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

Photo: Concussion causes daily nightmares for Texas mother

Two years ago, self-defense fight instructor Laurie Gotcher suffered a concussion during training and since has developed nightmares so extreme that they seem to continue long after waking up.

The Austin, Texas, mother has jumped out of bed in terror thinking someone was in the house and grabbed a knife to look for the threat in her dreams.

"I have no idea how to control the fear or anger that comes from the dreams "The biggest, most recurring nightmare is when something happens to my child and a stranger threatens my home, but that's the nature of my business," said Gotcher, 36. "It's a hellish experience."

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She has sought sleep studies, advice from doctors and medications, but nothing has worked.

"I am so open to trying anything," she said.

Now, researchers say they have a better understanding of sleep disorders and can often help those like Gotcher whose waking lives are traumatized by the Technicolor terror that reigns at night. In a scenario oddly reminiscent of the Hollywood film "Inception," dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, uses "lucid dreaming" techniques along with behavioral therapy to help patients gain control over their subconscious.

"You can tell yourself at bedtime that you want to dream on a particular topic -- that you want to be lucid in your dream, realize you're dreaming," said Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University. "People who have had bad nightmares may want to script a different outcome, a kind of mastery dream to replace the nightmares."

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One of her patients dreams a black line is chasing her or that she is falling. Barrett is trying to change the terrifying ending into a happy one.

"Say to yourself as you're falling asleep some phrase like tonight if I fall in my dreams I want to fly instead," Barrett tells her.

Since the dawning of mankind, dreams have been viewed as some kind of window to the soul. Central to mythology and literature, they are thought to reveal God-like secrets and even portend cataclysmic events. Of all life's nourishment, sleep "knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, according to Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

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But many Americans don't find sleep restful or nourishing. Seventy million of them have a sleep disorder, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Nightmares Affect Up to 8 Percent of Adults

Nightmares , which are more common in children, affect about 4 to 8 percent of adults, sometimes as often as once a week or more. They can make insomnia worse and even cause psychiatric distress.

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Some of the most important research is coming from studies of the rising number of war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress -- 90 percent of whom have nightmares.

"Most people with PTSD have insomnia and nightmares. It's almost a given," said Dr. Barry Krakow, director of the PTSD Sleep Clinic at Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences center in Albuquerque, N.M. "The effects are devastating for them and others."

Krakow teaches trauma victims to rewrite their dreams in a technique known as image rehearsal therapy.

Post Traumatic Stress Patients Rescript Their Dreams

While they are awake, patients take a few minutes to create a new dream script. He asks one of his patients to change a demonic black racing car with giant eyeballs to a white Cadillac with bubbles, gently tooling along.

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