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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream, Badly

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream, BadlyA new study from the University of Montreal details the psychological implications of disturbed sleep in the form of nightmares and bad dreams.

Researchers obtained the narratives of nearly 10,000 dreams, and analyzed 253 nightmares, and 431 bad dreams.

They discovered nightmares have greater emotional impact than bad dreams do, and fear is not always a factor.

In fact, fear is mostly absent in bad dreams and in one-third of nightmares. What is felt, instead, is sadness, confusion, guilt, disgust, etc.

“Physical aggression is the most frequently reported theme in nightmares. Moreover, nightmares become so intense they will wake you up.”

“Bad dreams, on the other hand, are especially haunted by interpersonal conflicts,” writes Geneviève Robert and Dr. Antonio Zadra, psychology researchers at the Université de Montréal,

The study is published in the journal Sleep.

“Death, health concerns, and threats are common themes in nightmares. But it would be wrong to think that they characterize all nightmares,” said Robert.

“Sometimes, it is the feeling of a threat or an ominous atmosphere that causes the person to awaken. I’m thinking of one narrative, in which, the person saw an owl on a branch and was absolutely terrified.”

Nightmares in men were also more likely than those of women to contain themes of disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, and war, while themes involving interpersonal conflicts were twice as frequent in the nightmares of women.

Why do we dream? What are nightmares?

“These questions are still unanswered,” said Zadra, who has focused on sleep disorders for 20 years and is a specialist in sleepwalking.

One hypothesis is that dreams are a catharsis to the vicissitudes of daily life; another is that they reflect a disruption of the nervous system.

Whatever they are, the scientific community generally agrees that everyone dreams, usually during the stage of sleep called REM sleep, which most people go through three to five times a night.

Most sleepers forget their dreams right away; heavy dreamers remember them more easily. Five to six percent of the population report having nightmares.

“Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep–and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night,” said Zadra.

“People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia.”

The source of a recurring nightmare may be a traumatic event.

Returning soldiers sometimes, in their dreams, see the scenes that marked them. Consumption or withdrawal of alcohol or psychotropic drugs may also explain the frequency or intensity of nightmares.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies nightmares in the category “parasomnias usually associated with REM sleep.”

The good news is that nightmares are treatable.

Visualization techniques are helpful as patients learn to change the scenario of one or more of their dreams and repeat the new scenario using a mental imagery technique.

It can be through a life-saving act (the dreamer confronts the attacker) or a supernatural intervention (Superman comes to the rescue). All in mid-dream!

One of the research aims of Robert and Zadra was to better understand the difference between bad dreams and nightmares, which seem to be in a continuum with “ordinary” dreams, along a sort of intensity scale.

For this first large-scale comparative study on the topic, the researchers asked 572 respondents to write a dream journal over two to five weeks instead of simply ticking off themes listed in a questionnaire, which is a quicker but less valid method.

Zadra believes there is much still to be learned about dreams with additional research addressing emotional and neurocognitive process associated with good and bad dreams.

Source: University of Montreal

Man having bad dreams photo by shutterstock.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream, Badly

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). To Sleep, Perchance to Dream, Badly. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jan 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.