The Sleep Debt

Can you really catch up on lost sleep?

Conquer Your Bad Dreams by Confronting Your Worries

Stop negative emotions from spilling into your dreams and becoming nightmares

Having an occasional nightmare can be distressing, but the remnants of the dream tend to pass quickly after you awaken. By the time the day is over, you may have forgotten the nightmare entirely. However, for some people, nightmares are a chronic problem. These tortuous dreams interfere with the quality of sleep, and the feelings that remain after waking continue for hours or longer.

There is surprisingly little scientific research on nightmares. One obvious problem in conducting research on nightmares, which is true of dream research in general, is that people forget the specifics of their dreams after they awaken. Moreover, all the data is by definition self-report, so it’s not possible to know exactly what transpired in the actual dream itself. 

As part of a larger research project on emotional dysregulation, namely, the ability to control emotions, Rutgers University psychologist Edward Selby and his Florida State University collaborator Thomas Joiner, Jr. teamed up with Jessica Ribeiro (also from Florida State) to examine the theory that people with certain personality qualities would be more prone to nightmares. 

According to previous studies, people with borderline personality disorder have more nightmares. Selby and his collaborators believed that this association could be explained by what they called the Emotional Cascade Model.

In this model, negative emotional experiences during the day can contribute to nightmares made worse by 2 processes. First, through “rumination,” or going over things again and again in your mind, you feel increasingly upset about the experience because you can’t stop thinking about it.  Rumination keeps the wounds fresh from those negative experiences.

The second process is “catastrophizing,” in which you imagine the worst possible outcome from that negative experience. As you do so, the magnitude of the experience skyrockets beyond its original negative impact.  People with borderline personality disorder may experience more nightmares than do other people because they engage more frequently in these two reactions to emotionally upsetting events.  Anyone can experience emotional cascades, but people with borderline personality disorder do so to a greater extent because they have difficulty regulating their negative emotions.

In general, the Emotional Cascade Model predicts that nightmares reflect a spillover (emotional cascade) of worries from the day that you carry over into your sleep.  When bad things happen to you during the day, you have more trouble falling asleep, you remain mentally aroused, and these emotions become the basis for your nightmares. Making matters worse, you may awaken briefly from your sleep, still worried, and experience a “waking nightmare” in which you are actually awake but think you are sleeping.

In a 2013 publication in the journal Dreaming, Selby and his team decided to test their predictions about emotional cascades and borderline personality disorder (BPD) by comparing the dreams of people who fit the criteria for this diagnosis with a comparison group who did not. However, they needed to control for the likelihood that those with BPD might actually engage in more problematic behaviors than those without this diagnosis. Therefore, they recruited people who self-reported that they frequently engaged in “dysregulated” (i.e. out of control) behaviors such as binge eating, reckless driving, impulsive shopping, self-injury, alcohol and marijuana use, physical fighting and verbal aggression. Both groups, then, engaged in behaviors that may provoke negative emotions.

To test the role of rumination and catastrophizing, Selby and his collaborators asked people in both groups to complete scales testing these tendencies. They measured rumination with items such as “I am preoccupied with what I think and feel about what I have experienced,” and catastrophizing with items such as “I keep thinking about how terrible it is what I have experienced.” If their theory about BPD and nightmares was correct, both of these tendencies should predict frequency of nightmares, but the relationship should be stronger for those with BPD, who are particularly prone to these tendencies.

After measuring these personality tendencies, Selby and his coauthors asked the 47 participants in the study (16 with BPD) to keep daily records of their negative emotions, rumination tendencies (“emotional cascades”), and nightmares at different points each day over a 2-week period. The negative emotions included feeling sad, angry, worried, ashamed, and numb. The rumination questions asked participants to rate how much they were thinking about an upsetting problem or memory, how negatively they were feeling, and negative situations they imagined occurring in the future.

Across the two-week period, participants reported a total of 219 nightmares, with a range of none to 24, and the BPD participants had more nightmares than the non-BPD group.  The BPD participants also slept fewer hours, but their sleep quality was no worse than the comparison group.  When the research team added in general ruminating tendencies (being preoccupied with one’s feelings) and number of negative emotions during the day, however, their prediction of who had nightmares became even stronger. Specifically, those with the BPD diagnosis who tended to ruminate and also reported more negative emotions during the day had significantly more nightmares than any of the other groups.

The story doesn’t stop here. The people most prone to nightmares didn’t just wake up the next day feeling fine. Instead, the more nightmares people had, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions the next day and to ruminate about those emotions. Those with BPD who had nightmares tended to experience more negative emotions the subsequent day, but not more rumination tendencies.

The upshot of the study is that your nightmares may reflect your negative emotional states during the day and that your nightmares, in turn, can make your day more miserable after you awaken. Whether or not you have BPD, if you’re prone to experiencing negative emotions, thinking about those emotions, and worrying that things will only get worse, your emotional state will cascade into your dream life.

People with BPD, sleep disorders, or both should seek professional treatment.  However, if you find that your nightmares bother you, and you’re reasonably certain that you don’t have one of these diagnoses, there are steps you can follow to reduce your own emotional cascades: 

  1. Put your worries to rest when you put your head on the pillow. As much as possible, try to clear your head of your day’s annoyances and unpleasant events. Focus on the positive events that happened to you during the day or, if you had none, try to put a positive spin on what you did experience.
  2. Watch those rumination and catastrophizing tendencies.  If, in general, you tend to think about the negative events and feelings in your life and blow them out of proportion, try to stop yourself when you they arise in your mind. Catch yourself when you’re envisioning worst-case scenarios or when you’re starting to get down on yourself for feeling the way you do.  Reducing your negative emotions while you’re awake can make it easier for you to engage in Step 1 of putting them on hold when you’re ready to go to sleep.
  3. Examine your tendency to have experiences that are actually negative. Remember that the study was conducted on people who all said that they engaged in risky, impulsive, and troublesome behaviors. You will of course have more negative emotions associated with high-risk behaviors because they do cause problems.  It’s even possible that you engage in these behaviors because of your negative emotions.  If you find less problematic outlets for your feelings you may cut them off at their source.
  4. Don’t catastrophize about your nightmares if you have them. The nightmares that stick with you the following day may contain horrendous images.  Dreams do not predict the future. If you worry that the bad things you dreamt about will happen, you will only increase your negative mood state.  
  5. Learn to distinguish an actual from a waking nightmare. Once you realize that you may actually be awake when you think you were asleep, you can benefit by understanding that you’re allowing your negative emotions to cascade. Identifying your negative emotions can be the first step to changing them, whether you’re fully or only half awake.

Freud proposed that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious” but they don't have to lead to emotional distress. By understanding how your daytime feelings spill over to your nighttime experiences, you can improve your emotional states while awake and asleep.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Selby, E. A., Ribeiro, J. D., & Joiner, T. r. (2013). What dreams may come: Emotional cascades and nightmares in borderline personality disorder. Dreaming, 23(2), 126-144. doi:10.1037/a0032208

The Sleep Debt