Recurring nightmares? Scientists have found a way to rid you of them

Some 4 per cent of the adult population experiences recurring nightmares, according to studies.
Some 4 per cent of the adult population experiences recurring nightmares, according to studies. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Giulia Carbonaro
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Conditioning patients to respond to a certain sound during sleep, scientists were able to get them rid of their bad dreams.


Sleeping might be as far from resting as you can imagine when you’re trapped in a nightmare, especially the kind that keeps coming back to haunt you night after night.

Nightmare disorder, or dream anxiety disorder, is a condition that affects some 4 per cent of adults, according to several studies.

It’s much worse than the occasional dreams of falling, being naked in public, being chased, looking for a toilet and losing teeth that a wide majority of people experience during their life.

Those suffering from nightmare disorder have their nights disrupted by vivid, terrible dreams, which fill them up with so much fear and anxiety, they are deprived of sleep and rest.

While this condition is normally treated with stress reduction techniques such as practising yoga or meditation, and in the most severe cases with psychotherapy and even medication (when someone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, for instance), scientists have just found a treatment that might finally put an end to recurring nightmares.

In a new report published on October 27 on Current Biology, neuroscientists asked 36 patients suffering from recurring nightmares to practise image rehearsal therapy, or IRT, a technique used in cognitive-behavioural psychology which sees people recalling their nightmares only to change the negative storyline within it to give it a positive spin.

Rehearsing this affirmative dream scenario during the day has been proven to reduce nightmares after two or three weeks of doing it, but this technique has only been successful with 30 per cent of patients.

That’s why the neuroscientists behind the study posit adding another treatment: targeted memory reactivation, or TMR, a process during which a person focuses on learning something (a thought or behaviour) while listening to a specific sound, which is then played again as a cue while the person sleeps.

Half of the 36 patients taking part in the study were asked to revise their nightmares in silence, while the other half were asked to do so while listening to the sound of a short piano chord every 10 seconds for five minutes.

These same patients then heard the same piano chord during the REM phase of their sleep, the same period during which people are believed to have their most vivid nightmares.

The results were noteworthy: while both groups of patients experienced a reduction in nightmares, for those who had tested a combination of IRT and TMR, the bad dreams had almost completely disappeared, with the weekly average of nightmares dropping from 3 to 0.2.

For the other group who had practised revising their dreams in silence, the nightmares dropped to 1.5 a week.

“By deploying and popularising easy-to-use devices at home to produce permanent consolidation of safety memories, these therapies can easily reach a big part of clinical populations and lead to new innovative approaches for promoting emotional well-being,” the study’s authors wrote.

It perhaps sounds a bit Pavlovian, as in the case of the dog who was conditioned to salivate in expectation of a treat at the sound of a bell even if the food wasn’t actually there. But when this kind of conditioning can give people a good night’s sleep and chase the bad dream away, the technique is deemed to be arguably more helpful than manipulative.

The researchers behind the study believe that TMR has huge potential for helping people who suffer from sleep terror and recurring nightmares when combined with IRT, and they hope this could work with those who have experienced significant traumatic experiences.

“I’m not sure we’ll succeed with these particular patients,” neuroscientist Sophie Schwartz of the University of Geneva, one of the researchers behind the study, told Science News.

“But if we do, this would be a really important addition to the methods we have for treating PTSD”.

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