Recurrent Nightmares May Mirror Daytime Frustrations

People whose basic psychological needs for connection, autonomy, and feeling competent are not met have a higher likelihood of experiencing a recurring bad dream and of analyzing their dreams negatively, a new study suggests.

Dreams and their interpretation have been explored since the days of Jung and Freud. However, this research, conducted by Netta Weinstein of the University of Cardiff, is the first to investigate whether people’s daily frustration or fulfilment of psychological needs plays out in their dreams.

“Waking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected in our dreams,”

said Weinstein.

Dream Reflections And Diaries

The researchers conducted two studies. In the first, 200 people were asked to reflect on their most common recurring dream.

The second study analyzed the entries that 110 people made over a period of three days in “dream diaries”.

This was done to explore whether experiences related to psychological needs in waking life are related to the deeper level of processing that dreams provide, and that so-called “bad” dreams might be “left-overs” of poorly or even unprocessed daily experiences.

The results from both studies show that frustrations and emotions associated with specific psychological needs influence the themes that will occur in people’s dreams. Participants whose so-called psychological needs were not met, either more enduringly or on a day-to-day basis, felt more frustrated.

They reported having more negative dream themes such as frightening dreams, or ones in which sad or angry emotions surfaced.

Daily Frustrations

When asked to interpret their own dreams, they tended to do so using more negative words. Participants whose psychological needs were met were more likely to describe their dreams positively.

“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.

People who were frustrated with their daily situation tended to have recurring dreams in which they were falling, failing or being attacked. According to Weinstein, recurring dreams may be more sensitive to distressing psychological experiences that a person still needs to process.

The work does have some limitations. Measures were retrospective in nature and therefore subject to recall bias. Also Study 2 showed large amounts (45.8%) of missing data, primarily due to participants not recalling their dreams, and results based on this study may have been affected by this.

Weinstein, N., Campbell, R. & Vansteenkiste
Linking psychological need experiences to daily and recurring dreams
M. Motiv Emot (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9656-0

Image: David Lindes/Flickr