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Lucid Dream Therapy As A Treatment For Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:

The Stigma Surrounding Dreams
Danya C. MacKean
Augustana University College
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A paper submitted to Dr. Jayne Gackenbach as part of the course requirements for Psy 473 (Sleep and Dreams), April, 1997

The stigma that has accompanied dreams into our century can be thought of as quite unfortunate. In our society, dreams are often thought of as unimportant or as "pure nonsense."(Gackenbach, 1997.) This stigma accompanies all types of dreams, including lucid dreams. There is a very small body of research that indicates the possible therapeutic uses of lucid dreaming. We can see how hard it would be for our society to accept this kind of therapy if they view the key element, dreaming, as "pure nonsense."(Gackenbach, 1997.) Society needs to change the attitudes around dreaming due to the possible benefits that dream therapy could have on problems such as post traumatic stress disorder. I plan to demonstrate the benefits that lucid dream therapy could have for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder and show why society needs to embrace all types of dreaming as an important and useful human resource.

Lucid dreaming has been noted in history numerous times. Aristotle mentioned lucid dreaming (LaBerge, 1988.) Even the philosopher Thomas Reid spoke of using lucid dreams to control his nightmares (LaBerge, 1988.) Some have disputed lucid dreaming and said that there is no such thing. Green and McCreery offer an explanation for the dispute: "If people doubt lucid dreams they do so because they have never experienced one." (1994, p.5.) This is an interesting argument and quite possibly true. Stephen LaBerge explains why some dispute lucid dreams and why this dispute is faulty: "One might object that lucid dreamers are simply not attending to the environment; rather than being asleep, perhaps they are merely absorbed in their private fantasy worlds. . . . . . .if subjects claim to have been awake while showing physiological signs of sleep (or vice versa), we might have cause to doubt their subjective reports."(1990, p.111.) The question that now must be raised is: what is considered to be a lucid dream?

As defined by Green and McCreery "Lucid dreams are those in which a person becomes aware that he is dreaming." (1994, p.1.) Despite the exclusive language, this is a clear and simple definition. Those who have had a lucid dream but are unfamiliar with the terminology could easily recognise their dream as "lucid." Hobson outlines some possible characteristics of lucid dreams and lucid dreamers: "(a) that lucid dreamers will frequently awaken from REM sleep once dream consciousness is achieved and (b) that lucidity will be easiest to induce at times in the night when the system is likely to be changing from REM to waking." (1990, p.38.) This quotation makes lucid dreaming sound quite disruptive to sleep. It is perhaps a relief that LaBerge says "Lucid dreaming is normally a rare experience." (1990, p.109.)

I propose that lucid dreaming has a connection to the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, however before addressing this issue we must outline a definition of post traumatic stress disorder. In Appendix A there are two tables outlining various aspects of post traumatic stress disorder. The first is taken from Ursano, Fullerton and McCaughey (1994, p.9) and the other is from Scurfield (1985, p.233.) In the first table there is a mention of dreams being a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder. This obviously means dreams of the trauma and these dreams are often of a disturbing nature. Kramer gives a definition of what would be considered "disturbing": ". . .our criteria for a disturbing dream: Troubling contents lead to an awakening associated with negative affect and the recall of a prior troubling dream." (1990, p.191.) Other general symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder listed in the tables include feelings of fear, guilt and detachment.

There are many varied ways to treat and provide therapy for post traumatic stress disorder. The literature indicates that early post trauma intervention and debriefing seem very effective. "Several studies, however, provide a rational for early intervention and delineate its optimal timing and its target population. The first line of evidence concerns the pathogenic effects of the secondary stressors that may follow the trauma itself. . . . Interventions which reduce these secondary stressors may improve the long-term outcome after traumas and disasters." (Shalev, 1994, p. 203.) Shalev also mentions several debriefing techniques such as: Task-oriented debriefing, Historical group debriefing and Psychological group debriefing (1994, p.204-209.) Debriefing is said to have positive effects because it possibly addresses both the emotional overload and the impaired psychic structures, which Shalev explains is the psychological foundation for post traumatic stress disorder (1994.)

Even though disturbing dreams are said to be a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, the treatment is non-dream oriented. This is logical because physical problems can be treated in non-physical ways and vice versa. What is illogical is that dream oriented treatment is not considered. This could be simply an oversight, but it could also be an indicator of the aforementioned stigma surrounding dreams. Dream therapy is not a new phenomenon but it seems unfortunate that it is popular within only select circles or therapists. Lucid dreams could be an important tool for the recovery of post traumatic victims and it is unfortunate that a stigma could be the preventing factor surrounding this type of therapy.

Green and McCreery say, with no ambivalence, the advantage of lucid dreams: "Release from nightmares is one of the most obviously useful applications of lucid dreaming, and it might be considered in the context of treatment for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in which the sufferer is sometimes tormented by recurrent bad dreams. . . ." (1994, p.125.) This quotation could deceivingly show us that researchers are recognising lucid dreaming as a therapeutic technique. The problem with that assumption being that Green and McCreery are in the dream field, not the field of psychological trauma. They are going to recognise the importance of dreams because they are not affected by the stigma that surrounds dreaming. The book Trauma and Disaster has no mention of lucid dreaming, so therefore the obvious connection to post traumatic stress disorder must only be obvious to those who specialise in dreams and not to those who specialise in psychological trauma. It is certainly tempting to blame a stigma for this sort of oversight on the part of trauma psychologists.