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Here’s What Your Recurring Nightmares Actually Mean

4 minute read

Everyone has a bad dream once in a while. But having the same one over and over may signal that something specific is missing in your daily life, new research suggests. Men and women in the study who felt frustrated and incompetent during the day were more likely to have recurrent bad dreams at night than those who felt satisfied and in control.

Other research has suggested that positive or negative emotions carry over into dreams, and that bad dreams may represent the leftover parts of poorly processed experiences, the authors wrote in their study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Less is known about the role of social and environmental cues—how people relate to themselves and those around them—in shaping dreams.

Lead author Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Cardiff in the U.K., wanted to find out if a lack of three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence and relatedness—translated into disturbing dreams. People are more likely to be satisfied with their lives if they feel in control of their choices, good at what they do and closely connected to other people in their social sphere, says Weinstein, and missing out on these needs can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

To find out, they asked 200 people to complete a survey about how frustrated or satisfied they were with various aspects of their life, along with their most common recurring dream. They also asked 110 people to keep a dream diary and respond to psychology questionnaires over three days.

Both experiments showed a link between unmet psychological needs, frustration with life experiences and negative dream themes, including dreams that involved frightened, sad or angry emotions. Those emotions “may directly result from distressing dream events,” the authors wrote in their paper, which “might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly challenging waking experiences.”

People who were frustrated with their daily lives were also more likely to report having recurring dreams about falling, failing or being attacked. But the study authors say it’s too soon to draw conclusions about whether specific dream content relates to certain psychological issues.

“I wish we could say there are certain assumptions you could make about someone who dreams about fire or who dreams about falling, but the evidence for that right now is still quite modest,” says Weinstein. “Hopefully this is a first step in that direction, but we’ll need a much bigger sample before we can get there.”

The study could not show that daily frustrations actually caused negative dream themes, only that there was an association. Weinstein says it’s possible that the relationship could work in the opposite direction—that bad dreams could influence waking experiences—or that some people may simply be more likely to feel dissatisfied with their life and to experience recurrent bad dreams.

But people in the three-day study did report worse dreams after days when they reported more frustration, compared to days they felt more satisfaction. This suggests that day-to-day unmet needs really are influencing dreams, the authors say.

Weinstein says her research makes a broader point about mental health and should send a message to people who find themselves consistently feeling frustrated, lonely, incompetent or helpless. “This is the latest in a string of research showing that these experiences are very harmful,” she says, “not just for our ability to function during the day, but now, possibly, for our ability to sleep well at night, too.”

“At this point, we can definitively say that feeling incompetent is just not good for you,” she says. “My advice is to find any opportunity to feel more valued, more confident about yourself and more connected with people and things you care about. It’s hard to overestimate how helpful that will be for your well-being.”

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