Dreaming in Depression (and Other Mental Illness)
A review of psychological disorders associated with disturbed dreaming.
Posted Jan 25, 2016
While occasional nightmares are a common and normal responses to waking stress, more frequent disturbed dreams and nightmares may be indicative of underlying psychopathology. In the more benign case, the frequency and intensity of disturbing dreams may show a progression and resolution over time, whereas chronic nightmares are repetitive, persistent, and associated with lower psychological well-being, as well as histories of trauma or abuse.1
In fact, frequent and distressing nightmares, along with several other qualities of disturbed dreaming, such as changes in emotional intensity, increased bizarreness, or unusual character interactions, have been associated with specific psychological disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorder.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, depressed patients report dreams with more negative mood and emotion than control subjects, as well as more failures and misfortunes (compared to people with schizophrenia).2,13 Patients with depression also experience more frequent nightmares.4,14
Further, depressed patients with a history of suicidal thoughts or behaviors report more death themes in their dreams. However, one study found that depressed patients reported less negative, but more neutral affect in their dreams; the authors interpret this finding to be consistent with the affective flattening seen in depression. Further, one study of bipolar disorder found that shifts from neutral or negative dream content (as in depression) towards more bizarre and unrealistic dreams can predict alterations between depressive and manic states.16 This suggests that shifts in affective content of dreaming may occur congruently with vacillations in waking mood in depression.
Besides affective content, depressed patients have been found to play a relatively passive role in their dreams, along with reporting less bizarre dreams, lower dream recall frequency, and less detailed dream reports.17,18 One study repeatedly awakened depressed patients five minutes into REM sleep episodes—a period that typically promotes high dream recall—and found that depressed patients were consistently unable to recall their dreams.19 These findings altogether are suggestive of a relative inhibition or flattening of dream content in depressed patients.
Several studies have found the dreams of schizophrenic patients to contain heightened levels of anxiety and negative affect. For instance, they report higher frequencies of hostility in their dreams in comparison to controls—specifically, increased hostility directed toward the dreamer.2,3 They also have more frequent nightmares than healthy subjects.4,5
When assessing the character involvement in the dreams of schizophrenics, several studies have found presence of more strangers and fewer familiar characters or friends—as well as an idiosyncratic finding that the patient is often not the main character of the dream.6-9 The combination of anxious and apprehensive dreams with perceived hostility from strangers and unfamiliar characters is consistent with experiences of persecutory delusions in waking life.
Reports on bizarreness have been inconsistent. Some studies report more bizarreness and implausibility in the dreams of people with schizophrenia, while others find no differences in bizarreness compared to controls.10-12 This inconsistency may be due to the methodology use for rating dream bizarreness; for instance, one study showed that schizophrenics self-rate their dreams as less bizarre than judges do (perhaps because they are so used to how bizarre their dreams are).8 On the contrary, waking daydreams are consistently found to be more bizarre in schizophrenic patients.
In general, the increased negative affect, higher frequency of nightmares, and unusual character profile of patients’ dreams is consistent with waking symptoms of schizophrenia.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Patients with borderline personality disorder experience more negative dreams, as well as more distress within their dreams and after awakening from dreams.20,21 Further, BPD is consistently associated with higher-than-average nightmare frequency,20-22 and increasing nightmare frequency is associated with more severe symptoms.23 Some researchers suggest that these chronic nightmares may be related to childhood traumatic experiences, which are often implicated in the development of borderline personality disorder.24
However, in another study, character interactions in the dreams of borderline patients were found to contain more friendliness and less aggressiveness, as well as less confusion than control subjects dreams.25 They also contained heightened levels of sensory vividness, including movement and auditory attributes.
These findings seem somewhat contradictory to the prevalence of nightmares and anxious, distressing dreams, but could be indicative of a general intensification of dreaming processes that may result in either nightmares or vivid non-nightmare dreams, depending on current levels of stress.
Patterns in disturbed dreaming may be useful as indicators of psychiatric progression. For instance, increasing reference to death in the dreams of depressed patients could reveal the presence of suicidal thoughts, and is thus a potent cue for clinicians—especially since nightmares themselves are associated with greater risk for suicide.22
On the other hand, shifts towards more positive themes may be indicative of successful treatment. As mentioned, in bipolar disorder, shifts from negative to bizarre dreams may reflect shifts from depressive to manic states, and can thus alert the patient and clinician to oncoming symptoms.16
The prevalence of nightmares in all three psychological disorders examined here further suggests that treatments incorporating targeted nightmare reduction may be more successful than those that neglect nightmares. In general, assessment of dreams can serve as a useful barometer for changes in psychopathology and can thus be effectively used within treatment contexts.
1. Zadra AL, Donderi D. Nightmares and bad dreams: their prevalence and relationship to well-being. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 2000;109:273-81.
2. Kramer M, Roth T. A comparison of dream content in laboratory dream reports of schizophrenic and depressive patient groups. Comprehensive Psychiatry 1973;14:325-9.
3. Zanasi M, Calisti F, Di Lorenzo G, Valerio G, Siracusano A. Oneiric activity in schizophrenia: textual analysis of dream reports. Conscious. Cogn. 2011;20:337-48.
4. Mume C. Dream Recall Frequency among Patients in a Psychiatric Outpatient Clinic in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Libyan Journal of Medicine 2009;4.
5. Michels F, Schilling C, Rausch F, et al. Nightmare frequency in schizophrenic patients, healthy relatives of schizophrenic patients, patients at high risk states for psychosis, and healthy controls. International Journal of Dream Research 2014;7:9-13.
6. Khazaie H, Tahmasian M, Younesi G, et al. Evaluation of dream content among patients with schizophrenia, their siblings, patients with psychiatric diagnoses other than schizophrenia, and healthy control. Iranian journal of psychiatry 2012;7:26.
7. Okuma T, Sunami Y, Fukuma E, Takeo S, Motoiku M. Dream Content Study in Chronic Schizophrenics and Normals by RE MP‐A wakening Technique. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 1970;24:151-62.
8. Lusignan F-A, Zadra A, Dubuc M-J, Daoust A-M, Mottard J-P, Godbout R. Dream content in chronically-treated persons with schizophrenia. Schizophr. Res. 2009;112:164-73.
9. Skancke J, Holsen I, Schredl M. Continuity between waking life and dreams of psychiatric patients: A review and discussion of the implications for dream research. International Journal of Dream Research 2014;7:39-53.
10. Kramer M. 34Dream differences in psychiatric patients. This page intentionally left blank 2010:375.
11. Scarone S, Manzone ML, Gambini O, et al. The dream as a model for psychosis: an experimental approach using bizarreness as a cognitive marker. Schizophrenia bulletin 2008;34:515-22.
12. Limosani I, D'Agostino A, Manzone ML, Scarone S. Bizarreness in dream reports and waking fantasies of psychotic schizophrenic and manic patients: empirical evidences and theoretical consequences. Psychiatry Res. 2011;189:195-9.
13. Schredl M, Berger M, Riemann D. The effect of trimipramine on dream recall and dream emotions in depressive outpatients. Psychiatry Res. 2009;167:279-86.
14. Hublin C, Kaprio J, Partinen M, Koskenvuo M. Nightmares: familial aggregation and association with psychiatric disorders in a nationwide twin cohort. American journal of medical genetics 1999;88:329-36.
15. Cartwright R, Young MA, Mercer P, Bears M. Role of REM sleep and dream variables in the prediction of remission from depression. Psychiatry Res. 1998;80:249-55.
16. Beauchemin KM, Hays P. Prevailing mood, mood changes and dreams in bipolar disorder. Journal of affective disorders 1995;35:41-9.
17. Schredl M, Engelhardt H. Dreaming and psychopathology: Dream recall and dream content of psychiatric inpatients. Sleep and Hypnosis 2001.
18. Zanasi M, Pecorella M, Chiaramonte C, Niolu C, Siracusano A. DREAMS BY PERSONS WITH MOOD DISORDERS 1. Psychological reports 2008;103:381-94.
19. McNamara P, Auerbach S, Johnson P, Harris E, Doros G. Impact of REM sleep on distortions of self-concept, mood and memory in depressed/anxious participants. Journal of affective disorders 2010;122:198-207.
20. Schredl M, Paul F, Reinhard I, Ebner-Priemer UW, Schmahl C, Bohus M. Sleep and dreaming in patients with borderline personality disorder: A polysomnographic study. Psychiatry Res. 2012;200:430-6.
21. Simor P, Csóka S, Bódizs R. Nightmares and bad dreams in patients with borderline personality disorder: Fantasy as a coping skill? Eur. J. Psychiatry 2010;24:28-37.
22. Simor P, Horváth K. Altered sleep in Borderline Personality Disorder in relation to the core dimensions of psychopathology. Scandinavian journal of psychology 2013;54:300-12.
23. Semiz UB, Basoglu C, Ebrinc S, Cetin M. Nightmare disorder, dream anxiety, and subjective sleep quality in patients with borderline personality disorder. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 2008;62:48-55.
24. Ball JS, Links PS. Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: evidence for a causal relationship. Current psychiatry reports 2009;11:63-8.
25. Guralnik O, Levin R, SCHMEIDLER J. Dreams of personality disordered subjects. The Journal of nervous and mental disease 1999;187:40-6.