Whether it’s being unprepared for an exam, suddenly realising you are naked in public or having your teeth spontaneously fall out, around 1 in 20 of us are troubled by recurring nightmares. A well as being distressing, this can negatively affect sleep and lead to poor health.

Now, help may be on the way. Sleep scientists at the University of Geneva have devised a method of cutting down the frequency of bad dreams using sound therapy.

Currently, those suffering from recurrent nightmares are prescribed image rehearsal therapy – a form of treatment that involves patients changing the negative narrative of their recurring dreams into a more positive one and then mentally rehearing the scenario throughout the day. While this is effective in some cases, it doesn’t always help.

In an attempt to improve the effectiveness of the treatment, the researchers had half of a group of 36 patients undergoing image rehearsal therapy listen to a soothing sound while going through their positive dream scenarios and then had them wear a headband that played the sound to them as they slept.

Both groups experienced a drop in the frequency of their nightmares, but the effect was more pronounced in those that were played the soothing sound. The half that were played the sound also reported having more joyful dreams.

“We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures, for example performing imagery rehearsal therapy every day and wearing the sleep headband during the night,” said lead researcher Lampros Perogamvros, a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals.

“We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.”

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The team now plan to trail the sound therapy treatment on a larger scale, across different kinds of populations to further establish its efficacy.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.