Can mindfulness prevent nightmares?

A significant number of studies explored and proved the psychological benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness-based therapy has been found to reduce anxiety and mood problems in clinical populations successfully. As it turns out, mindfulness might also help to prevent nightmares, a new study says.

Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of the experiences of the present moment without judgment. A recently published paper, “The role of mindful acceptance and lucid dreaming in nightmare frequency and distress”, investigates the relationship between mindfulness and nightmares. The article results from collaborative work and uses data collected by the COST Action “The neural architecture of consciousness”. “We already know that meditation can lead to greater voluntary control over mental processes and thus result in decreased rumination, enhanced attention and more effective emotion-regulation strategies”, says Sofia Tzioridou, the article’s first author. According to the continuity hypothesis, she explains, waking states and concerns are reflected in dream imagery. Neuroscientific findings suggest that waking emotional patterns are preserved in dreams, influencing dreams’ contents. Previous research has found that experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression during waking life could also be evident in dream imagery. “Mindfulness is a skill facilitating emotion regulation and has been linked to reduced anxiety and depression. We can assume that becoming more mindful makes one’s dreams change because the waking state has altered. An alternative assumption could be that the dream imagery remains the same, but it is interpreted or perceived as less distressing during dreaming or after waking up” – explains Tzioridou. The research team has investigated and compared two groups – one highly experienced in lucid dreaming and a naive one. They conducted an online study using questionnaires assessing mindfulness, meditation expertise, lucid dreaming frequency, nightmare frequency and distress. What were the findings? “The higher the participants scored on the mindfulness scale, the fewer nightmares and nightmare distress they reported independently of the group. Practising meditation and lucid dreaming training techniques may thus reduce nightmares. “We found that mindfulness in general and its components separately are related to fewer nightmares. However, we also found that one component, mindful acceptance, which is described as having a non-judging attitude towards internal and external experiences, plays a bigger role when it comes to having fewer nightmares. Mindful presence, so being aware of the present moment seems to have a more secondary role”, says Tzioridou. The neuroscientist stresses that although frequent nightmares can lead to sleep avoidance and severely affect waking life, people often don’t perceive them as problems worth seeking professional help. “Of course, our findings call for experimental manipulation, the results of which could have clinical implications. In effect, we hope, a stepped-care approach integrating mindfulness-based prevention and intervention techniques for nightmare-prone individuals might appear soon as a more attractive and accessible method of getting help”, concludes Tzioridou.

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