A new study claims that exposure to a recurring fear during sleep can help reduce phobias.
Researchers at Northwestern University used a Pavlovian scenario on patients with recurring fears and found a way to introduce them into the dreamscape.
“We showed a small but significant decrease in fear. If it can be extended to pre-existing fear, the bigger picture is that, perhaps, the treatment of phobias can be enhanced during sleep,” Katherina Hauner, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.
Inserting Fear Into Dreams
Researchers gave mild electric shocks to 15 healthy volunteers while they viewed two different faces. Meanwhile, the subjects were exposed to different smells assigned to each of the faces: woody, clove, new sneakers, lemon, or mint.
Later, while the test subjects were in the phase of sleep associated with memory consolidation, researchers released one of the smells into the room, without the accompanying face or electric shock. Researchers noted that sleep is important for strengthening new memories.
“While this particular odorant was being presented during sleep, it was reactivating the memory of that face over and over again, which is similar to the process of fear extinction during exposure therapy,” Hauner said.
Researchers showed the subjects both faces again when they awoke. When seeing the face linked to the smell used while they were sleeping, the subjects experienced less fear, even though they expected to receive a shock. Researchers measured fear levels through sweat on the skin—similar to a lie detector test—and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which gives doctors a real-time view of brain function.
The brain scans revealed changes in the hippocampus, a region associated with memory, and the amygdala, which is believed to affect emotion.
“Thus, fear extinction may be selectively enhanced during sleep, even without re-exposure to the feared stimulus itself,” researchers concluded in their study published in the journal .
Researchers say their findings may help enhance the treatment of extreme, chronic fears, called phobias, which are typically treated with gradual exposure to the object of fear until the person is desensitized.
Facing Fears Through Lucid Dreaming
There are some fears that just keep coming back to haunt people, whether it be from an unresolved breakup or from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some experienced dreamers have found ways to tackle these fears through lucid dreaming. This is the state of being aware that you are dreaming and moving consciously through the dream world.
Thomas Peisel, co-author of the book A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics, and Robert Waggoner, author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, say that with some practice, people can directly address their phobias and fears through lucid dreaming.