Take Back Your Night

I’ve had trouble getting to sleep. And I’ve had nightmares. But I’ve never been afraid to go to sleep because of chronic nightmares, like some service members and vets and others exposed to trauma. Those kinds of nightmares often replay the actual events that were experienced, rather than more hypothetical scenarios, so they seem even more real.

Although avoiding sleep can certainly avoid nightmares, our bodies require sleep to function. A lack of sleep throws your body into defense mode; there are real biological reasons why you feel bad, your thoughts are fuzzy and your nerves are shot. A study in England even suggested that our very genes and immune system may be affected by a lack of sleep, even after just a week.

Sleep deprivation can also lead to health issues like:

But what if you could confront and gain control over your nightmares? One nightmare treatment that has proved effective is imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). A landmark study in 2001 found that this kind of therapy can help reduce nightmare frequency and intensity, or even eliminate them.

Working with a provider, a patient first recalls their bad dream, then visualizes a new ending to the dream that has a better outcome. Then, regularly—ideally each night before they go to bed—they replay the rescripted dream over and over again in their mind. Although patients usually don’t dream their reimagined dream, most report fewer or no nightmares, or they dream a different, less-disturbing dream.

T2 recently released Dream EZ, a new mobile app that makes it easier for people to do the work needed with IRT therapy to rewrite a nightmare. With the app, users can:

  • Write a description of their nightmare
  • Track when and how often they have the nightmare
  • Practice visualization techniques to rewrite the dream’s plot and ending
  • Record a new audio version of their dream
  • Review the recording before bedtime

Using an app makes IRT treatment a little easier. Instead of reaching for a notepad on your bedside table to read the rescripted dream each night and then imagining it, you can record the new dream on your smartphone and then replay it every night. Surprisingly, the free app has no competitors.

“Dream EZ is the first mobile app that uses IRT therapy to address nightmares,” said Dr. David Cooper, psychologist and T2 mobile applications lead.

While confronting and rewriting your nightmares can help you break their bond and get better sleep, better sleep may help with other health issues as well. It could even be a lifesaver.

Cathy McDonald is the Staff Writer for the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Ms. Cathy McDonald