How to Take Control of Your Crazy 2020 Dreams

Seven sleep experts, professors and therapists weigh in on the art of "lucid dreaming"

September 16, 2020 6:33 am
How to Take Control of Your Crazy 2020 Dreams
Graciela Vilagudin/Getty

Good sleep is no guarantee in 2020.

According to a recent report from The National Sleep Foundation, certain Americans are racking up almost 25 hours of “sleep debt” each week — a term that refers to the difference between how much sleep we need and how much we’re actually getting. Others are struggling to fall asleep at all, leading to a nationwide uptick in restlessness that the Washington Post recently called “coronasomnia.” And even those who do end up getting some shut-eye are heading soon after to the dentist’s office with tooth fractures due to “bruxism,” a stress response that involves clenching one’s jaw.

What’s going on? Well, we’ll have some hard scientific data once the year is through; the Sleep Research Center in Quebec, for instance, is leading a 15-country initiative to track the pandemic’s relationship to poor sleep. But sleep disturbances have sprung from all sorts of lifestyle stressors and COVID-specific circumstances. Think layoffs and furloughs from the recession, canceled PTO due to the travel shutdown, squandered retirement plans, extended time away from family and loved ones gone too soon.

This is all playing out in homes with more people around than usual, as schools and offices have moved online. Bedrooms, as a result, have lost their hallowed “sleep only” status, with many Americans working at a desk five feet from bed, or directly atop it. Bombarding bedrooms with blue light has only further fiddled with days that have lost all semblance of a routine, and by extension, the sleep that we rely on to keep that routine going. Take it all into account, and it’s little wonder that the Google search term “why I am having weird dreams lately” quadrupled during a week in mid-April of this year.

Over the last few months, my dreams have trotted out a long march of unpleasant and unhelpful metaphors. A couple nights ago, Game 7 of the World Series was for some reason being held at the middle school diamond in my hometown. It was only a couple blocks away and completely free. All I had to do in order to get there was tie my shoes. I never stood a chance. First there was a fox stalking my backyard, then the mail arrived (the mailman, naturally, was a college friend I never texted back a month ago), and then, without any explanation, I was suddenly on a boat.

In a very basic sense, dreaming is a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re attaining healthy cycles of REM sleep, a period of deep sleep where your arms and legs are paralyzed (to prevent you acting out dreams), the brain consolidates memories, emotions and information, and the body works towards healing soreness and maladies. In an ideal world, where you’re getting eight hours of sleep, you’ll have up to five cycles and 90 total minutes of REM sleep. That said, the content of those dreams can often reflect the stresses of your waking life, and those worries are only compounded when you wake up and remember what you dreamt about, creating a frustrating parallel cycle.

My silly shoelace dreams could be worse. I suspect they’re a side effect of the current situation, and my attendant inability to attend public events due to the national lockdown. Other sleepers, especially those suffering from direct trauma this year — think medical professionals — could be facing recurring nightmares. Whatever your situation, though, whether you’re waking up in a sweat, waking up slightly annoyed like me, or waking up without dreams at all (which could indicate you’re struggling to reach deep sleep at all, perhaps due to the sleep woes outlined earlier), it may be time to take a more active role in your dreaming.

To that end: we recently spoke to a panel of sleep experts, professors and therapists on how to change the narrative each time you put your head against the pillow. There are a variety of methods you can employ, to varying degrees of commitment, that will help you maintain a good dream, or write yourself into one from scratch. This might entail full-fledged “lucid dreaming” (though it’s difficult to attain, and comes with some caveats), or could be as simple as being kinder to yourself before bed. But in a year like this one, with the real world crazy enough as it is, it’s time to inject some sense into dreamland.

With a bit of practice, you can bring some clarity — and even control — to your dreams.
Jr Korpa/Unsplash

Know the basics

“What’s happening around us now — the isolation, the anxiety, the stress — influences what and how we dream. And maintaining or controlling these dreams requires time, dedication and training. The three most common methods to achieve lucid dreaming include:

  • Reality testing. Do something multiple times a day, which will train your mind to do it even while you’re asleep.
  • The Wake Back To Bed technique (WBTB). In this technique, you should set an alarm five hours after your bedtime, sleep as usual, and when the alarm goes off, stay up for 30 minutes before heading back to sleep. This increases the chances of you having a lucid dream.
  • Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). This technique makes you set an objective to do something for later. It’s typically falling asleep while focused to remember that you’re dreaming.” — Chris Norris, Managing Editor at

Invest in a journal

“Dreams are often a window into the subconscious. But they must be captured as soon as we wake,, since they dissipate like smoke by midday. Before bed, set an intention to remember your dreams. Write that intention down and put it next to your bedside. Prepare to record your dreams with either pen and pad or voice recorder at your bedside. Meditate on that intention for 30 seconds or more before going to sleep. If you wake during the night with a dream memory, write it down immediately. When you wake, take a few moments and try to remember your dreams. Do you remember people? Do you remember a place? What emotions do you feel?Practice, practice, practice. It takes time and patience to recall and interpret dreams, but the journey is worth the effort. Now is the time to set an intention, record what you remember and interpret what your subconscious is telling you.” — Tammy Kearce, professor of communication and social science at NWFSC

Talk yourself into it

“The key, similar to Mitch Horowitz’s teachings, is to set your intentions while in a hypnagogic state (just as you fall asleep and just as you wake up) to direct your subconscious. There is no drawback to talking to your subconscious into taking positive action or direction.” — Carolyn Wilman, publisher at ideaMajesty

You’ve gotta want it

“Having an optimal sleep environment is critical. That means following a regular sleep routine, going to bed at the same time each night, keeping your bedroom dark and cool, and disconnecting from distractions. It can be helpful to establish an affirmative phrase before you go to sleep each night like, ‘I will recognize that I am dreaming, and this is not real.’ This may help ground you if you struggle with nightmares or intensely uncomfortable dreams. And try using ‘reality checks’ throughout the day to induce lucid dreaming. Reality checks may include gazing into a mirror to check your reflection or checking the time on a clock. If you do this several times a day in your conscious state, you will start to do it during your dreams. You’ll be able to then distinguish dreams from reality. Dream work does require a level of commitment — you have to have some belief that it will work, or you may end up sabotaging your own efforts. Results can take a few weeks to months, depending on your effort. The benefits of having more control of your dreams include less anxiety and deeper REM cycles, both of which are essential for your health.” — Nicole Arzt, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast

Change the narrative

“We don’t have much control over what we dream about, but if someone is experiencing the same or a similar unpleasant dream over and over, it can be helpful to explore the storyline of that dream during the day. You might try writing down the entire anxiety dream is as much detail as possible. Then, reinvent the dream so it’s no longer quite so unpleasant. This might involve rewriting large parts of the dream, or just changing the ending. 
After you’ve done this, take time during the day to imagine and recreate this new dream you’ve formulated in as much detail as possible. With repeated practice, the original dream might occur less frequently, or you might even find yourself being able to modify the dream as it’s occurring so it no longer turns into an unpleasant dream or nightmare.” — Martin Reed, certified clinical sleep health educator (CCSH), founder of Insomnia Coach

Tread carefully

“In a way, it’s fascinating and magical to think that we can have the upper hand on our dreams. After all, an active approach to dreaming can stop nightmares in their tracks, or help people with various phobias to finally face their fears. But there are disadvantages to this sort of commitment, especially for people who have certain mental health disorders. This sort of dreaming may blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not.” — Norris

Consider diversifying your days

“A lot of people are having more vivid dreams in the COVID era because they are doing and seeing less during their days. There is no commute anymore, and no real difference from one afternoon to the next, so the mind gets creative. There is a way to control your dreams called lucid dreaming, but it’s necessarily something that everyone should attempt. It can require a lot of training; you’re basically teaching yourself that you are asleep each night, so that you can be in control of what happens, instead of letting your mind wander. While some people would like to be able to control what happens in their dreams, it can take a toll on your concentration in the day, if you have been ‘awake’ all night.” — Dr.Giuseppe Aragona, General Practitioner & Family Doctor at Prescription Doctor

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