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When Nightmares Won't Go Away

Nightmare therapy may put chronic nightmares to rest.

Changing Nightmare Scripts

The technique that Levy used, known as imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), grew out of research conducted in the 1990s. It's been steadily gaining favor as a treatment for chronic nightmares since 2001 when a landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that it not only curbed nightmares among victims of sexual assault but also reduced PTSD symptoms.

"Studies show that 70% to 80% of people who try IRT get significant relief," says Barry Krakow, MD, director of the Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center in Albuquerque, N.M. He's one of the researchers who worked on the JAMA study and the author of four books on sleep medicine, including Sound Sleep, Sound Mind.

IRT is surprisingly easy to learn and to use. The basic technique can often be mastered in a few hours; once learned, it's used for only a few minutes a day for a matter of days or weeks.

Krakow says it's possible to try IRT on your own, but he warns that people who suffer from PTSD or another psychological condition should attempt the technique only with the help of a doctor or therapist.

Working with a professional also makes sense for people who have trouble visualizing dream images while awake. "Some people have difficulty painting a picture in the mind's eye," Harris says. "But with help, they get good at priming the pump for imagery."

3 Steps to Nightmare Control

As described by Krakow and Harris, IRT is a three-step process:

  1. Jot down a brief description of a recent nightmare. If your most recent nightmare is too upsetting to think about, pick another.
  2. Think of a way to change the nightmare. Krakow declines to tell his patients what sort of change to make, encouraging them to rely on their intuition to make an appropriate change.
  3. Set aside a few minutes each day to imagine this altered version of the nightmare. Simply paint a mental picture of the altered version.

Some people with chronic nightmares, especially those who have suffered for years, find it hard to believe that a simple, essentially do-it-yourself technique could be effective.

Krakow says that when he explains IRT to his patients, "it's almost like they think the process is disrespecting them. They say, 'What do you mean I just write down a nightmare and change it and picture it in my mind? That's crazy.' It's almost like they think I'm saying, 'Change two dreams and call me in the morning.'"

Peaceful Nights

Levy can't recall exactly what she thought when Harris told her about IRT. But she tried it and found that it worked. Her nightmare about the concentration camp? She re-imagined herself in a summer camp where she could walk about freely. And the bad dream about drowning? The deep water that threatened to swallow her up became shallow enough to stand up in.

Levy still has nightmares, but they occur much less frequently -- about once every six weeks or so. When they do occur, they are less upsetting.

"Just learning that there was something I could do about my nightmares really helped a lot," Levy says. "Getting help changed things for me significantly. I'm more rested and happier, and I'm able to be more active during the day."

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Reviewed on September 05, 2011

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Since you usually get too little sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have difficulty sleeping, have insomnia, or have other sleep disorders.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's not surprising you feel that you're not functioning at your best today. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

It's good that you usually do get more sleep, since sleep deprivation can have both short- and long-term consequences. Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. And if you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

You say you are able to function well with fewer than seven hours of sleep. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

It's good that you usually do get more sleep because sleep deprivation can have both short- and long-term consequences. Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. And if you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's not surprising you feel that you're not functioning at your best today. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

Since you usually get less sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have difficulty sleeping or have insomnia or other sleep disorders.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Whether your sleep routine involves taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditating, it's important to keep your bedtime and routine consistent every night and wake up around the same time every morning.

Click here to read more about the importance of sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and wake time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Since you usually sleep this amount, if you often aren't feeling your best, you should consider talking to your doctor. Could you have an underlying condition? Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Have you taken medication that disrupted your sleep? Do you or could you have sleep apnea? Or do you naturally require a little bit more sleep?

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can also have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and wake time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Since you usually sleep longer, if you often aren't feeling your best, you should consider talking to your doctor. Could you have an underlying condition? Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Have you taken medication that disrupted your sleep? Do you or could you have sleep apnea? Or do you naturally require a little bit more sleep?

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can also have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Whether your sleep routine involves taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditating, it's also important to keep bedtime consistent and wake up around the same time every morning.

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and waking up at the same time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health.

Since you usually get less sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have insomnia, another sleep disorder, or conditions affecting your sleep.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health.

Since you usually get less sleep, talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have insomnia or another sleep disorder or conditions affecting your sleep.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Effect of short sleep duration on daily activities--United States, 2005-2008. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2011; 60:239.

Carskadon, MA, Dement, WC. Normal Human Sleep: An Overview. In: Principles and Practices of Sleep Medicine, Fifth, Kryger, MH, Roth, et al. (Eds), Elsevier Saunders, St. Louis, MO 2011. p.16.

Harvard University: "Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety."

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