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Nightmare numbers surprisingly high.

Nightmare Numbers Surprisingly High

Before you curl up in bed tonight and doze off peacefully, here's some eye-opening news to ponder: Nightmares, at least among young adults, apparently occur more than twice as often as scientists previously thought. Furthermore, emotionally stable people have about the same number of nightmares as highly anxious individuals.

These findings, reported in the February JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY by James M. Wood and Richard R. Bootzin of the University of Arizona in Tucson, challenge the long-standing view that frequent nightmares in an adult reflect deep-seated anxiety and are a possible symptom of mental disturbance.

"We were stunned when we looked at our results," Wood says.

In the Arizona team's view, anxiety usually does not cause nightmares, but nightmares may often cause anxiety. Only as the frightening aspects of the unconscious drama play out in the dream do feelings of anxiety emerge, the team suggests. If further research supports this contention, then researchers and clinicians may need to reevaluate their reliance on frequent nightmares as a primary sign of anxiety and stress disorders in general, and of post-traumatic stress disorder in particular.

In three previous studies, other researchers examined nightmare prevalence by asking college students to estimate the number of nightmares they had during the past year. Between 10 percent and 25 percent reported at least one nightmare per month, with an annual average of five to 10 dreams per student. Two surveys of the general population, also based on nightmare recollections for the prior year, led to estimates that as many as one in 12 people experience a current problem with nightmares.

Wood and Bootzin had 220 undergraduates estimate the number of nightmares they had during the previous year. Students also filled out questionnaires on anxiety and artistic interests, since heightened creativity has been linked to frequent nightmares. The students also kept a dream log for two weeks. On waking each morning, they recorded whether they had had a nightmare and, if so, how many. None of the earlier studies used daily logs.

The researchers defined a nightmare as "a dream that frightens the dreamer," thus excluding some upsetting or sad dreams some view as nightmares, Wood says. Nearly 47 percent of the students reported at least one nightmare in their dream logs. Based on the logs, the estimated average annual number of nightmares for each student totaled 24 -- about 2-1/2 times the annual frequency estimated from the retrospective reports.

Neither anxiety nor creativity was linked to a greater number of nightmares, the researchers report. Previous studies had found a modest link between anxiety and nightmares. "The data suggest anxious individuals don't have more nightmares, but they may be more likely to remember and report nightmares retrospectively," Wood maintains.

In another recent investigation, a team directed by Ernest Hartmann of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston concluded that people with persistent, frequent nightmares are emotionally vulnerable, sensitive and creative and have some schizophrenic-like oddities of thought (SN: 1/17/87, p.37). But Hartmann recruited his subjects through newspaper ads and thus studied only those most anxious to talk about their nightmares, Wood says.

Hartmann finds the nightmare frequencies reported by Wood and Bootzin "somewhat surprising" and says people may overestimate the number of nightmares when told to pay attention to them on a daily basis.

Wood says nightmare reports were indeed slightly inflated during the first few days the students kept logs, but then leveled off. After statistical correction for the initial jump, daily logs still indicated twice as many nightmares annually as retrospective reports.

Preliminary studies by the Arizona researchers and others indicate that nightmare frequency, as well as dream recall, decreases during adulthood and stabilizes at around age 40.

Nightmare intensity, rather than frequency, may be critical for those who are distressed by frightening dreams, Wood says. It is worth examining the theory that trauma victims do not have a surfeit of nightmares but instead are sensitized to the content of their dreams and react with heightened anxiety, he adds, noting that researchers have yet to study nightmare frequency among people with anxiety disorders.
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Title Annotation:dreams
Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 3, 1990
Words:684
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