Dealing With Life’s Nightmares


Are nightmare causing you distress? Are you one of the “one-out-of-two” adults who have nightmares?  Are you one of the 8 out of 100 adults who is plagued by frequent nightmares?

Many people know that children have nightmares from time to time, but many adults do, too.  Adults who have severe nightmare-induced dysfunction may suffer from day problems, too, such as fear of sleeping, an inability to work well due to fractured sleep at night, and extreme tiredness that leads to overeating, depression, or irritability.  Adults who have experienced extreme stress, such as rape, war, or torture, often struggle with nightmares for years.

Most of these people assume they have to just endure it, hoping it will stop.  But researchers say that nightmares can be dramatically lessened and halted with therapy.  One therapy that is gaining more attention is IRT, or imagery rehearsal therapy.

IRT is a three step process that puts the dreamer in the director’s seat, rewriting the script of the nightmare.  The steps are:

  1. Write a brief description of a recent nightmare. If the most recent nightmare is too upsetting to think about, pick an older one.
  2. Imagine a way to change the nightmare. Rely on intuition to make any appropriate change.
  3. For a few moments each day, imagine the altered version of the dream.  Paint a mental picture of the new version.

Barry Krakow, MD, a director of the Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center in Albuquerque, N.M., says that studies have shown  70% to 80% of people who try IRT do get relief.

Some people who have suffered for years with horrific nightmares find it difficult to believe that a simple technique could be so effective.

But it works for many people.  One woman who had chronic dreams about being in a concentration camp chose to imagine herself in a summer camp where she could walk freely.  Another dream about drowning changed when the deep water became shallow enough to stand in.  Another nightmare sufferer whose dream involved threatening sharks, imagined the sharks as dolphins instead.  My favorite story of a re-imagined dream was one in which the patient having nightmares of being chased, turned the pursuer into chocolate –and ate him.

So, after reading about this, I tried it.

In my nightmare, I had dreamed that the titanic-like boat my family and I were in, hit a tidal wave and flipped underwater, immediately surrounded by too much water to breathe.  I had one breath of air, and I had to find my children and get out.  The dream was so scary that I had woken myself up.

So, the next day, I imagined the scariest part of my dream differently: the boat popped up to the surface quickly, rather than filling with water when it went under.  All the water drained away fast. My kids were wearing orange life vests and everyone was laughing, as if it had been a ride at an amusement park.

I didn’t remember my dream that night, but at least I didn’t have the nightmare again.  And just re-imagining the nightmare as a normal dream took much of the panic out of whether I might dream that way again.  It gave my brain an alternative option, a ray of hope.

Dr. Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at Montefiore Medical Center’s Sleep-Wake Disorders Center in New York City, says that IRT “gives the patient control over the nightmare.”  She says that after several sessions practicing with a therapist, some patients dream the new ending just as they envision it, while some dream another version of it, and some stop having the nightmare completely.




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