A new study examining links between personality traits and experiences with nightmares has found that people with more pronounced openness to experience tend to experience nightmares more frequently. Individuals with higher levels of neuroticism, on the other hand, are more distressed by them. The study was published in Dreaming.
A nightmare is an extended, extremely unpleasant dream. It usually involves efforts to avoid threats to survival, security, or physical integrity. Nightmares can follow traumatic events and those are referred to as traumatic nightmares. However, nightmares can also be not related to traumatic events, which means that there is no discernible trigger for them.
Research has shown that nightmares are relatively distinct phenomena. They usually happen during the rapid eye movement (or REM) phase of sleep. REM sleep is characterized by an increase in brain activity that is similar to the waking state, an increase in blood and heart rate, cardiovascular activity in general, and, of course, rapid eye movement.
Between 57% and 83% of adolescents and adults report nightmare experiences happening within a year, with a single digit percentage of people reporting them weekly or more often. Studies have examined different factors that might be connected to nightmare frequency, such as gender, personality, the current affective load and others, but results have not been very conclusive.
Study author Fredrik Brekke and his colleagues wanted to investigate the factors associated with nightmare frequency (how often one has nightmares) and nightmare distress (how distressed one feels after a nightmare). They focused on gender, personality traits, and coping strategies. They conducted an online survey.
Participants were students of the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway and members of student organizations Cybernetic Company, Student Union for Data and Electronics, and Student Union for the Technical Sciences. A total of 225 students completed the survey. 68% were women. The average age of participants was 24 years.
The participants completed assessments of nightmare distress (the Nightmare Distress Questionnaire), nightmare frequency (the Nightmare Frequency Questionnaire), basic personality traits (the Big Five personality traits – the NEO-FFI-30), and coping strategies (a scale created by authors of this study to assess strategies one uses to deal with stress).
Results showed that participants with more pronounced neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions more often and to be easily upset by stress and other challenging situations) tended to report being more distressed by nightmares, but not having nightmares more often. People with heightened openness to experience (tendency to be intellectually curious, creative, and prefer novelty and variety) reported having nightmares more often.
Additional statistical analyses resulted in the findings that participants with more pronounced extraversion (the tendency to be outgoing, sociable, and assertive in social situations) and those with more pronounced agreeableness (the tendency to be compassionate, cooperative, and trusting of others) reported having nightmares less often.
These analyses also showed that participants with more pronounced conscientiousness (the tendency to be organized, responsible, and goal-oriented) tended to report being more distressed by nightmares.
Participants who reported having nightmares more often also more often reported using coping strategies to deal with stress produced by nightmares. Older participants reported having nightmares less often. Participants who reported having more nightmares also reported being more distressed by them.
The study sheds light on the links between personality and dreaming. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were students from the same city and very close to each other in age. This means that age related findings might have limited meaningfulness.
The study, “Who Has Nightmares? An Investigation Into the Relationship Between Personality and Nightmares”, was authored by Fredrik Brekke, Thomas Hodges Dale, and Ståle Pallesen.