It sounds like something out of a science fiction film: Treating nightmares by consciously changing them. The process is called “rescription,” one of the final steps in a three-session treatment for post-trauma adults developed by a University of Tulsa psychology professor Joanne Davis. As Davis wrote in a subsequent book, “What generally happens over the course of this session is that the clients learn they are able to confront one of the scariest things in their lives and remain okay.”
University of Montana assistant professor Cameo Borntrager now hopes this treatment—which also involves relaxation techniques and education in sleep science—can help young children the same way it has aided adults in clinical trials. Borntrager, who worked with Davis as a graduate student, is seeking local participants ages 8 to 13 for five-session trials aimed at adapting the treatment for younger trauma victims.
“Some of the adults that were involved in those initial projects had been suffering with nightmares and sleep disturbance for 20 years,” Borntrager says, noting that within just three session, researchers noted improved sleep quality, decreased anxiety and decreased depression symptoms among participants. “Those aren’t even, technically, the main target, so it’s been pretty profound.”
Borntrager is running the study in tandem with a separately funded project at UT. She’s worked with two children in the Missoula area, and has been contacted by five more prospective participants. So far, Borntrager says the “kiddos”—who are never asked to recount the traumatic events that triggered the nightmares—have found the rescription aspect particularly intriguing.
The first step in that process is talking through the most troubling nightmare and identifying specific themes, such as powerlessness or trust issues. The participant is then asked to alter the nightmare in some profound way, write out the new version and study it extensively. Sometimes the change can be as simple as having the police show up; in one case, Borntrager says a child introduced superheroes to the nightmare’s ending.
“So far, what we’ve seen is that people often dream the rescripted dream,” she says. “And then, so far again, what we’ve seen in the adult trials and the kid trials is that the nightmare frequency starts to go down.”
Davis’ initial research noted that, in some circumstances, participants were unable to recall much of the offending nightmare, which “constitutes a significant obstacle.” To collect enough data to determine whether the treatment is applicable to child trauma victims, Borntrager will need up to 60 participants, specifically kids who suffer from at least one nightmare a week.
“That’s where the stat power is,” she says.