Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology 2017 07 15() doi 10.1007/s00127-017-1408-7
Nightmares are inherently distressing, prevent restorative sleep, and are associated with a number of psychiatric problems, but have rarely been the subject of empirical study. Negative affect, linked to stressful events, is generally considered the key trigger of nightmares; hence nightmares have most often been considered in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, many individuals with heightened negative affect do not have nightmares. The objective of this study was to identify mechanistically plausible factors, beyond negative affect, that may explain why individuals experience nightmares.
846 participants from the UK general population completed an online survey about nightmare occurrence and severity (pre-occupation, distress, and impairment), negative affect, worry, depersonalisation, hallucinatory experiences, paranoia, alcohol use, sleep duration, physical activity levels, PTSD symptoms, and stressful life events. Associations of nightmares with the putative predictive factors were tested controlling for levels of negative affect. Analyses were also repeated controlling for levels of PTSD and the recent occurrence of stressful life events.
Nightmare occurrence, adjusting for negative affect, was associated with higher levels of worry, depersonalisation, hallucinatory experiences, paranoia, and sleep duration (odds ratios 1.25-1.45). Nightmare severity, controlling for negative affect, was associated with higher levels of worry, depersonalisation, hallucinatory experiences, and paranoia (R (2)s: 0.33-0.39). Alcohol use and physical activity levels were not associated with nightmares.
The study identifies a number of potential predictors of the occurrence and severity of nightmares. Causal roles require testing in future longitudinal, experimental, and treatment studies.