Despite their scary reputation, fear is actually not the main emotion elicited in many nightmares and bad dreams, according to a new study.
Just a little more than one-third of nightmares and more than half of bad dreams elicited primary emotions other than fear, University of Montreal researchers found. Instead, feelings of confusion, disgust, sadness, and guilt are common in these types of dreams. [Tweet this weird fact!]
The study, published in the journal SLEEP, analyzed 431 bad dreams and 253 nightmares from 331 people, mostly women. Study participants kept a dream journal for two to five weeks, in which they described their dreams just after waking up. The average entry was 144 words, though some entries were shorter (just a couple lines) and some were longer (more than a page).
For instance, one participant wrote: "I'm in a closet. A strip of white cloth is forcing me to crouch. Instead of clothes hanging, there are large and grotesquely shaped stuffed animals like cats and dogs with grimacing teeth and bulging eyes. They're hanging and wiggling toward me. I feel trapped and frightened."
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Researchers found that people tended to write more in the dream journals after a nightmare than after a bad dream. They did not find that men or women had more bad dreams than the other, nor did a certain age group experience more bad dreams than another. However, men's bad dreams were more likely to include disasters or wars, while women's bad dreams were more likely to include interpersonal conflicts.
Overall, "themes involving physical aggression and interpersonal conflicts were the most frequent, followed by failure or helplessness, health-related concerns and death, and apprehension or worry," the researchers found. "Nightmares were significantly more likely to contain themes of physical aggression, being chased, evil forces, and accidents, whereas themes of interpersonal conflicts were significantly more frequent in bad dreams."
And even though fear was the main emotion reported in bad dreams and nightmares, "almost half of all disturbing dreams contained primary emotions other than fear," the researchers wrote.
They also expected falling to be a common theme in bad dreams and nightmares, given their prevalence in past studies but found that only 1.5 percent of all nightmares and bad dreams had falling themes. Similarly, suffocation and paralysis were almost never reported in any of the dream logs.
A potential reason: "While themes of falling or being paralyzed appear infrequently in dream logs, their high saliency makes them particularly memorable and thus more likely to be recalled in interviews or questionnaires long after their occurrence," the researchers wrote.