CARDIFF, Wales — Nightmares can often times be so vivid that they rattle us to the bone, even after waking up and realizing it was just a bad dream. But when we find ourselves having the same bad dreams over and over again, is it a sign of something more? A recent study finds that recurring nightmares may occur more often when we’re facing challenges, particularly those related to work or relationships, in real life.
Dream theory has always fascinated and baffled neurologists and other scientists who study the brain. While theorists and scientists like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud made huge strides in dream theory, we still don’t know why we dream.
Now, University of Cardiff researcher Netta Weinstein, lead author of this latest study, found that people who report struggles with psychological needs for autonomy, feeling competent, or relatedness also report more recurring nightmares and are more likely to negatively interpret their dreams.
Weinstein and her team conducted two experiments. In the first, the team asked 200 people to reflect on their most common recurring dream. In the second, 110 participants were asked to write down in journals what they remembered from their dreams for three days. The researchers wanted to see if participants’ so-called “bad dreams” were related to psychological needs in waking life.
After examining the various types of bad dreams that participants experienced and then looking at their life situations, Weinstein was able to draw a connection. Weinstein says that if people were still dealing with and processing negative feelings or stressful experiences, they may experience recurring nightmares. That is, bad dreams may be byproducts or “leftovers” from negative events a person struggles to move on from.
“Waking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected in our dreams,” says Weinstein. “Researchers and theorists have argued that recurring dreams challenge people to process the most pressing problems in their lives, and these may be thought to result from their failure to adapt to challenging experiences. As such, dream content may be more affected by enduring need-based experiences.”
In particular, Weinstein noted that people who often dreamed that they were falling, being attacked, or simply failing at something were likely frustrated with their present-day status in life.
The results also showed that people battling stressful experiences were also more likely to interpret their dreams in a negative light. Conversely, participants whose psychological needs were met were more likely to view their dreams more optimistically.
“Negative dream emotions may directly result from distressing dream events, and might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences,” explains Weinstein in a statement. “Researchers and theorists have argued that recurring dreams challenge people to process the most pressing problems in their lives, and these may be thought to result from their failure to adapt to challenging experiences. As such, dream content may be more affected by enduring need-based experiences.”
The full study was published in the Feb. 2018 edition of the journal Motivation and Emotion.