An examination of the relationship between language use in post-trauma nightmares and psychological sequelae in a treatment seeking population

  • Caitlin Paquet (Author)
  • Chelsea M. Cogan (Author)
    The University of Tulsa

    Department of Psychology, M.A. Doctoral Candidate

  • Joanne L. Davis (Author)
    University of Tulsa

    Department of Psychology, Ph. D., Professor

Identifiers (Article)


Nightmares are thought to exist on a continuum of dream experiences, reflecting a more dysphoric process relative to dreams (Levin & Nielsen, 2009). Although there exists an established relationship between nightmares and increased symptomatology, the meaning of this relationship is still unclear (Davis et al., 2008). This study utilized the nightmare transcriptions from a treatment seeking sample of chronic and frequent nightmare sufferers to explore the relationship between language usage in nightmare narratives and indices of distress including posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] symptom severity and individual PTSD symptom cluster severity, nightmare frequency, nightmare distress, and nighttime panic symptoms.  It was hypothesized that there would be significant relationships between language use and the aforementioned indices of distress. Specifically, that there would be a positive relationship between symptomatology and words related to negative emotions and perceptual processing, and a negative relationship between symptomatology and the use of words related to cognitive processes and positive emotions. Results indicate that language use, specifically words related to perceptual and cognitive processes, in post-trauma nightmares is associated with increased PTSD symptoms severity, nightmare distress, nightmare frequency, and nighttime panic symptoms. These results suggest that language use in nightmares may reveal important information about underlying cognitive and emotional processes that may help to better understand the etiology and maintenance of PTSD symptoms.




Belicki, K. (1992). Nightmare Frequency Versus Nightmare Distress: Relations to Psychopathology and Cognitive Style. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(3), 592–597.
Bulkeley, K., & Graves, M. (2018). Using the LIWC program to study dreams. Dreaming, 28(1), 43–58.
Cartwright, R., Agargun, M. Y., Kirkby, J., & Friedman, J. K. (2006). Relation of dreams to waking concerns. Psychiatry Research, 141(3), 261–270.
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (2nd Edition). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.
Cranston, C. C., Miller, K. E., Davis, J. L., & Rhudy, J. L. (2016). Preliminary validation of a brief measure of the frequency and severity of nightmares: The trauma-related nightmare survey. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 18(1), 88-99.
Davis J. L. (2008). Treating post-trauma nightmares: A cognitive behavioral approach. Springer Publishing Company; New York.
Davis, J. L., Byrd, P., Rhudy, J. L., & Wright, D. C. (2007). Characteristics of chronic nightmares in a trauma-exposed treatment-seeking sample. Dreaming, 17(4), 187-198.
Davis, J. L., Pruiksma, K L., Rhudy, J. L., & Byrd, P. (2011). A comparison of lifelong and posttrauma nightmars in a civilian trauma sample: Nightmare characteristics, psychopathology, and treatment outcome. Dreaming, 21(1), 70-80.
Davis J.L., & Wright D.C. (2007). Randomized clinical trial for treatment of chronic nightmares in trauma-exposed adults. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(2):123–133. 123
Domhoff, G. W. (1996). Finding meaning in dreams: A quantitative approach. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Duval, M., McDuff, P., & Zadra, A. (2013). Nightmare frequency, nightmare distress, and psychopathology in female victims of childhood maltreatment. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(9), 767–772.
Ehlers, A., & Clark D. M. (2000). A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behavioral Research and Therapy, 38(4), 319-45.
Eid, J., Johnsen, B. H., & Saus, E. (2005). Trauma narratives and emotional processing. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 46(6), 503-10.
Fireman, G. D., Levin, R., & Pope, A. W. (2014). Narrative qualities of bad dreams and nightmares. Dreaming, 24(2), 112-124.
Foa, E. B., Cashman, L., Jaycox, L., & Perry, K. (1997). The validation of a self-report measure of PTSD: The Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale. Psychological Assessment, 9(4), 445-451.
Foa, E. B., Steketee, G., & Rothbaum, B. O. (1989). Behavioral/cognitive conceptualizations of post-traumatic stress disorder. Behavior Therapy, 20(2), 144-176.
Germain, A. (2013). Sleep disturbances as the hallmark of PTSD: Where are we now? American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(4), 372-382.
Germain, A., & Nielsen, T. A. (2003). Sleep pathophysiology in posttraumatic stress disorder and idiopathic nightmare sufferers. Biological Psychiatry, 54(10), 1092–1098.
Griffin, M. G., Uhlmansiek, M. H., Resick, P. A., & Mechanic, M. B. (2004). Comparison of the posttraumatic stress disorder scale versus the clinician-administered posttraumatic stress disorder scale in domestic violence survivors. Journal of traumatic stress, 17(6), 497–503. doi:10.1007/s10960-004-5798-4
Guastella, A. J., & Dadds, M. R. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral models of emotional writing: A validation study. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30, 397-414.
Hartmann, E. (1982). The Nightmare: The psychology and biology of terrifying dreams. New York: Basic Books.
Hartmann, E. (2010). The dream always makes new connections: The dream is a creation, not a replay. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 5(2), 241-248.
Jelinek, L., Stockbauer, C., Randjbar, S., Kellner, M., Ehring, T., & Moritz, S. (2010). Characteristics and organization of the worst moment of trauma memories in posttraumatic stress disorder. Behavioral Research Therapy, 48(7), 680-5.
Levin, R. (1994). Sleep and dreaming characteristics of frequent nightmare subjects in a university population. Dreaming, 4(2), 127-137.
Levin, R., & Fireman, G. (2002). Nightmare prevalence, nightmare distress, and self-reported psychological disturbance. SLEEP, 25(2), 205-212.
Levin, R., & Nielsen, T. (2009). Nightmares, bad dreams, and emotion dysregulation: A review and new neurocognitive model of dreaming. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(2), 84-88.
Lyons, M., Aksayli, N. D., & Brewer, G. (2018). Mental distress and language use: Linguistic analysis of discussion forum posts. Computers in Human Behavior, 87, 207–211.
Martino, M. L., Onorato, R., & Freda, M. F. (2015). Linguistic markers of processing trauma experience in women’s written narratives during different breast cancer phases: Implications for clinical interventions. European Journal of Psychology, 11(4), 651-663.
McNamara, P. (2008). Nightmares: The science and solution of those frightening visions during sleep. Westport, CT,: Praeger Publishers.
McNamara, P., Minsky, A., Pae, V., Harris, E., Pace-Schott, E., & Auerbach, S. (2015). Aggression in nightmares and unpleasant dreams and in people reporting recurrent nightmares. Dreaming, 25(3), 190-205.
Mellman, T. A., Pigeon, W. R., Nowell, P. D., Nolan, B. (2007). Relationships between REM sleep findings and PTSD symptoms during the early aftermath of trauma, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(5), 893-901.
Nielsen, T., & Levin, R. (2007). Nightmares: A new neurocognitive model. Sleep Medicine Reviews. W.B. Saunders Ltd.
Paquet, C., Cogan, C. M., & Davis, J. L. (in press). A Quantitative text analysis approach to describing post-trauma nightmares in a treatment-seeking population. Dreaming.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
Pennebaker, J.W., Boyd, R.L., Jordan, K., & Blackburn, K. (2015). The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2015.Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin.
Pennebaker, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Neiderhoffer, K. G., (2003). Psychological aspects of language use: Our words, our selves. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 547-577.
Pennebaker, J. W., Mayne, T. J, & Francis, M. E. (1997). Linguistic predictors of adaptive bereavement. In Journal of personality and social psychology (Vol. 72, pp. 863–871). Retrieved from
Ross, R. J., Ball, W. A., Sullivan, K. A., Caroff, S. N. (1989). Sleep disturbance as the hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychiatry, 146(6), 697-707.
Shapiro, G., & Markoff, J. (1997). The future of coders: Human judgments in a world of sophisticated software. In: C. W. Roberts (ed.). Text Analysis for the Social Sciences: Methods for Drawing Inferences from Texts and Transcripts. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.
Tausczik, Y. R., Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29(1), 24-54.
Weathers, F.W., Blake, D.D., Schnurr, P.P., Kaloupek, D.G., Marx, B.P., & Keane, T.M. (2013a). The Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5 (CAPS-5).
Weathers, F.W., Litz, B.T., Keane, T.M., Palmieri, P.A., Marx, B.P., & Schnurr, P.P. (2013b). The PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5).
Weathers, F. W., Marx, B. P., Friedman, M. J., & Schnurr, P. P. (2014). Posttraumatic stress disorder in DSM-5: New criteria, new measures, and implications for assessment. Psychological Injury and Law, 7(2), 93-107.
Wood, J. M., Bootzin, R. R., Rosenhan, D., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Jourden, F. (1992). Effects of 1989 San Francisco earthquake on frequency and content of nightmares. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(2), 219-224.
Zadra, A., Domhoff, W.G. (2016). Dream content: Quantitative findings. In: Kryger M. Roth N., & Dement, W.C. (Eds.), Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, 6th Edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Zadra, A, Pilon, M., Donderi, D., C. (2006). Variety and intensity of emotions in nightmares and bad dreams. Journal of nervous mental disorders, 194(4), 249-254.
Contributor or sponsoring agency
Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, University of Tulsa; Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, Oklahoma
Posttraumatic stress disorder; Sleep; Language use; LIWC; Posttraumatic nightmares
How to Cite
Paquet, C., Cogan, C., & Davis, J. (2020). An examination of the relationship between language use in post-trauma nightmares and psychological sequelae in a treatment seeking population. International Journal of Dream Research, 13(2), 173-181.