Nightmares, Bad Dreams, and Emotion Dysregulation

A Review and New Neurocognitive Model of Dreaming
Current Directions in Psych Science, Volume 18—Number 2
Ross Levin and Tore Nielsen

Nightmares—vivid, emotionally dysphoric dreams—are quite common and are associated with a broad range of psychiatric conditions. However, the origin of such dreams remains largely unexplained, and there have been no attempts to reconcile repetitive traumatic nightmares with nontraumatic nightmares, dysphoric dreams that do not awaken the dreamer, or with more normative dreams. Based on recent research in cognitive neuroscience, sleep physiology, fear conditioning, and emotional-memory regulation, we propose a multilevel neurocognitive model that unites waking and sleeping as a conceptual framework for understanding a wide spectrum of disturbed dreaming. We propose that normal dreaming serves a fear-extinction function and that nightmares reflect failures in emotion regulation. We further suggest that nightmares occur as a result of two processes that we term affect load—a consequence of daily variations in emotional pressures—and affect distress—a disposition to experience events with high levels of negative emotional reactivity.

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