A sizeable proportion of the population report problems with recurring nightmares, or disturbing dreams.
It may be that these distressing dreams are the legacy of a trauma or stress experienced in real life; or it could be that these dreams represent a primary sleep disorder: that is, a condition which is not related to any underlying psychological issue, but is nonetheless negatively impacting on sleep quality.
In other cases, individuals who are experiencing symptoms of other emotional problems (for example depression or anxiety) may find that recurring nightmares and disturbing dreams (and the associated sleep loss), are serving to perpetuate or exacerbate their emotional suffering.
The Importance of Sleep
Sleep serves a critical role in our health and wellbeing, and we each spend roughly a third of our lives asleep.
Scientists have devised a range of theories to try to answer the complex question of why sleep is so vital to our survival. While we do not fully and conclusively understand the function of sleep, most people will agree that “good sleep” helps us function at our best and learn most effectively; and to be more alert, happier and energetic.
The Effect of Recurring Nightmares
When nightmares wake us and/or keep us from sleep, our health and emotional coping resources are depleted.
This often makes life feel even more difficult to cope with, and can also make it feel like any hopes for solving our life problems are slipping further and further out of our reach. It is more difficult for us to do what needs to be done in life; to cope with life difficulties; to concentrate and focus; and to engage in other kinds of psychological treatments, which focus largely on helping us learn new skills.
A cognitive therapy called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) aims to treat the nightmares directly in a targeted, planned and structured manner.
The approach has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing the frequency of disturbing dreams, improving sleep quality, and decreasing the symptom severity of any co-existing emotional distress (like Post-Traumatic Stress; Anxiety; and Depression).
If recurring nightmares are resulting in problematic sleep loss and/or undermining the effectiveness of other psychological therapies, you may wish to explore Imagery Rehearsal Therapy.
While IRT can often help alleviate the legacy of sleep deprivation, and additional emotional distress caused by distressing and disturbing dreams, in many cases additional treatment should also be actively engaged, in order to address other underlying non-sleep related psychological symptoms.
Author: Ainsley Salsbury, BA(Psych)., Post Grad. Dip. App. Psych, BBus (HRM).
Ainsley Salsbury is the senior psychologist at Vision Psychology, and has a breadth and depth of experience in addressing psychological issues including executive coaching, leadership and managerial development, workbased stress, performance management, bullying and interpersonal conflict. As well as her credentials as a psychologist, she has a Bachelor in Human Resource Management, and has worked in specialist capacities within large organisations, and consulted extensively as a Corporate Psychologist.
She has spent 12 years of her professional life working with clients from a wide range of backgrounds from Corporate Executives, lawyers and accountants to those in manufacturing, correctional services, health, government, school children and recent humanitarian (refugee) entrants to Australia.
Her work in the field of stress and workplace issues is enriched by her largely Cognitive-Behavioural therapeutic orientation, extensive insight into Organisational Dynamics and Behaviours, knowledge and application of a wide variety of Management and Leadership Models, and a fierce commitment to achieving practical outcomes for her clients.