By using non-invasive techniques to manipulate our emotions, it might be possible to reduce the howling horrors that plague our sleep.
A study of 36 patients diagnosed with nightmare disorder showed that a combination of two simple therapies reduced the frequency of their bad dreams.
The scientists asked the volunteers to rewrite their most frequent nightmares in a positive light and then play sounds associated with positive experiences while they slept.
“There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being,” says psychiatrist Lampros Perogamvros of Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
“Based on this observation, we came up with the idea that we could help people by manipulating emotions in their dreams. In this study, we show that we can reduce the number of emotionally very strong and very negative dreams in patients suffering from nightmares.”
Many people suffer from nightmares, which are not always just a case of a few bad dreams. Nightmares are also associated with poor quality sleep, which in turn is linked to a whole plethora of other health issues.
Poor sleep can also increase anxiety, which can lead to insomnia and nightmares. Recent studies have shown that nightmares and sleep disturbances have increased during the current global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Since we don’t really understand why, or even how, our brain creates dreams while we sleep, dealing with chronic nightmares is a challenge.
One noninvasive method is image replay therapy, in which patients rewrite their most heartbreaking and frequent nightmares to give them happy endings. Then they “repeat” by telling themselves this rewritten story, trying to crush the nightmare.
This method can reduce the frequency and severity of nightmares, but the treatment is not effective for all patients.
In 2010, scientists discovered that playing sounds that people have been trained to associate with a certain stimulus, while those people are sleeping, AIDS in the stimulation of the memory of this stimulus. This has been named targeted memory reactivation (TMR), and Perogamvros and his colleagues wanted to know if it could improve the effectiveness of imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT).
After asking study participants to complete a dream and sleep diary for two weeks, the volunteers all received a single session of IRT. At this point, half the group has undergone a TMR session, linking a positive version of their nightmares to a sound.
The other half served as a control group, imagining a less gruesome version of a nightmare without being exposed to positive sounds.
Both groups were given a sleep headphones headband that would play the sound – the C69 piano chord – while they slept, every 10 seconds during REM sleep when nightmares were most likely to occur.
Jhe groups have been evaluatedAfter two more weeks of diary entries, then again after three months of no treatment.
At the start of the study, the control group had, on average, 2.58 nightmares per week, and the TMR group had an average of 2.94 nightmares per week. By the end of the study, the control group had fallen to 1.02 weekly nightmares, while the RMR group had fallen to just 0.19. Even more promising, the TMR group reported an increase in happy dreams.
At the three-month follow-up, nightmares had increased slightly in both groups, to 1.48 and 0.33 per week respectively. However, this is still an impressive reduction in nightmare frequency, the researchers said, suggesting that using TMR to support ESRD results in more effective treatment.
“We were positively surprised at how well the participants complied with and tolerated the study procedures, such as performing rehearsal imagery therapy daily and wearing the sleep band at night,” said Perogamvros.
“We observed a rapid decrease in nightmares, as well as dreams becoming more emotionally positive. For us researchers and clinicians, these results are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.”
The team’s research has been published in Current biology.