Everyone’s woken up in the middle of the night from a nightmare, a little panicked and uneasy, only to remind themselves it was just a dream.
But according to a new study, nightmares — especially frequent ones — can have serious repercussions in real life. Researchers in Finland found that such dreams slightly increase the risk of suicide in the general population.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports, built off a previous 2001 study that arrived at a similar conclusion but did not distinguish between the general populace and war veterans. Because of this, researchers from the University of Turku questioned whether the results of the first survey were skewed by the higher rate of subjects suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for which nightmares are a common symptom.
In the most recent study, academics used data from more than 71,000 participants, including roughly 3,100 who were war veterans, according to Psy Post.
What they found was a statistically significant relationship between the amount of nightmares a person suffered and the likelihood one might commit suicide.
“People who experience frequent nightmares may also be susceptible to mood disorders and they have slightly higher risk for committing suicide than people without (a) nightmare problem,” the study’s lead author, Nils Sandman, told Psy Post.
Still, Sandman stressed that the increased risk did not mean anyone who suffers a nightmare will become suicidal.
“The risk is not very large. Most nightmare sufferers do not become suicidal, but the take-home message is that frequent distressing nightmares should be taken seriously and help for them should be sought. For some people, untreated problems with nightmares can lead to serious consequences,” Sandman said.
And while the study did find a correlation between nightmares and suicide, it did not indicate whether the bad dreams are a symptom of mental illness or a cause. Another study, published in March by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, indicated that it may be both, as nightmares are often the product of trauma but can also “trigger specific types of negative cognitive thoughts,” leading to more serious mental health issues, per Science Daily.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine study surveyed 91 participants, many of whom suffered from PTSD. Researchers found that 62 percent of those who experienced nightmares also contemplated or planned suicide, while just 20 percent of those who did not have bad dreams did the same.