Treatment May Stop Nightmares from Going Bump in the Night

Happy Halloween! We hope your day is filled with just the right amount of scary. We hope your dreams are sweet and peaceful. No one wants the frights of Halloween to stay with them throughout the night.

For most people, bad dreams are the occasional problem that throws off their rhythm. But for others struggling with anxiety, depression or stress disorders, they can be a nightly occurrence that interferes with their health. It can make days exhausting, ruin people’s moods, worsen anxiety and make going to bed stressful. The problem can worsen to the point where a person has nightmare disorder.  

The treatment for nightmare disorder is generally treated by reducing stress, going to therapy and taking medication. Counselors use imagery rehearsal therapy to help people reimagine their night terrors with better endings. Some people don’t see results using imagery rehearsal therapy.

But a new study may help. Researchers have found that combining the therapy with playing a sound linked to thinking about the positive dream ending during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep drastically improves the results.

People in the study all followed imagery rehearsal therapy. They first wrote down every detail of their nightmare and then rewrote it with a better ending. Then they would “rehearse” the dream, thinking about it repeatedly until it was seeded in their brain. Half the group did that while listening to a piano cord. The other half, the control group, did it in silence. The piano cord was a “neutral sound.” As it wasn’t pleasant or discordant, it wouldn’t influence people’s moods.

All the study participants were given headbands that monitored their sleep and played the noise to them every 10 seconds once they hit REM. They wore the headbands every night for two weeks.

Imagery rehearsal therapy worked for all of the participants, including the control group,” said Dr. Lampros Perogamvros, a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of Geneva Univ. Hospitals. “But in the experimental group, where the sound was positively associated, the decrease was significantly bigger — they had nearly four times fewer nightmares.”

People in the experimental group saw faster results in terms of nightmare reductions than the control group. In a three-month follow-up, they were doing well. And they reported more joyful dreams than folks in the control group. As 30 percent of people don’t see results from imagery rehearsal therapy, Dr. Perogamvros hopes the new research might make the treatment more helpful. The sound acts as an amplifier to the therapy.

The combination of sound and therapy reduced the weekly average of nightmares from three to zero. The people in the control group averaged one nightmare a week. That’s an extraordinary result.

The fact that they could actually make a big difference in the frequency of those nightmares is huge,” says Gina Poe, a neuroscientist at UCLA, reacting to the study.  

Sleep trackers on the market aren’t accurate at distinguishing between sleep cycles. The headbands were clinical brain monitoring tools. As of yet, this is not a “home solution.” More research will be needed before this becomes a widespread treatment.

This research reinforces what we have always said about creating a bedtime routine and sticking to it. The people in the experimental group had extra layers of training in their brains to combat stress. Having actions in place associated with a good night’s sleep can improve the outcome of your night. And, if you struggle with frequent nightmares, speak to your doctor about imagery rehearsal therapy.

Banner image: cottonbro via Pexels

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