Dream falling.

Recurring nightmares likely stem from unfulfilled basic psychological needs

People who are having difficulty satisfying their basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are more likely to experience recurring, distressing dreams. They also tend to describe or interpret them in more negative terms.

Dream falling.

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Dreams and their meaning have been a subject of human curiosity since times immemorial. There is a trove of material out there on the subject, some scientific, some more esoteric. Great minds like Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud worked on the subject. Adding to that latter category is a new paper published by UK researchers: people who are frustrated because their basic psychological needs aren’t met are more likely to have recurring bad dreams, they report.

We dream to cope

The researchers base their findings on two studies. The first involved 200 participants aged 18 to 33 years, who were asked to reflect on their most common recurring dream and fill out a short survey assessing their general psychological need satisfaction and psychological need frustration. The second one involved 110 people (18 to 61 years). Participants first completed an initial survey assessing person-level variables (i.e., general psychological need satisfaction and frustration), and then completed dream surveys (similar to dream diaries) on three evenings and the three mornings following, on days Monday to Thursday.

What the team wanted to identify whether there were any links between the psychological needs of these people (while awake) and the deeper processing that occurs in the context of dreams — in other words, if bad dreams are “left-overs” of poorly processed or unprocessed daily experiences that our subconscious mind tries to grapple with.

The results of both studies suggest that frustration and other emotions associated with specific psychological needs shape the “themes” and overall feel of dreams. Participants whose psychological needs weren’t met, be it on a day-to-day or in a more prolonged fashion, understandably reported higher levels of frustration. They also reported having more negative themes play out during their sleep, with dreams involving emotions related to fear, sadness, and anger. Finally, when asked to interpret their own dreams, they were more likely to describe them negatively than positively.

“Waking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected in our dreams,” says lead author Netta Weinstein of the University of Cardiff. “Negative dream emotions may directly result from distressing dream events, and might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences.”

The most common ‘bad’ recurring themes of the group were falling, being attacked, or failure. Weinstein believes that recurring dreams may be more sensitive to distressing psychological experiences that a person still needs to process.

“Researchers and theorists have argued that recurring dreams challenge people to process the most pressing problems in their lives, and these may be thought to result from their failure to adapt to challenging experiences. As such, dream content may be more affected by enduring need-based experiences,” says Weinstein.

So if you’re looking for a restful sleep and an enjoyable in-your-head adventure, make sure all your psychological needs are properly tended to. If you just can’t seem to escape unpleasant dreams, the odds are that some of your needs aren’t being tended to.

The paper “Linking psychological need experiences to daily and recurring dreams” has been published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

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