New study links child abuse and nightmares
The Sector > Research > Study sheds light on how child abuse impacts on nightmares and sleep disturbances

Study sheds light on how child abuse impacts on nightmares and sleep disturbances

by Freya Lucas

June 07, 2023

Nightmares are more common in those people who experienced trauma during childhood. Specifically, a new study has found, those who experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as children were more likely to have violent dreams. 


Individuals who experienced more critical life events and childhood traumas tended to have higher levels of distress related to nightmares, the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf researchers found. 


Published in the Journal of Sleep Research, the study provides insights into the factors that contribute to nightmare distress, with the findings indicating that several waking-life variables, such as childhood abuse and critical life events, play a more important 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 distress can increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares. However, there was a lack of research on the effects of these factors on nightmare distress specifically.


For lead author Jonas Mathes, the motivation was to learn more about how nightmare distress is related to nightmare frequency and waking-life distress. To conduct the study, the researchers recruited participants online through advertisements on the university campus and various platforms. The inclusion criteria were being at least 18 years old, not having any mental disorders, and not consuming drugs that could influence nightmares.


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


Participants were instructed to keep a structured online dream diary for 28 consecutive days. The diary consisted of two parts. The first part included daily questionnaire items about sleeping behaviour and dream contents, which participants filled out immediately after awakening. They also indicated whether they were able to recall any dreams.


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


Several measurement instruments were used in the study. Dream recall frequency was assessed using a questionnaire, where participants rated how frequently they could recall their dreams. The emotional content of dreams was also assessed using a rating scale. Participants reported the intensity of positive and negative emotions in their dreams. The researchers also used the Life Event Scale (a frequently used measure of stressor exposure) to assess critical life events experienced by the participants in the past year.


The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire was 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 daytime reality perception.


The majority of participants were able to recall their dreams at least once a week, with some participants able to recall dreams almost every day. The retrospective data on dream recall frequency aligned with the prospective data collected through the dream diary. On average, participants were able to recall about two dreams per week during the 28-day period of the study.


Among the recorded dreams, approximately 27 per cent were labeled as nightmares by the participants. This indicates that nightmares were a relatively common occurrence during the study period.


Interestingly, the 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 the way participant’s emotionally interpreted nightmares played a more significant role in causing distress than the specific content of the nightmares themselves.


“Reducing waking-life distress plays an important role for reduced nightmare distress and negative dream emotions,” Mr Mathes said.


“The emotional appraisal has a substantial influence on nightmares. This suggests that dreamers can influence their dream experiences due to their reappraisal during the dream or probably also in waking-life. Further research is needed to investigate treatment methods for nightmares and the traits and states that are associated with a sufficient learning effect.”


Access the findings in full, here

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