Slayer of nightmares. This is Dr. Patrick McNamara’s mission. As a sleep researcher at Boston University School of Medicine and a professor of neurology, he is on a crusade to help people suffering from nightmare disorder. The group hit hardest: toddlers.
According to a Statista report, 50 percent of toddlers, 20 percent of 6 to 12 years old children, and 5 percent of adults in the US suffer from nightmares. Clinical effects associated with nightmares include general anxiety, sleep disorders, insomnia, stress, mood swings and, in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies. McNamara notes that recurring nightmares can have profound long-term effects, including possible mental health issues later in life. This is especially true for children experiencing recurring nightmares. So, what kind of treatment can stop them and their negative impact?
Creating Positive Imagery in Dreams
The most popular method of treating nightmare disorder over the past decade has been Image Rehearsal Therapy. Grant McEwan University psychologist Jayne Gackenbach presented a study at the Games for Health 2010 conference, outlining findings that people who play video games have better control over nightmares. She believes this is due to participants getting immersed in imagery where they can maneuver situations to their advantage.
Image rehearsal therapy encourages patients to repeatedly visualize more positive versions of their dreams. Practicing this during waking hours trains their mind to do the same while sleeping. However, the success of this therapy depends on a person’s ability to visualize. This can be especially difficult for children.
Treating Nightmare Disorder with Virtual Reality
For his study, McNamara collaborated with Wesley J. Wildman, a Boston University School of Theology professor and an expert in artificial, computer-simulated environments. Wildman created slightly frightening visuals through virtual reality (VR). Visuals were shown to the patients on devices like Oculus Rift.
Participants were able to modify the visuals to make them less terrifying. For example, when presented with imagery of sharks charging towards them, participants covered the shark’s teeth or decreased their size. Through twice-weekly sessions, these users were able to lower their anxiety levels.
Doctor McNamara says engaging in manipulating intense imagery over a period of time transfers these skills from the conscious minds to the subconscious, decreasing fears caused by nightmares.
Assisted therapy can be especially useful for children who find it more difficult to come up with their own visuals.
McNamara has a goal of instituting a large-scale study comparing VR therapy to Image Rehearsal Therapy so that their differences and efficacy can be better understood.
What really excites this slayer of nightmares? The medium’s potential to change the lives of those dealing with this disorder.