that I’ve NEVER been in or seen before), and everything felt so real. It was REALLY bright, like an extremely nice, cool summer day, the windows were open and I can hear nature outside, it sounded beautiful. As I was getting off the floor, I could see two shoes. I was crouched on the floor and I slowly looked up. As I saw more and more of the man, I stopped right about where his neck met his torso (so his head wasn’t visible). I felt no fear whatsoever. I felt almost an admiration and belief for the man. He said something to me that I cannot recall for the life of me (I’ve tried SOOO hard to remember) and instantly I woke up. The thing is…I could, I don’t know how to explain this…”feel” everything, from the floor to the blades of grass outside. I felt connected to everything, like I knew those were apart of me dreaming. But I couldn’t feel the same connection to the man. He felt alien, like it was a separate person visiting me in my lucid dream. I firmly believe God visited me in my dream. Now I grew up Catholic, but I changed my view to atheist when I was around 12 because I got into science. What could all of this mean?

  22. Malik McKinney says

    Thanks a lot Ryan for responding, I tell mentors and friends and they all feel me that what I think am doing can not be done. I wish I could speak to you and tell you about my dreams, I have been doing this for a while know. This reading help me see that my dreams are created out of a free that I have, but every time I have this dream that’s how I know that I am dreaming and then I begin to gain control. I love it know and have for along time.

  23. Ankhfnkhonsu says

    I know this post is years old – but my story. There are periods where awareness in dreams is easier to come by than others. There was a period where for a few days it was easy… And all of them were terrifying. I found myself even encouraging scarier and scarier images. I also found myself turning my fear up and down like I had some kind of inner dial. Looking back on it, it was a great time.

  24. Caleb says

    I appreciate this segment. I find that nightmares are some of the most exciting dreams; it’s a puzzle, something that you need to work against, or a hurtle you have to overcome. Many of my nightmares I find myself in a last stand position and awaken myself right before that final blow. It’s quite intense, and not always the most comfortable feeling, but it is definitely empowering. I find that once you have learned the boundaries of the world, if it reoccurs you have even more power, and can battle even further and survive even longer. Although, I do not suggest taunting the foe…bad juju.

  25. says

    This helped me to find out about lucid dreaming.somtimes i wanna do that but i just dream and then i suddenly fall then i see watches and memories and then i mindread peopel and and then BAM!im back i in my good old comfy bed in the dark (im scared of the dark D: )but when i wake up i havce a feeling that im falling and i get up many times to that feeling,but i really wanna try lucid dreaming. :3 somtimes anyways