How Nightmares Transformed My Life And Freed Me From Fear

By Dr. Clare Johnson

Have you ever experienced fear? Fear of change, fear of a particular situation, fear of making a leap of faith, or fear of dying… any kind of fear. Fear can be an enormous obstacle not only for psychological growth, but for spiritual development. Fear blocks us, it freezes us up, it prevents us from living a full and joyous life. In many ways, my current work is all about transcending fear, because I’m exploring the creative and transformative darkness of nightmares, sleep paralysis, anxiety dreams, and other nocturnal terrors.

Nightmares frequently ping into my inbox as people from all around the globe write to share their most hideous dreams, horrifying sleep paralysis experiences (when you fall asleep but your brain remains aware, so you feel trapped in your body), and trauma-induced nightmares. Some tell me they are cursed by dreams of future tragedies — dreams that come true in waking life. Others plead with me for help with their nonstop lucid nightmares. They write things like: “I’m scared I’m losing my mind.” Or they write, “I’m desperate — why is this happening to me?” They make frantic appeals: “I’m terrified to fall asleep, please help me get my life back.” Their fear is palpable and it is in the process of destroying their lives.

I have a full life, taking care of my family, writing lucid dream books, leading lucid dreaming ocean retreats and devoting time to the International Association for the Study of Dreams as past President and CEO. But I take the time to write back to every single person, because these people speak right to my heart.

85% of the adult population reports having at least one nightmare in the past year, and 29% report at least one a month. Large-scale dream surveys reveal that most people regularly report dreams with negative emotional content such as anxiety, fear, or sorrow. Sounds like pretty bad news, doesn’t it? But the little-known secret is that nightmares can be transformative, healing gifts.

All dreams come to help and heal us, and nightmares are dreams that cry out for our attention. They yell: “Healing is needed!” or they call in despair: “Things can’t go on like this any longer!” or they forcibly remind us: “You’re still not over what happened when you were eight years old!” Nightmares flag up areas in our lives where healing change is needed. When we open up to their wisdom, we can learn to harness their creative and healing power. We just need to know how.

The true origins of my interest in nightmares and lucid dreaming are rooted in what happened when I was three years old. My earliest memory is of a nightmare in which I was terrified because I knew I was about to die. The dream started well — I was in a sparkling turquoise swimming pool, splashing around in all the beauty. Then somehow, I was underwater and sinking fast. I was kicking frantically and trying to get back up to the surface, but sinking deeper and deeper. At that point, in a state of pure panic, I experienced a moment of clarity. I realised that I had a choice — I could either stay in this dream and drown, or I could wake myself up. I chose to wake up. I did this by rolling over powerfully in the water, and this dream movement was so strong that my physical body rolled right out of bed! The turquoise water was gone; I was in my dark bedroom, tangled up in the sheets.

Alerted by the thump, my mother came running in. She disentangled me and heard my story. In her efforts to reassure me, she told me something that altered my perception of reality.

She said, “It wasn’t real, Clare.”

I was stunned. I knew for a fact that only moments before, I had been drowning in a turquoise swimming pool! How could that experience not be real? But parents were gods, right? They knew everything about everything. I was a three-year-old child — what did I know? Yet something jarred me. I understood that there were two distinct worlds, one labelled “real” and the other labelled “not real.” 

As I continued to grow up, I had many peculiar nocturnal experiences such as floating up into the air and flying over my house at night. I also had recurring lucid nightmares (where I knew I was dreaming, but felt unable to act and change the dream), sleepwalking, and sleep paralysis. Although I grew up in a loving home, there was nobody to help me make sense of any of my bewildering sleep experiences.

I had to become very resourceful. Although I had many wonderful, joyful dreams, I also had terrifying experiences. I experimented with my responses to different nightmare environments and transitional sleep states. Through trial and error, I worked through my fear as best I could, and discovered that when we release fear, we free up a huge amount of energy! We can channel this energy into creating the life we would love to live, and help others do the same.

My interest in the world of sleep, dreams, and nightmares led me to teach myself to lucid dream at will, and I learned to harness the rich healing and creative power of scary dreams. At Lancaster University in1995, I carried out my first academic exploration of lucid dreaming. This eventually led to me becoming the first person in the world to do a PhD on lucid dreaming as a creative writing tool, at Leeds University in the UK. 

Over the years, I’ve written books on the transformative and healing power of lucidity, and given conference presentations and TV interviews on sleep disturbances, how to transform nightmares, and how to release fear during out-of-body experiences. One of my novels, Dreamrunner, explores the effects a violent sleep disorder has on family life.

Dreams and nightmares speak to us in the language of the soul. They are honest mirrors, showing us how we really feel about life, relationships, and ourselves. Through the dark but magical lens of nightmares and other frightening sleep experiences, it is possible to release crippling fears, harmful psychological patterns, and anxieties so that we can step forward into a bright and fearless life.

I am always glad to reassure people that even the worst nightmares carry immense spiritual and healing potential. We just need to know how to unwrap these gifts of the soul.

Dr. Clare R. Johnson was the first person in the world to do a PhD on lucid dreaming as a creative tool. Past President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), she is a well-known lucid dream author and international speaker. Her highly acclaimed lucidity guide is Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming. Her other books include Mindful Dreaming, and novels Breathing in Colour and Dreamrunner. She co-edited Sleep Monsters & Superheroes: Empowering Children through Creative Dreamplay. her new book, The Art of Lucid Dreaming, will be published in March 2020.

Clare, who runs Lucid Dreaming Ocean Retreats in beautiful locations, is the creator of, where she is happy to share advice on lucid dreams and nightmares. She is currently writing a practical book on nightmare solutions, and would love to hear from you if you have a nightmare or other frightening sleep experience to share for the book. 

Click here to visit Clare’s website.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 20: The Dreamwork Summit