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.
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
- education about the relationship between nightmares and insomnia.
- education about cognitive restructuring via imagery
- client selects a particularly disturbing nightmare (maybe not the most disturbing one first)
- Client then instructed to “change the nightmare anyway you wish” (notice they are not asked to make it positive or even less distressing)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Dreams hold much mystery as to the whys and wherefores. And yet many people suffer from frequent nightmares. The brain keeps processing our anxiety, discouragement, stress and it shows up in strange and repetitive nightmares. The more emotional or physical pain, the more likely you’ll have a nightmare.
But here’s something interesting. A study was done in Germany that found that dreaming sleepers subjected to the smell of rotten eggs had more nightmares than those subjected to the smell of roses.
I wonder if those who suffer frequent nightmares might find benefit from aroma therapy while they sleep. If it really worked outside the lab, it would be cheaper and probably less side-effects than medications. Just don’t use candles…