Previous sleep studies have suggested that those with insomnia are more likely to experience nightmares compared to good sleepers, and that as insomnia symptoms become more severe, nightmares become more frequent. Until recently, however, little research has been undertaken to characterize the dreams of insomniacs compared to those of good sleepers.
A 2015 study published in Sleep Medicine set out to determine how the dreams of individuals with primary insomnia differed from those of good sleepers.
The dream study
Researchers recruited 12 individuals with primary insomnia. Another 12 individuals with healthy sleep patterns served as the control group. All participants were between 30 and 45 years of age. The researchers collected objective sleep measures from polysomnographic recordings over five consecutive nights in a sleep lab.
The dream activity of participants was recorded through dream diaries and by forcefully awakening participants during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, so that they could describe their dreams during the third and final nights of the study. To determine subjective sleep difficulties, participants completed a sleep diary and the Insomnia Severity Index questionnaire.
Insomnia and negative dreams
Although it was a small sample size, researchers found that good sleepers were far more likely to characterize their dreams as more pleasant and containing more joy, happiness, and vividness compared to the dreams of insomniacs.
In the dreams of insomniacs, there were significantly more negative elements than in the dreams of good sleepers. In particular, the dreams of insomnia sufferers tended to contain fewer positive emotions and greater negative content.
Why is there a link between negative dreams and insomnia?
The authors of the study pointed out that they actually expected to see the dreams of participants with insomnia contain more negative than positive content, a reflection of the higher levels of arousal and pre-sleep negative experience of a typical insomnia sufferer.
Researchers also suggested that worrying over having negative dreams, including nightmares, may make it more difficult to fall asleep, while having negative dreams may increase the number of awakenings. Such a dynamic can lead to a vicious cycle where bad dreams disrupt sleep, leading to negative thoughts and worries that lead to a greater frequency of bad dreams and nightmares.
How to address bad dreams linked to insomnia
It’s likely that changing the way you think about insomnia and sleep could have a big impact on your dreams. As the authors of this study pointed out, the higher levels of negative dream content in those with insomnia could be the result of their negative attitude toward sleep and the difficulties associated with it.
In other words, the negative thoughts associated with insomnia are having a negative impact on dreams.
Correcting negative sleep thoughts is a core component of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which has been found to be the most effective treatment for insomnia and the best alternative to sleeping pills. Developing a good pre-sleep routine can also help distract the mind from anxiety and negative thoughts toward sleep.