Nightmares are a common occurrence that affect most of the population at some point or another. But regular nightmares as an adult could increase suicidal tendencies in some people.

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by Hayley Fryer

You bolt upright in bed, palms sweaty and heart beating out of your chest. It’s happened again, another nightmare. But could frequent bedtime trauma really increase your risk of suicide?

Nightmares are completely normal, and affect up to 90% of the population at some point in their lives. They occur mostly in younger children and tend to decrease in frequency as you get older. However, at least 5% of adults experience chronic nightmares that are so bad they are considered a sleeping disorder.

Recent research by Nils Sandman and his research group have found that this small sub-group of the population are at an increased risk of suicidal actions.


What are nightmares?

Visual stimulus that happens when you sleep which may make you frightened, decrease the amount of sleep you get and could even lead to depression. 

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Nightmares are events that happen when you are in a dream state. They involve visual sequences which show images or situations that are frightening and distressing to the person having them. In adults, they usually come from subconscious fears and are often linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD may occur after someone is exposed to a traumatic event, such as a death, violence, serious injury, or sexual violence. This condition is prevalent amongst groups of people who are at a high risk of experiencing a traumatic event, such as war veterans. Some studies suggest that up to 80% of people with PTSD experience regular nightmares in which they may relieve their traumatic experience.

Frequent nightmares, in both the general population and those with PTSD, have been linked to other sleeping problems, such as insomnia, and mental health issues, especially depression.

It may therefore not be surprising that recent research has found a link between frequent nightmares and increased risk of suicide.


The research        

There may be a higher risk for suicide in people with PTSD that experience frequent nightmares, but the link may not be so clear for the general public.

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Sandman and his research group performed a long-term study which examined the relationship between nightmares and suicidality in the general population and war veterans.

This was an extension of the work completed by Tansknen in 2001, which looked primarily at war veterans. As stated above, war veterans are at a higher risk of experiencing PTSD, which can increase nightmare frequency and risk of suicide.

Sandman therefore wanted to analyse the general population and war veterans, but keep their datasets separate to compare trends in both groups without the findings being skewed by the war veteran’s results.

Their research looked at FINRISK surveys in Finland between 1772 and 2012 and examined an enormous dataset of 36,211 people. These surveys asked questions such as “during the past 30 days have you had nightmares?” and “have you had depression diagnosed by a doctor during the last year?” to try and determine if there is a link between bad dreams and a poor mental state.

Their research suggests that there is a dose dependant relationship between nightmares and suicidality. Where increased nightmare frequency increases suicide risk. However, their analysis of the general population found that using nightmares as a predictor of suicide risk may be limited and there could be other, stronger risk factors for suicide.

A study by Donna Littlewood and her team looked specifically at the risk of suicide in people with PTSD. They found that suicidal behaviours were 42% higher in people who experienced frequent nightmares compared to those who did not.

This suggests that although nightmares may not be a particularly strong suicide indicator for the general population, they could prove an important tool in assessing the suicide risk in people with PTSD.


What can be done?

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Unfortunately, an effective medication has not been found that will help stop nightmares. However, there are plenty of small changes that can be made at home which could dramatically decrease your risk of bad dreams.

Behavioural changes have proven effective for 70% of adults who suffer from nightmares, including those caused by anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Keeping a regular wake-sleep schedule is important, with regular exercise, yoga or meditation helping people sleep more peacefully.

Some studies have shown that people get a better nights’ sleep if they put their electronic devices away one hour before they intend to go to bed. Another activity, such as reading, can help calm your brain before you close your eyes, and may help you get a deeper, and more refreshing sleep.

If your nightmares are particularly bad and are linked to a traumatic event, don’t underestimate the power of talking it through with a psychologist or therapist. Suicide rates are much higher in men, and it is believed that a big part of this is that men don’t like talking about how they’re feeling and are less likely to admit they need help.

Do you suffer from chronic nightmares? Visit your local GP to talk through what might be the best solution for you.


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