Many who suffer from PTSD or other traumatic reactions also experience chronic nightmares. It is bad enough to have to deal with intrusive memories and triggers during the day but being robbed of peaceful sleep can send you over the edge, both in terms of physical and emotional health. Christian counselors may be tempted to ignore these nightmares (how can you stop something you have little control over?) or overly spiritualize the content of the dream.
But we ought not neglect the problem of nightmares. It is well-known that reductions in quality of sleep make all mental illnesses worse. Nightmare sufferers understandably avoid sleep but of course this creates a vicious cycle of insomnia, anxiety, and increased avoidance strategies.
There are two intervention options (among many) that appear to have fairly robust positive data indicating helpfulness. (For detailed descriptions of these two and others including the analyses of value, see this pdf): Prazosin (medication) and Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT).
Prazosin is an anti-hypertensive (alpha blocker) that may work on the problem of too much norepinephrine in PTSD patients. It seems to improve sleep length and REM time. Interestingly, beta blockers have been found to increase nightmares rather than reduce them. I am no physician and so cannot evaluate the value of this medication for clients but would encourage clients with chronic, severe and re-occurring nightmares to talk with their doctor about whether Prazosin might work for them. The studies I have reviewed primarily examined the value of this medication for veterans with extreme nightmare problems. The most significant downside to medication treatment is that it only works when the medication is taken. Stop the medication, the nightmares may come back. However, some relief may be beneficial and thus the medication then has value.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a short-term therapy that does not work on the actual content of the traumatic experience or attempt to treat PTSD. Instead, it treats nightmares as a primary sleep disorder problem. There are variations on IRT but most versions last between 4 and 6 sessions and may be delivered in individual or group formats. Sessions include education about the nature of nightmares, sleep hygiene protocols, and the imagery replacement protocol. While some of the IR protocols are done imaginally, others ask nightmare sufferers to (a) write down the details of the distressing nightmare, and (b) write a new ending to the nightmare. As Bret Moore and Barry Krakow describe, the therapist does not dictate the new outcome of the revised dream but encourage the sufferer to “change the nightmare anyway you wish” (Psychological Trauma, v. 2, 2010). The nightmare sufferer then rehearses (multiple times) the new ending and is instructed to ignore the old nightmare.
Sound goofy? How is it that a person can just decide to have a different dream? However, the evidence that this therapy works is quite robust. Numerous studies with veterans and civilians indicates it is effective in reducing unwanted nightmares. Most treatment protocols suggest starting with nightmares with content unrelated to actual traumatic events.
Thus, Christian counselors ought to review these two treatments and consider learning the IRT protocol to bring relief to chronic nightmare sufferers.