Dream and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Research


While many people relax during sleep and enjoy dreams, some people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience painful nightmares. Dr. Joanne Davis, associate professor of psychology and director of undergraduate studies for the department, has been studying the impact nightmares have on adults with PTSD since 1999. Dr. Jamie Rhudy, associate professor of psychology, studies the physiological and psychological responses to pain, such as heart rate, sweat production, respiration, and facial movements. The two researchers joined forces to evaluate the physiological response to nightmares and how this response changes following treatment.

In a recent article in Oklahoma Magazine, Dr. Rhudy explains, “With nightmares, we’ve found there is a tremendous amount of negative emotion reminiscent of the initial traumatic experience.” The treatment of the nightmares consists of three therapy sessions, which utilize techniques such as exposure, relaxation and rescripting. The results have proved encouraging to Dr. Davis and Dr. Rhudy. “The people we’ve treated reported – before beginning the study – an average of four nightmares per week for up to 25 years,” Dr. Davis notes. “Six months after treatment, approximately 84 percent of participants in the first study had not experienced nightmares in the past week, and 79 percent had not had nightmares in the past month. Patients also reported significant decreases in posttraumatic stress symptoms, depression and improved sleep quality and quantity,” she concludes. “We’re finding that not only are the nightmares going away, but how the patient physiologically reacts to nightmare-related fear changes,” Dr. Rhudy adds. “When we read the scripts, it appears the way the brain processes the nightmare imagery is altered and they’re not as affected as they once were.”