Here’s Why You’re Having Recurring Nightmares, According to Science

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Svetlana Cherkasova)

People have tried to decipher what our dreams mean since the beginning of time, and now, researchers are taking a look at why we have them. A new study published last month takes a look at one particularly stressful dream pattern: the recurring nightmare.

Occasional bad dreams are one thing, but recurring nightmares can signal something else, according to a study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

The study, which asked 200 people to fill out a survey and 110 people to keep a dream journal and answer questionnaires, aimed to determine whether a lack of three basic psychological needs caused an increase of bad dreams. Those three needs are described in the paper as follows:

The psychological need for competence refers to feeling effective in acting on the world and achieving desired outcomes. The psychological need for autonomy refers to experiencing a sense of choice and psychological freedom in one’s functioning. Finally, the psychological need for relatedness refers to feeling close and connected to others in one’s social sphere.

Both studies saw a link between feelings of frustration, unmet needs, and the recurrence of nightmares. As TIME summarizes, “those emotions ‘may directly result from distressing dream events,’ the authors wrote in their paper, which ‘might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly challenging waking experiences.'”

They did not, however, find a connection between satisfied needs and positive emotions in dreams.

The jury is still out on what dreams mean, though. While the authors note that people who were frustrated were also more likely to report having recurring dreams about falling, failing or being attacked, they also say it’s not enough to draw conclusions on whether specific dream content relates to specific psychological issues.

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