Nightmares Linked To Greater Risk For Suicidal Behavior In PTSD Patients


Among post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients, nightmares are often linked with suicidal thoughts and attempts. While other factors may affect suicidal attempts, researchers speculated that nightmares and suicidal behaviors are representations of powerlessness, loss (defeat) and entrapment.

In the new study, a team of researchers analyzed the data of 91 participants with traumatic experiences. Fifty-one of these participants met the PTSD criteria while 24 had prior PTSD diagnosis.

They found that suicidal thoughts were present in 62 percent of the individuals who had nightmares. These thoughts were also present in 20 percent of the participants who didn't experience the sleeping problem. The findings also suggest that nightmares can be a stressor in PTSD patients.

The link between suicidal behaviors and nightmares are independent from depression and insomnia. The researchers believe that nightmares can trigger certain thoughts such as entrapment, defeat and helplessness that can strengthen suicidal behaviors.

"PTSD increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior, and our study shows that nightmares, a hallmark symptom of PTSD, may be an important treatment target to reduce suicide risk," said Donna L. Littlewood, Ph.D., the study's lead researcher from the University of Manchester in Britain.

The findings published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, suggest the need for specifically targeting and assessing nightmares in PTSD patients. Moreover, monitoring the levels of negative cognitive thoughts may help lower suicidal behaviors.

"A nightmare is a disturbing dream associated with negative feelings, such as anxiety or fear," described Mayo Clinic. While many people experience nightmares from time to time, recurring nightmares that disrupt one's sleep can be a nuisance.

PTSD is a disorder that usually develops among people who have experienced and lived through a scary, dangerous, shocking or traumatic ordeal. It is normal to experience fear during or after a dangerous event. Fear is also a triggering factor in the body's 'fight-or-flight' response, which is a normal, healthy reaction that takes place to protect oneself from danger.

Many people recover naturally following a traumatic experience, but people with PTSD continue to experience the stress and feel frightened even when they are no longer in jeopardy.

Photo: Alyssa L. Miller | Flickr

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