Can you change your nightmares?


Blogging has been much harder this fall with a busy teaching and traveling schedule. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about best practices to deal with trauma in international settings–specifically in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Diane Langberg and I have been consulting with a Christian organization to help develop those practices with a local, sustainable mindset.

One of the recent items I read had to do with attempts to address repetitive “posttraumatic nightmares.” Bret Moore and Barry Krakow published, “Imagery Rehearsal Therapy: An Emerging Treatment for Posttraumatic Nightmares in Veterans” in the September 2010 issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy (v. 2, 232-238).

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) attempts to alter nightmares by changing the storyline of the nightmare. The authors view nightmares as learned behavior such as insomnia. The CBT style treatment entails

  1. education about the relationship between nightmares and insomnia.
  2. education about cognitive restructuring via imagery
  3. client selects a particularly disturbing nightmare (maybe not the most disturbing one first)
  4. Client then instructed to “change the nightmare anyway you wish” (notice they are not asked to make it positive or even less distressing)
  5. Client then rehearses (over sessions) the new dream through imagery techniques

Previous controlled studies indicate a reduction in nightmare frequency and intensity. This particular summary article reports that the evidence is there that veterans find it helpful even at 12 months post treatment with 4 sessions.

A couple of things to note. There may be some effect of desensitization from rehearsal of the initial dream (exposure therapy) though the exposure is brief. Also, the client does not spend time rehearsing the actual traumatic events in this therapy–only the nightmares.

Some thoughts:

  1. This treatment makes sense. Ever have a dream that seems to go on and on, or one that you go back to upon waking up in the middle of the night. Often we may find ourselves trying to make the dream turn out okay. This treatment uses our fully awake brains to rehearse something we want to think about.
  2. If nightmares are the result of a collection of anxieties then it stands to reason that repeating new thoughts and images will begin to make associations in the brain that might compete with the anxieties.
  3. Christian living emphasizes re-telling the truth to ourselves. Consider how OT authors remind readers of the Exodus or Paul reminds the Ephesian readers of their prior state (chapters 1-3). What we rehearse does have an impact on our brains.
  4. Finally, some of our nightmares seem written in indelible ink. Do you still have test anxiety nightmares 20 years after your last class? I do. But I feel differently about them now than I might have back when I was still worried about school. It may be that we begin to feel differently about the nightmares. The less we are bothered by them the more infrequent they will be.

5 Comments

Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology

5 responses to “Can you change your nightmares?

  1. Penny

    Minipress (Prazosin) is useful in decreasing the incident of nightmares

  2. Scott Knapp

    If dreams in general are spuriously directed by a hiccup of brain chemistry, mixed with a sprinkling from the cornucopia of anxieties and angst’s, any successful way of removing a “stone from the shoe” would seem justified. On the other hand, I wonder how the segment of Christianity that regards all dreams as “messages from God” would react to the notion that trauma-inspired nightmares require treatment?

    My personal “jury” is still out on this topic, but this is post has been thought provoking!

  3. D. Stevenson

    Whew! I hope not all dreams are messages from God. I also hope that not all dreams have some sort of meaning to them. If they are, or they do, I have a very strange mind sometimes. 🙂

    A niece of mine told me that she has never had a nightmare. She only has good dreams and often wishes she didn’t have to wake up as she is enjoying the dream.

    If nightmares spring from anxiety and past trauma, does this mean she doesn’t have these things in her life? I wonder…

  4. Scott Knapp

    Well, if all dreams are messages from God….I conclude one of us has been burning hemp…and it wasn’t me!

  5. I worked with a flashback that came in dream form in much the way described. I found it did for me what I hoped.

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