Researchers claim they could help people ‘manipulate emotions’ to ease nightmares

The key to reducing nightmares may lie in combining two non-invasive techniques.
Mert Erdemir
A combination of two non-invasive methods could be the key to ease nightmares
A combination of two non-invasive methods could be the key to ease nightmares

klebercordeiro/ iStock 

Do you experience nightmares frequently? Well, here's some good news. 

Researchers from Switzerland have conducted a small-scale study on 36 individuals who suffer from nightmare disorder and observed that a combination of two simple treatments may actually reduce nightmare frequency, according to a press release published yesterday (Oct .27).

They also discovered that using a wireless headband to play a sound associated with a pleasant daytime experience while you sleep may decrease the frequency of having nightmares.

"There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being," says Lampros Perogamvros, senior author of the study and a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva.

"Based on this observation, we had 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."

Nightmare disorder can be extremely tedious

Nightmares can be triggered by a number of various reasons, such as stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, irregular sleep, medications, mental health disorders, etc. It can be extremely tedious if it becomes a recurrent part of your sleep pattern.

Although nightmares are not always pathologic, if they start to become frequent and influence one's social, occupational, emotional, or physical wellness, they are regarded as a disorder called nightmare disorder (ND) or parasomnia.

Previous epidemiological studies have shown that up to four percent of adults experience chronic nightmares on a regular basis.

In this case, doctors generally recommend imagery rehearsal therapy, which aims at a change in patients' unpleasant dream scenarios to that they have a happier ending and asks for them to practice them during the day.

Combining sound exposure and imagery rehearsal therapy

In this recent research, scientists tested the success of sound exposure during sleep on 36 subjects who were on imagery rehearsal therapy as well.

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Half of the group got no additional treatment, while the other half were required to create an association between a positive version of their nightmare and a sound during an imagination exercise. Additionally, they were asked to practice daily, and wear a headband that could send them the sound during REM sleep for 2 weeks. This is the sleep stage where nightmares mostly occur.

"We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures, for example performing imagery rehearsal therapy every day and wearing the sleep headband during the night," explained Perogamvros.

"We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies."

Eventually, the frequency of nightmares declined in both groups. However, those who received the combination of imagery rehearsal therapy and sound exposure had fewer nightmares right after the trial and three months later.

The next step is to conduct larger-scale trials.

The study was published on Oct .27 in the journal Current Biology.


Nightmare disorder (ND) is characterized by dreams with strong negative emotions occurring during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. ND is mainly treated by imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), where the patients are asked to change the negative story line of their nightmare to a more positive one. We here used targeted memory reactivation (TMR) during REM sleep to strengthen IRT-related memories and accelerate remission of ND. Thirty-six patients with ND were asked to perform an initial IRT session and, while they generated a positive outcome of their nightmare, half of the patients were exposed to a sound (TMR group), while no such pairing took place for the other half (control group). During the next 2 weeks, all patients performed IRT every evening at home and were exposed to the sound during REM sleep with a wireless headband, which automatically detected sleep stages. The frequency of nightmares per week at 2 weeks was used as the primary outcome measure. We found that the TMR group had less frequent nightmares and more positive dream emotions than the control group after 2 weeks of IRT and a sustained decrease of nightmares after 3 months. By demonstrating the effectiveness of TMR during sleep to potentiate therapy, these results have clinical implications for the management of ND, with relevance to other psychiatric disorders too. Additionally, these findings show that TMR applied during REM sleep can modulate emotions in dreams.

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