Emotional abuse in childhood and critical life events predict nightmarish anguish

A new study published in Journal of Sleep Research provides insights into factors that contribute to nightmarish distress. The results indicate that several waking life variables, such as childhood abuse and critical life events, play a larger role than violent dream content in how distressed people feel about their nightmares.

The researchers were motivated by previous research showing that traumatic experiences and waking life anguish can increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares. However, research into the effects of these factors specifically on nightmarish distress was lacking.

“I was interested in this topic because I wanted to find out how nightmare anxiety is related to nightmare frequency and waking life anxiety. Furthermore, I wanted to investigate to what extent adverse dream contents are related to nightmarish anxiety,” said study author Jonas Mathes from the Institute for Experimental Psychology at Heinrich-Heine-Universitt Düsseldorf.

To conduct the study, the researchers recruited participants online through college campus advertising and various platforms. Inclusion criteria were being at least 18 years of age, having no mental disorders, and not consuming drugs that could affect nightmares.

Two different advertisements were used to recruit participants for two groups: the nightmarish group and the non-nightmare group. The nightmare group consisted of participants who regularly experienced more than one nightmare per month, while the non-nightmare group included participants who experienced no more than one nightmare per month.

In total, 103 participants took part in the study, including 59 in the nightmare group and 44 in the non-nightmare group. Most of the participants were women, and most identified as students or had some other occupation. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 61 years, with no significant age differences between the nightmare and non-nightmare groups.

Participants were asked to keep a structured online dream diary for 28 consecutive days. The diary consisted of two parts. The first part included daily questionnaires about sleep behavior and dream content, which participants filled out immediately after waking up. They also indicated whether they were able to recall any dreams.

The second part of the diary, completed if participants remembered at least one dream, focused on the previous night’s dream content. Participants rated the intensity of positive and negative emotions in their dreams on a 4-point scale. They also indicated whether the dream was perceived as a nightmare. Participants recorded narration of their dream content and, if applicable, completed the offender questionnaire to rate aggression in the dream.

Different measurement tools were used in the study. Dream recall frequency was assessed using a questionnaire, in which participants rated how often they could recall their dreams. The emotional content of dreams was also rated using a rating scale. Participants reported the intensity of positive and negative emotions in their dreams. The researchers also used the Life Event Scale to rate the critical life events experienced by the participants over the past year.

The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire has been used to measure traumatic childhood experiences, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect. Nightmare distress was assessed using the Nightmare Distress Questionnaire, which measured the impact of nightmares on general distress, sleep, and perception of daytime reality.

Most participants were able to recall their dreams at least once a week, with some participants being able to recall dreams nearly every day. Retrospective data on dream recall frequency are aligned with prospective data collected through the dream diary. On average, the participants were able to recall about two dreams per week over the 28-day period of the study.

Of the recorded dreams, approximately 27.8% were labeled nightmares by the participants. This indicates that nightmares were a relatively common occurrence during the study period.

The study found that nightmarish anxiety was associated with critical life events, traumatic childhood experiences (particularly emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse), and the presence of violent dream content. This suggests that people who experienced more critical life events and childhood traumas tended to have higher levels of nightmare-related distress.

Interestingly, emotional appraisal, traumatic childhood experiences, and critical life events had a greater impact on nightmare distress than the actual content of the nightmares. This means that how the participants emotionally interpreted nightmares played a more significant role in causing distress than the specific content of the nightmares themselves.

“Reducing waking life anguish plays an important role in reducing nightmarish anguish and negative dream emotions,” Mathes told PsyPost.

But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For example, the study simplified the assessment of violent dream content by using binary responses, which could have limited the depth of the analysis. Additionally, future studies could examine the impact of variables such as neuroticism, which influence how individuals perceive critical life events.

“In conclusion, the results can correctly explain the occurrence of nightmarish anxiety and confirm previous findings,” wrote Mathes and his colleagues. “Emotional evaluation has a substantial influence on nightmares. This suggests that dreamers may influence their dream experiences due to their re-evaluation during dreaming or possibly waking life as well. More research is needed to study treatment methods for nightmares and the traits and states associated with a sufficient learning effect.”

The study, “Nightmare distress is related to traumatic childhood experiences, critical life events, and emotional evaluation of a dream rather than its content,” was written by Jonas Mathes, Jennifer Schuffelen, Annika Gieselmann, and Reinhard Pietrowsky.

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