Mindfulness is negatively associated with nightmare frequency and our results indicate mindful acceptance as the main component related to nightmare frequency, even after we controlled for lucid dreaming frequency. Acceptance, as measured by the FMI, also seems to be associated with nightmare distress. A positive correlation between mindfulness and lucid dream frequency was prominent in Study 2, as found in other studies, but we did not find an association of a particular mindfulness component with lucid dream frequency. The use of lucid dream induction techniques seems to be associated with nightmare frequency and distress, a relation that will be discussed in more detail below.
Meditation experience plays a role, as results showed that participants who reported having practiced meditation at some point in their lives, also reported lower nightmare frequency. However, meditation expertise did not seem to moderate the relationship of nightmare frequency and Acceptance. The specific type of meditation practiced was not found to play a role in relation to nightmare frequency, however, the time passed since the last meditation session is positively related to nightmare frequency. Overall, the present findings support the idea that wakeful mindfulness is associated with the quality of dreams and more specifically that facets of mindfulness might have separate roles in dream variation.
Based on the results of the two studies, nightmare frequency was negatively correlated with mindfulness, more robustly with the facet of Acceptance as measured with the FMI, extending the previous findings on a unidimensional measure of mindfulness and dream disturbances 12,68. In fact, Acceptance explained nightmare frequency in both studies and explained nightmare distress measured in Study 2. It should be noted, that partial correlations between nightmare distress and the mindfulness components depicted in Table 2 should be cautiously interpreted, if at all, as controlling for dream recall here was kept as a matter of consistency rather than necessity. Overall, FMI Acceptance seems to be associated with nightmare frequency and distress in a more robust manner than FMI Presence, which is in congruence with literature suggesting that mindful acceptance is the main feature of mindfulness that both reduces distress and promotes psychological well-being 70,82. Conversely, previous findings showed that attention monitoring, similar to mindful presence here, hardly predicted ill-being while most benefits on psychological well-being and ill-being depend on mindful acceptance alone 70.
In more detail, mindful acceptance alone has been associated with lower stress, depression and anxiety 83 and lower post-traumatic stress symptoms 84,85, all of which have been associated with higher nightmare experiences 27,86,87. It has been suggested that stress is mediating the positive relationship between mindfulness and sleep quality and well-being 64, which makes it highly possible that a similar mediation is taking place in the relationship we observed here, between mindfulness and nightmares. It is therefore of high importance that future studies investigate this possibility.
To our knowledge, a relationship between mindful acceptance and nightmares has not been previously described in the literature. This lack of evidence on how mindfulness could potentially benefit the treatment of nightmares might explain why mindfulness training has not yet received a more prominent position as a complementary method of the treatment approaches of nightmare disorder.
Lucid dreaming frequency was correlated with mindfulness and its components in Study 2 where the sample was constituted of a high percentage of frequent lucid dreamers, similar to the study of Stumbrys et al. (2015). However, the finding of Stumbrys et al. (2015), where FMI Presence predicted lucid dream frequency in a regression model could not be replicated here. One possible explanation could be the difference between the sample characteristics in respect to meditation experience and expertise. In Study 2 here, 77.5% reported having some meditation experience with a median of 2–4 years of expertise as measured by a categorical variable, whereas in Stumbrys et al (2015) only 22.3% of the sample reported meditation experience with a median of 3 years. It is also worth noting that the two studies also differed in respect to nationality and language characteristics of the sample as the study of Stumbrys et al. (2015) included only German-speaking participants.
Moreover, lucid dreaming frequency was negatively correlated with nightmare distress, which is in line with previous literature 10. It is also suggested that frequent lucid dreamers tend to encounter less threatening figures in their dreams since they can change the plot of the dream 88,89. However, lucid dreaming frequency showed a positive correlation with nightmare frequency, which has been previously reported 57,90, as nightmares, especially recurrent ones, can trigger lucidity 91. It is worth noticing that the relation was only apparent in Study 1, in which only 10.9% of the frequent lucid dreamers had actively engaged with lucid dreaming training techniques in comparison to 67.7% of Study 2. Participants with spontaneous lucid dreams might lack the empowering effect introduced by lucid dreaming training techniques that predominantly enlighten on the efficacy of controlling ones dreams. Moreover, the more lucid dreaming induction techniques our participants reported to have used, the less frequent and distressing they reported their nightmares to be. These findings support the idea, we discussed before; the empowerment someone can gain by the knowledge of potentially controlling their dreams can reduce nightmare frequency and intensity 36. However, since the number of reported lucid dreaming techniques is positively correlated with meditation experience, we cannot exclude a possible additive effect of the two practices.
Meditation experience was associated with nightmare frequency; however we found no link between meditation and nightmare distress. Meditation expertise did not moderate the relationship between mindfulness and the aforementioned variables, but the main effect of FMI Acceptance on nightmare frequency was decreased after meditation was added to the model, whereas it was increased for the nightmare distress variable. This could suggest that the relaxation effects of the meditation practice have a direct effect on nightmare frequency, possibly due to its stress-relieving properties, whereas the effect on nightmare distress might primarily be achieved through meditation practices that promote mindfulness (mindfulness based meditation). This is also supported by the positive relation of the time one abstains from practicing meditation and the increment of nightmare frequency. Moreover, the types of meditation, categorized as focused attention, open monitoring or combined, did not differ on their effect on nightmare frequency; nevertheless, these types of meditation have been found to mainly promote mindfulness 92. Future studies should address this question and investigate how the different types of meditative practices affect dream variation and intensity.
Taking the aforementioned findings into account, mindfulness based meditation could potentially be a worthy complementary method in reducing nightmare frequency and distress in both clinical and non-clinical populations. In fact, theories that place nightmare-prone individuals within the differential susceptibility framework support the notion that nightmare sufferers may benefit from emotion regulation strategies, such as mindfulness training, due to the possibility that intense emotions, both positive and negative, may be maladaptive and induce awakenings 93. This, in addition to the potential relationship of mindfulness and lucid dreaming, which, as discussed, is already suggested as complementary treatment for nightmare disorder, may make mindfulness a great aid for the therapeutic process and/or prevention.
While the present findings endorse the idea of different facets of mindfulness having distinct roles when it comes to their relationship to nightmares or, if combined with previous literature, with dream variation in general, our results should only be taken into account through the prism of the following limitations.
The main limitation is the cross-sectional nature of our studies that does not allow causal inferences to be made. Even though the sample characteristic differences of the two studies led to observations about both more experienced lucid dreamers and meditators (Study 2), as well as relatively naive participants (Study 1), these differences do not allow direct comparison of the two populations to be made. Participants in Study 2 were selected based on their dream recall frequency and were recruited mostly from websites related to lucid dreaming, which may diminish the generalizability of the findings.
Experimental studies with naïve participants and behavioral interventions will not only advance our understanding about how mindfulness and its components are related to dream quality, but may also support the implementation of the so far neglected mindfulness-based therapy as a complementary technique to existing nightmare disorder treatments.
Moreover, mindfulness is a complex construct and various questionnaires and studies conceptualize it as both unidimensional and multidimensional. The FMI is an inventory that originally approached mindfulness as a unidimensional construct 73 but a two factor approach is suggested for the shorter 14-item scale 9, which was used here. Other mindfulness scales have been developed to measure up to five facets of mindfulness 94,95. Future research should take that into account and investigate how the different suggested mindfulness components interact with dreaming experiences.