The Stuff Insomniac Dreams Are Made Of

Back when my insomnia was chronic, I had a lot of scary dreams. They left me with a pounding heart and fear that could keep me awake for a couple of hours.

Surprisingly little is known about the dreams of people with insomnia. So when a new article about insomnia sufferers’ dreams came out in Sleep Medicine, I snapped it up.

Insomniac dreams can be scary

Insomniac dreams can be scaryI remember dreams much less now than when my insomnia was chronic. Then, just as I felt myself about to slide over the brink of consciousness, I sometimes got a horrifying send-off: a plane exploded in a fireball overhead! I was on the road and a Mack truck was coming at me full on! I was on a roller coaster that ran off the track and was plunging to the ground! Scary dreams left me with a pounding heart and fear that could keep me awake for a couple of hours.

Surprisingly little is known about the dreams of people with insomnia. So when a new article about insomnia sufferers’ dreams came out in Sleep Medicine, I snapped it up.

Negativity in Dreams

Among humans overall, a majority of dreams with emotional content are disturbing. One hypothesis about dream content holds that dreams are mainly reflections of experiences we’ve had during our waking hours, and research suggests that one function of dreaming is to replay disturbing events in order to attenuate their emotional charge. The event gets filed away in long-term memory but some of the negative emotion accompanying the experience is lost. The result is that the person dreaming wakes up feeling less bad about it as time goes on.

Results of a few previous studies done on dreams and insomnia are mixed but, overall, they suggest that the dreams of insomniacs may be more unpleasant than the dreams of good sleepers. Insomniacs have reported more nightmares and more negative elements in sleep-onset dreams. They tend to characterize themselves more negatively in their dreams (as in feeling low self-esteem or lacking in something).

This might be because insomniacs are prone to worry and rumination at night. Worries like these—“Taxes are due in 3 days!” “I’ll never get back to sleep!” “Tomorrow I’m going to feel wasted!”—may spill over into sleep. And because insomniacs are more inclined to awakenings during the night (and to arousal overall), dream content might move more easily from short- to long-term memory, enhancing dream recall.

REM Dream Activity of Insomnia Sufferers

The new study was small (12 insomniacs and 12 matched good sleepers) but well designed. On 5 nights, participants underwent polysomnogram tests to record their brain waves and assess their sleep. On 2 of those nights, during several REM sleep episodes (when dreams were more likely to occur) they were awakened by an 80-decibel tone. Then they had to narrate their dream over an intercom, recall all memorable elements of the dream, and describe the mood associated with it.

The investigators found that the dreams of all participants contained more negative elements than positive elements, which confirms findings in past research. But when they examined the two groups separately, here’s what they found:

  • Only the insomniacs’ dreams contained significantly more negative elements (aggression, misfortunes, failures, and negative emotions) than positive elements (friendliness, good fortune, success, and positive emotions). Subjectively, too, the insomniacs appraised their dreams as being more negative than good sleepers did.
  • Good sleepers reported significantly more joy and happiness in their dreams, and a higher degree of vividness.
  • Insomniacs’ sleep was more broken than the sleep of the good sleepers. In other words, the sleep of insomniacs was less efficient. And the lower the sleep efficiency, the higher the number of negative elements in insomniacs’ dreams.

The one prediction these researchers made that didn’t hold up concerns dream and nightmare recall, which they expected would be higher among insomnia sufferers than good sleepers. In contrast to the results of previous studies, participants’ responses on a questionnaire showed that dream and nightmare recall was similar between the 2 groups.

As in Waking Life, So in Sleep

The waking hours of people with chronic insomnia are skewed toward the negative, with moodiness, low energy, and mental dross our daily fare. So it’s probably no surprise that the struggle and negativity carry over into our sleep by way of dreams.

If you have a recurring dream, please share it here.

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

One thought on “The Stuff Insomniac Dreams Are Made Of”

  1. It’s comforting in a way to know that the majority of the dreams that people have are unpleasant or disturbing to some degree. I’ve often thought that perhaps my upsetting dreams reflected an overall negative predisposition of mine.


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