Nightmares have been determined to be a risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviours by a study published on March 15 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Nightmares become stressors in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing feelings of defeat, entrapment and hopelessness in patients that encourage suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts.

This is the first study to confirm that the association between suicidal behaviours and nightmares is facilitated by these feelings. The researchers add that the two mentioned are independent of depression and insomnia.

Nightmares may occur repeatedly and can cause distress that can affect people’s jobs and social lives. PTSD patients suffer nightmares three months after the traumatic experience and may have these throughout their lives.

Nightmares is linked to increased suicide risk. Photo from Uratex

Nightmares are linked to increased suicide risk. Photo from Uratex

The researchers studied 91 participants who had suffered traumatic experiences. Fifty-one of them met the criteria for PTSD while 24 have already been diagnosed with the condition before.

The researchers measured their nightmare frequency and intensity through a PTSD scale. The research team also handed out questionnaires that quantified their feelings of hopelessness, defeat, entrapment and suicidal behaviour.

Sixty-two of the participants that experienced nightmares had suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts to commit suicide. The same results were found in 20 percent of those who did not have nightmares.

The study shows that treatments targeting nightmares could help PTSD patients. Still, the researchers recommend that more studies must be conducted to further understand the relationship between nightmares and suicide.

“PTSD increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and our study shows that nightmares, a hallmark symptom of PTSD, may be an important treatment target to reduce suicide risk,” explains principal investigator Donna Littlewood, who is a Ph.D. researcher in medical and human sciences at The University of Manchester. “This study emphasises the importance of specifically assessing and targeting nightmares within those individuals experiencing PTSD. In addition, monitoring and targeting levels of negative cognitive appraisals such as defeat, entrapment, and hopelessness, may reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviours.”