Can Recurring Nightmares be Treated?

August 25th, 2010 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

In Victorian times, dreams were believed to represent repressed sexual desires or random brain activity. Now scientists believe they reflect an attempt by the unconscious mind to process and store emotion-laced events from the day.

“We take our problems to sleep and work through them during the night,” Rosalind Cartwright, a neuroscience professor at Rush University Medical Center told the Wall Street Journal.

According to Cartwright, during dreams the mind juxtaposes unprocessed emotions encountered during waking hours with older, related memories. “That’s why dreams look so peculiar. You have old memories and new memories Scotch-plaided into each other,” she added. “They are emotional connections rather than logical ones.”

If this theory is true, it may be possible for people to direct their own dreams. For example, people who experience recurring nightmares might learn to substitute happier endings or eliminate them altogether.

A small group of people who practice “lucid dreaming” believe this is indeed possible. According to these people, recurring nightmares are caused when people wake up from the frightening experiences, thereby interrupting the normal process of emotional reconciliation that takes place during dreaming. Without the reconciliation, the dream is left to repeat itself.

“Your brain seems to think that it’s helping you to prepare, but you don’t allow yourself to finish it so it becomes a broken record,” Shelby Freedman Harris, a Behavioral Sleep Medicine expert at Montefiore Medical Center explained to the Journal.

Harris runs a program that tries to help folks either rewrite or delete the script of recurring dreams using a technique known as Image Rehearsal Therapy. In implementing the technique, dreamers recreate the nightmare with better endings or more palatable story-lines (substituting dolphins for sharks, for example), and rehearse the new script several times per day. 

While far from 100% effective, many of Harris’ patients are able to dream the revised script, while others stop having the nightmare completely.


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