Nightmares and disturbing dreams are some of the most troubling forms of mental imagery, and these unwelcome visitors feel utterly uncontrollable. Nightmares are a common cause of poor sleep, because they provoke troubled dreamers to put off their bedtimes until later at night to avoid dreaming. Worse, if awakened at night by troubling images, they may find it difficult if not impossible to return to sleep.
In our work, we routinely hear from nightmare patients that their sleep is compromised, but what’s most remarkable is that most nightmare patients do not connect the bad dreams with bad sleep. In our work with groups, we were surprised at how often nightmare patients were surprised at the connection between insomnia and disturbing dreams. Yet, once they saw the connection, it resonated deeply and made them more aware of the harmful impact of nightmares on sleep.
Our research team specializes in treating nightmares in all sufferers, including individuals exposed to sexual assault, other criminal assaults, disasters, 9/11 survivors, and war veterans as well as those without any mental health concerns. From our work, we have shown a high likelihood that the overwhelming majority of chronic nightmares become entrenched as unavoidable learned behaviors. This insight is critical, because it explains a very interesting outcome in research and in clinical work.
Most nightmare patients report that their sleep improves when they successfully treat the condition. In other words, there’s a good chance your insomnia will be reduced or eliminated if you find a way to reduce or eliminate disturbing dreams. In fact, in all of our research on nightmares dating back almost 20 years, the potential to sleep better was one if not the strongest motivating influences on nightmare patients choosing to move forward with our non-drug treatments for disturbing dreams.
In an article our group published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, a randomized controlled study showed that an imagery exercise “imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT)” reduces disturbing dreams without any additional therapy or medication. You can learn much more about our work at our sister site Nightmare Treatment, where we also offer an audio series and treatment workbook, Turning Nightmares Into Dreams, to teach you how to conquer your bad dreams and nightmares.