Virtual reality therapy shows promise in the treatment of nightmares

(Photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin)

A specialized virtual reality treatment may be able to reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares, according to a pilot study published in the journal Dreaming.

“Current treatments for nightmares required too much time or taking a drug that essentially knocked you out for awhile, so we needed a treatment that was short, non-toxic and effective,” said study author Patrick McNamara of the Boston University School of Medicine.

The researchers developed an app for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset that presented the participants with nightmare-like imagery that could then manipulate to be less threatening. The participants then came up with short narratives concerning the images to make them even less threatening.

The virtual reality app was tested on 19 participants in eight sessions over the course of four weeks. The therapy was associated with a significant reduction in anxiety levels, nightmare distress, and nightmare frequency.

“There is a possibility (not yet proven) that nightmares and anxiety associated with nightmares can be effectively reduced via VR-enabled training to control scary images,” McNamara told PsyPost.

“Our study was not a double-blind placebo controlled study, so all we have really shown is that the treatment appears to be effective and should therefore be further tested. If it works under those conditions as well, then it should be made available to nightmare sufferers everywhere.”

“We designed the treatment so that it can be adjusted and individualized,” McNamara added. “For example, some people’s nightmares are characterized by threatening/arousing images while others are characterized by intense controlling images. The VR app we developed allows users to choose to work on whatever imagery type most characterizes their particular nightmare history and thus this ‘individualized medicine’ approach may more effectively help people with chronic nightmares. The next step is to develop a version for kids with chronic nightmares.”

The study, “Virtual Reality-Enabled Treatment of Nightmares“, was authored by Patrick McNamara, Kendra Holt Moore, Yiannis Papelis, Saikou Diallo, and Wesley J. Wildman.

Want to stay up-to-date with the latest psychology research?

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive free weekly emails with updates on the latest findings.

This website uses cookies.