© 2023 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
PRT Header Color
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Local Researchers Take New Approach to Treating PTSD


Nearly 8 million Americans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychologists at a local institute believe they’ve found a better way to treat it, and they have backing from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the form of a six-figure grant.

The typical course of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder involves nine to 12 sessions with a therapist.

"And there’s no medications involved. It is an approach that focuses on the way that trauma impacts the way that you think, the way that you behave and the way that you feel," said Joanne Davis, codirector of the Tulsa Institute for Trauma, Abuse and Injustice, and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa.

She’s launching a study of a two-sided treatment approach for PTSD because traditional therapy helps with functional issues "but nightmares and sleep problems are considered to be the hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder," Davis said. 

"And they’re really looked-at important factors that not only help in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder but also in maintaining it over the long term."

When you dream, the neurons in your brain make connections between things that happened during the day and things you’ve experienced before. For people suffering from PTSD, that cycle can end up reinforcing the disorder.

"What we think is happening is the brain is just stuck on a loop, and it’s replaying the same scenarios over and over again," Davis said.

In Davis’ experience, 20 to 25 percent of those with PTSD not brought on by combat dream about the events — things like sexual assaults, car crashes and natural disasters.

"But they’ll also usually have similar dreams in which the theme may be the same, in terms of safety or danger, but something about the situation is different," Davis said. "For people who have been through combat, we find that it’s 50 percent who have those replicative nightmares, where it’s almost the exact same thing happening repeatedly."

These nightmares tend to stick around a long time. Think of the worst night’s sleep you’ve ever had, then multiply it. By a lot.

"In our clinical trials, the noncombat trials that we’ve done, it’s an average of 16 to 18 years that people have suffered from nightmares multiple times per week," Davis said. "And in our combat study that we did a couple years ago, it was an average of 40 years."

She said there is hope, though.

"If you can adjust sleep patterns and sleep habits and really focus on the nightmares themselves, oftentimes they will resolve," Davis said. "And we have had tremendous success with this treatment approach over the last 13 years we’ve been studying it."

The treatment approach is facing those nightmares.

"They will write their nightmare out. They will read it aloud in session, and by doing this, it helps kind of take some of the power away from the nightmares," Davis said. "If it’s something — a lot of people don’t talk about their nightmares. They may say that they have them, but they won’t talk about them in terms of content or detail.

"And the process of doing that helps to alleviate the nightmares somewhat. And then we also help people identify what the themes are within their nightmares and then help them to address those themes. And then we actually rewrite the nightmare."

Rewriting the nightmare prepares patients’ brains to frame it differently the next time it surfaces. That helps them sleep better, which may help traditional treatment work better. Davis is looking for at least 90 patients for the study.

"The treatment sessions will be about 16 to 18 sessions and we’re doing them twice a week, so it’s about a two-month commitment," Davis said. "Then we follow people up over time, at three months after treatment and six months after treatment to see how they’re doing."

Treatment is free, and anyone interested can call 918-631-3976.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.