Research finds connection between nightmares and suicidality


A study published this March by researchers at the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford has found a surprising relationship between nightmares and suicidal behaviors.

The results of this study were published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The study

The research was led by Simon D. Kyle, Ph.D., a senior research fellow in the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, U.K.

The scientists gathered information from 91 participants who had previously experienced traumatic events. Roughly half of these participants (56 percent) currently met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and an additional 26 percent had been diagnosed with PTSD in the past. All participants completed questionnaires about suicidal behaviors as well as thought patterns known to increase the risk of suicide, such as hopelessness, defeat and entrapment. In addition, the researchers measured the following:

  • They used a clinician-administered PTSD scale to measure nightmare frequency and severity.
  • Since insomnia is often correlated with PTSD and suicidal behavior, the researchers also measured whether or not participants had difficulties falling or staying asleep.
  • Finally, the researchers measured whether or not participants were suffering from co-occurring depression.

The researchers found that suicidal behaviors were significantly higher in participants who experienced nightmares than in participants who did not. Specifically, 62 percent of participants with nightmares demonstrated suicidal behaviors compared to 20 percent of participants without nightmares.

Most surprisingly, however, these correlations were completely independent of comorbid insomnia and depression. In other words, it didn’t matter if a person had difficulties with insomnia or symptoms of depression: Nightmares were still significantly associated with suicidality.

What does this mean?

The researchers theorized that frequent nightmares may increase perceptions of defeat, entrapment and hopelessness: all thought patterns that can result in suicidal thoughts and actions. For this reason, people who struggle with nightmares may be more likely to engage in suicidal behavior.

“PTSD increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and our study shows that nightmares, a hallmark symptom of PTSD, may be an important treatment target to reduce suicide risk,” said lead author Donna L. Littlewood, Ph.D., a researcher at The University of Manchester, in a press release. “This study emphasizes the importance of specifically assessing and targeting nightmares within those individuals experiencing PTSD. In addition, monitoring and targeting levels of negative cognitive appraisals such as defeat, entrapment, and hopelessness, may reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviours.”

More research is necessary before scientists can say for certain that nightmares are related to suicidality, but in the meantime, clinicians shouldn’t ignore them. Reducing nightmares — as well as the negative feelings evoked by nightmares — may make a positive difference in individuals who have experienced trauma.

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About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer, she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. 

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