'Inception' in Real Life? Researchers Rewrite Nightmares of PTSD Patients

His studies show that this new cognitive therapy can help reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares and perhaps even end them altogether.

Krakow's PTSD research has implications on all people with sleep disorders. In studies of more than 1,000 patients with post-traumatic stress symptoms, he found 5 to 10 other sleep problems may be involved, including high rates of sleep apnea.

"There's a connection a lot of people are missing in the complexity of PTSD sleep disturbance," said Krakow. "Everybody thinks these kinds of people have psychological issues. What we learned is there is a tremendous physiological component."

"What is being missed by many people is breathing disorders or sleep movement disorders all run together," he said. "It's not one thing."

Sleep disorders are serious business, according to Krakow. Those with nightmares can "actually act out their dreams and move around and hurt somebody."

Such is the case with Gotcher, who said her brain "feels like it's in a war, even in a conscious state."

"My training is so realistic to me, I can't turn it off and on in my sleep," she said. "I can do things with my body that are very harmful to other people, and I could not live with myself if I hurt my husband and my daughter."

Parasomnias are some of the most misunderstood of all human behaviors. In REM (rapid eye movement) behavior disorder, sleepers can react in direct response to a dream and hurt their bedmates.

Dreams -- good and bad -- occur during REM sleep, and escalate during the final third of the night, according to Dr. Matthew Ebben, assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

"Nobody exactly knows why we dream," he said. "But there are two theories."

One theory, activation synthesis, suggests that during REM random brain activation occurs, which accounts for the bizarre narrative of dreams.

The other theory, which supports Krakow's work, posits that dreams originate in the frontal lobe of the brain -- or the thinking center -- and sleepers can experience "lucid dreaming."

"It's like the old Freddie Kruger movies," he said. "People are learning they can have more control of their dreaming."

Some psychologists challenge dream control techniques, saying dreams impart psychological meaning and should never be interrupted.

But Ebben, who is also a psychologist, argues, "relief of the symptoms should be the primary focus in most cases and not the origination of problems," he said. "Trauma patients are suffering."

Sleep Apnea, Brain Injuries Can Cause Nightmares

As for Gotcher, her night terrors have taken a toll on her waking life. She has tried muscle relaxants, Valium, sleeping pills, acupuncture and biofeedback.

Gotcher said she even bought a book and tried rewriting her dreams herself, but it didn't work, "but I would love to be proved wrong."

Some of her dreams recur 15 or 20 times a night, usually revolving around four themes: falling, an airplane, a house intruder after her 10-year-old daughter and outer space.

"It seems odd, but some of the scariest things are irrational," she said. "I am in the grocery store locked in and I can't get out, and the bad guy is in the store with me."

But in the worst night terrors, she believes someone is in the home.

"Sometimes, I can tell I am moving and cannot wake up," she said. "My spouse said I just start crying, like I send him a signal to help wake me up. But I don't respond."

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