Oct 29, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

The Nightmare of Having Bad Nightmares May Be Over

Are you one of the millions of people plagued by nightmares? Always scary, sometimes recurring and difficult to figure out, nightmares are one of the biggest reasons why many people seek therapy. Yet therapists are often at a loss when it comes to identifying the cause of nightmares. Many sufferers reach a point that they don’t care what is disrupting their sleep with bad dreams – they just want them to go away. For those people, help is on the way. Researchers in Switzerland have found a simple way to reduce and even eliminate nightmares without drugs or therapy. Let’s take a look at the cure along with some of the most common nightmares and what might be behind why you’re having them.

Tell me more ... and hurry!

“There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being. 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.”

As Lampros Perogamvros, a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva, points out in a press release for his new study published in the journal Current Biology what nightmare sufferers already know – the emotions generated by a terrifying dream can last long after one wakes up and, if the dream is recurring, can become a permanent fixture in one’s waking emotions. Lampros was looking for a solution for the four percent of adults who have chronic nightmares – bad dreams that happen often, cause distress, disrupt sleep, cause problems while awake and create fear of going to sleep. The most often prescribed treatment for chronic nightmares is imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) – the negative story of the nightmare is rewritten with a positive ending and the person rehearses it in their mind as a way force it into their dreams and push out the nightmare. While this works for some people, it is difficult and often ineffective.

Nightmares have been around for as long as humans have had dreams. The word ‘nightmare’ comes from the Old English ‘mare’ which is a mythological demon or creature that was believed to have sat on a sleeping person’s chest and gave them bad dreams. This feeling of something on one’s chest and restricting breathing is a factor in sleep paralysis, a second and real health problem for some nightmare sufferers. Not only are nightmares common enough to have induced many different cultures to create the same types of night demons to explain them, the plots of nightmares are also shared across cultures. A common nightmare involved being chased, which sleep psychologists suggest is a sign of frustration in pursuing a goal. Another is falling, which signals a lack of control in one’s life. As can be seen in these two examples, one anxiety can manifest multiple types of nightmares. While a nightmare of being naked in front of a group of people at work or school is a famous nightmare, some studies say the most common one across cultures, countries and genders is one involving some or all of your teeth falling out, which is believed to be a sign of afear of losing something – a loved one, confidence, a job, etc.

Now that you’re thinking about nightmares and possibly fearing you’re going to have one of these tonight, let’s take a look at the newly discovered anti-nightmare preventative technique.

“Targeted memory reactivation (TMR) is a technique used to manipulate memory processing through the application of cues during sleep. In a classic TMR protocol, a sensory (e.g., olfactory, auditory) cue is associated with a learning procedure during the day and then administered during sleep. In that way, the replay of the associated memory and its corresponding neural representation in memory networks are artificially promoted, a procedure that will usually strengthen memory consolidation.”

As explained in Current Biology, 36 patients at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals who were suffering from chronic nightmares participated in the experiment. All of them received the traditional imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) to replace negative nightmare plots with positive ones. Half of the test participants received 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 – a technique called targeted memory reactivation (TMR). They were then given a headband that sent them the sound during REM – the sleep stage when nightmares most commonly occur – and instructed to wear it daily for two weeks.

While the experiment didn’t differentiate between the test subjects – they were all just nightmare disorder sufferers, other studies have found that the most common nightmares among women are those involving being visited by a dead relative, losing a loved one and a spouse leaving them. Among men, the most common bad dreams involve a technology malfunction, attacking someone and suffering an injury. In a study of the most common nightmares by U.S. state, the most common bad dreams were being chased, falling, missing an important event, teeth falling out and a loved one dying. Being chased was tops in Alaska, falling was tops in California, teeth falling out won in Rhode Island, missing an important event was tops in Michigan, and Hawaii had the most people dreaming of a loved one dying. Would these bad dreamers have been helped by a single musical chord in targeted memory reactivation (TMR)?

“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. 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.”

According to Dr. Perogamvros, both test groups had less nightmares per week, and the half that received the combination therapy had the fewest nightmares both during the test and in a follow-up three months later. They also dreamt more joyful stories than before. While this is not an experiment to be tried at home, the magic chord which helped erase nightmares for these people is C69 (or C6/9) - the notes C, E, G, A and D, which is the 1, 3, 5, 6 and 9 of the C Major scale and is used often in jazz as a substitute for the C Major 7 chord (the notes C, E, G and B). The participants of the TMR group received a one-second sound of C69 every 10 seconds through headphones while they were imagining the new positive dream scenario of IRT for 5 minutes.

Wait here while I get my piano.

If you are suffering from nightmares, you can try the traditional imagery rehearsal therapy of replacing the negative story with a positive one at home, but it is best to discuss the problem with your doctor or a sleep therapist. In the meantime, if you dream of your teeth falling out, try brushing more. And if you dream of being naked in front of a group … there’s always nudist camps.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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