On December 6, 2021, I had a dream about going to an Ed Sheeran concert (I am not a fan of Ed Sheeran). I remember this because it’s the final entry in my months-long dream journal, which I kept in the recent period I was taking antidepressants. “First, we sat high up in the stands,” I wrote, “but we went down to get some snacks. I got a bread roll, butter and a Fanta lemon — I wanted a pink drink because the elderly ladies sitting next to us had big bottles of it, but they didn’t sell it in the shop. Ed finally comes out, and starts pulling people from the crowd to dance on the floor in front of the stage — it’s a choreographed Zumba-style routine, but everyone knows it. I initially get pulled out, but I manage to get away because it would be my nightmare to dance.”
This is an extract from a much longer, extremely detailed retelling of the dream — which I had three days before I stopped taking my prescription. Since then, I’ve dreamt, but I’ve never been able to recall so exhaustively exactly what happened in my sleep. This is a common side effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which, according to Mark Silvert, one of the psychiatrists at London’s Blue Tree Clinic, increase neurotransmitters in the brain, serotonin in particular. Silvert explains that with more neurotransmitters, a person’s brain is more active, meaning they’ll likely “feel things in a more vivid way,” including dreams — and, he adds, if the dream “seems more real, you’re going to wake up and remember it.”
But while many people report suffering nightmares thanks to their medication, some love their antidepressant-induced dreams, and even find them therapeutic. For others, SSRIs can push their dreams even further, enabling them to lucid dream — in which they become aware that they’re dreaming, and can even gain control over the dream’s characters, narrative or environment.
“When I was on a very high dose of my medication, I would lucid dream three to four times a week,” says 20-year-old Natalie from Illinois. Natalie started taking SSRIs nearly four years ago, and immediately noticed the effect on her dreams. She had never attempted to lucid dream before, but after starting her medication, she found her dreams more vivid and easier to remember, and she could even influence what happened in them. “One thing that happens a lot is that I have superpowers,” she tells me. “I’ll just be able to will myself to fly in my dreams. Sometimes I also have telekinesis, and can just point my hand at an object and move it if I want to, or I can blast someone with a random power coming out of my hands.”
Natalie describes most of her lucid dreams as positive, and says that occasionally she’ll even wake up feeling sad because her “awesome dream” wasn’t real and she has to instead “face the real world after waking up.” Interestingly, superpower dreams are said to represent a person feeling more confident or empowered than they usually do — arguably one intended effect of antidepressants.
Philippines-based Selena, 17, also sees her newfound ability to lucid dream as a good thing. She started taking SSRIs at the beginning of 2021, and began lucid dreaming after four months on them. When it first happened, Selena found herself controlling her dreams every night for a month, but hasn’t been able to do it since switching her meds at the start of this year. “Pre-medication, I was having nightmares and sleep paralysis every day,” she explains. “I felt like I couldn’t control anything in my dreams, so when I started lucid dreaming, it was an overwhelming experience. I occasionally had dreams about confronting a friend about an issue, but before I was on the medication, I didn’t have the guts to say my thoughts out loud. When I had the dream recur again [when I was on antidepressants], I felt like I was actually in the body of the person confronting my friend in the dream, and I could finally say what I wanted to say.”
Selena credits the self-assurance and assertiveness she felt in these dreams with helping her to see a more positive outlook on her reality, and encouraging her to see a future in which her mental health improves.
Robert Waggoner, the former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and the author of two books on lucid dreaming, says it’s not unusual for people to resolve emotional issues via lucid dreams. He references two cases, one in which a man used lucid dreaming to alter a variable in his PTSD-induced recurring nightmare, subsequently ending the nightmare for good. In the other — a personal anecdote of Waggoner’s — a woman with a fear of flying was encouraged to use lucid dreaming to go to the airport, get on a plane and allow it to take off. “In one of these dreams, she announced, ‘I love airports! I love airplanes!’ to plant that idea into her dreaming mind,” Waggoner says. “By the end of the month, she no longer felt anxiety about flying, and even booked a plane ticket.”
In Waggoner’s examples, the subjects had to learn how to lucid dream, whereas Natalie and Selena’s SSRI-induced lucid dreams just happened by chance. For 33-year-old Nick, who’s also based in Illinois, antidepressants have enhanced his already-practiced ability to lucid dream. When teaching himself in college, Nick read that you need an element in your dream that distinguishes it from reality — his is a bouncing red ball. If he sees the ball, he knows he’s dreaming, and can navigate what happens, altering the setting and the details. He says that he didn’t get particularly reliable results with his dreams until he started taking the right meds (he’s been taking various antidepressants since he was 16, but found the right ones around three years ago — a mix of the SSRI, Mirtazipine, and the SNRI, Venlafaxine). Now, he explains, “the lucid dreaming is more intense. If I see the ball, it calms me down”.
Nick believes his medication-induced lucid dreams “can help in the same way taking psychedelics can help, in that you can address yourself objectively.” However, he adds, there can be some negative side effects. Although his antidepressants have helped alleviate his waking-life panic attacks, he says they can still happen in dreams. “I’ll get the feeling it’s starting, but I can’t stop it like I can in real life,” he explains. Nick also sometimes dreams about his best friend, who died suddenly a few years ago. “I lucid-dreamed once that she was alive and we hung out,” he recalls. “It ruined my next day to remember it wasn’t real.”
Of course, not everyone who takes SSRIs will have more vivid dreams, let alone be able to lucid dream. For those interested in trying it — whether you’re on medication or not — Waggoner has a few tips. First, “get into the habit of good dream recall” and try to remember “at least a couple of dreams a week.” Then, he says, “the easiest and most direct way to become lucid involves the power of suggestion just before sleep.” To do this, you can use the mantra, “Tonight in my dreams, I will be much more aware, and when I notice something strange, I will realize I’m dreaming.” Another technique is to “look at the palms of your hands before you go to sleep, while quietly repeating in your mind, ‘Tonight in my dreams, I will see my hand and realize I am dreaming.’”
Waggoner adds that you can also simply read about lucid dreaming: “One guy wrote to me that he had five spontaneous lucid dreams after reading the first 50 pages of my book. He said he became so curious about the ideas and potential, that his subconscious must have decided to help him become lucid.”
Okay, then, here goes nothing. “Tonight in my dreams, I’m going to whisper at my hands so I can avoid another Zumba class with Ed Sheeran. Tonight in my dreams, I’m going to whisper at my hands so I can avoid another Zumba class with Ed Sheeran.”