How many of us can relate to awakening from a dream that felt so real the residual emotions remained with us for hours afterwards? Or eagerly recounted the unusual plot of a recent dream to friends or coworkers in an attempt to interpret what it might mean? The phenomenon of dreaming has been romanticized by poets, studied by scientists and even analyzed by the father of psychoanalysis himself. Many have proposed theories of how to interpret dreams, and scientists have even mapped the biological underpinnings of the dream-state, yet much of our understanding of why we dream remains elusive.
Dreams are a curious thing: We often don’t recall the content of our dreams, and many people are completely unaware of even dreaming. Yet studies have found that people over the age of 10 dream, on average, four to six times per night, most frequently during the stage of sleep known as rapid-eye movement (REM).¹ During the REM stage, our minds are active, as they are during waking hours, but the rest of the body remains, for the most part, immobilized.
Many people believe that dreams communicate to our conscious minds the emotional state and wellbeing of our unconscious mind through symbolic imagery. Others believe that dreams are the mind’s attempt to consolidate knowledge or solve problems encountered during waking hours. There is no universally agreed upon theory as to why we dream, and some reason that because so few dreams are even remembered, they serve no purpose whatsoever.
When dreams aren’t so sweet
Many people experience recurring dreams – identical or thematically similar dreams that can occur with regularity over several weeks or even a lifetime. For those suffering from recurring distressing dreams (nightmares), these experiences can be extremely upsetting and cause disruption in waking hours (residual emotional turmoil, fatigue from sleep interference and frequent distressing thoughts about dream).
Recurring nightmares can result from stressful or traumatic experiences in life; in fact, it is not uncommon for people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder to experience recurring nightmares about the trauma they experienced. In many cases, recurring dreams last only a short period of time and disappear on their own. However, when nightmares persist for long periods of time or become impairing, intervention may be necessary.
In a new research undertaking soon to be implemented at The Menninger Clinic, clinicians will help patients with recurring nightmares “re-script” their dreams using image rehearsal therapy (IRT).² Unlike the psychoanalytic approach through which one seeks to understand the underlying meaning behind dreams, IRT seeks to help patients cope with distressing nightmares by disrupting a negative behavior cycle, akin to the way cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works.
How it will work
The procedure will be similar to that introduced by Dr. Barry Krakow in 2001, in which patients are asked to keep a nightmare log, write a brief summary of the distressing dream and create an alternate “script” of a dream that is a pleasant alternative to the nightmare. The re-scripted dream ideally has a therapeutically relevant theme (such as a theme of power and control for a victim of a sexual assault). Studies have shown that when a patient sets aside time once or twice a day to visualize the new dream, nightmares tend to diminish in frequency and intensity, and sometimes disappear altogether. The typical course of treatment requires three sessions with the therapist over a period of two weeks.
Dreams can evoke a number of emotions that can carry over into waking hours. With pleasant dreams, this can be an enjoyable experience, but with recurring nightmares, such residual emotions can lead to impaired functioning during waking hours. For those suffering from recurring nightmares, developing a “new script” might help to alleviate the symptoms experienced during waking hours.
Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this post of Heather’s, check out some of her other recent posts:
- Losing faith in times of suffering
- Pseudologia fantastica: the truth about pathological liars
- Calling in depressed: a look at the limitations of mental illness in the workplace
¹ Schneider, A., & Domhoff, G. W. The Quantitative Study of Dreams. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.dreamresearch.net/.
² Krakow, B. et al. Imagery rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares in sexual assault survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2011; 286, 537-545.