It’s no surprise that elements from our waking lives likely have an influence over our dreams, but if you’re having the same nightmares over and over, it could be a cry for help from your brain.
While there are plenty of dream dictionaries offering insight into what our minds cook up in our sleep, one recent scientific paper published in the journal Motivation and Emotion found a link between recurring “bad” dreams and frustration stemming from unmet psychological needs.
Led by Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in social and environmental psychology at the University of Cardiff, a team of psychologists set out to explore the relationship between nightmares and the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and feeling connected to other people.
In the first of two studies, the researchers asked 200 volunteers whether they experience nine common nightmares, and if so, how often. These include falling, being attacked or pursued, being frozen with fear, being locked up, the presence of fire, being nude in public, repeatedly trying to do something, failing an examination, being inappropriately dressed, and arriving too late.
The most common recurring dreams were being attacked or pursued, falling, and being frozen in fear, while the most common isolated nightmares were being attacked or pursued, being frozen with fear, and being locked up.
In the second study, 110 participants were asked to complete an initial survey assessing whether their psychological needs were satisfied. Then, for three days, they reported either feeling mental satisfaction or frustration each evening and described their daily moods as either being positive or negative. They also kept dream diaries during that time.
While it’s important to mention that recollections of dreams aren’t the most reliable, the researchers found a trend in the results. Participants who reported their psychological needs not being met experienced negative moods and unpleasant dreams more frequently.
“Negative dream emotions may have directly resulted from distressing dream events,” the study authors wrote. “[They] might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences.” You can read the full paper here.