Occasional bad dreams are part of life. (There was the dream I had about getting hit by a bus, for example.) Still, if you're having bad dreams consistently, you might want to take some Star Wars Jedi advice and rethink your life. That's because new research suggests there's a connection between feeling crappy during the day and having nightmares.

The experiments and results

Led by Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom, researchers worked on the basis of three core psychological needs. These included autonomy (the ability to have control over your decisions), competence (feeling like you can do a good job or understand) and relatedness. People who have these needs met generally feel satisfied with life, while people who don't have them met often suffer issues like depression or anxiety. The big question for Weinstein and her team thus was whether there was a connection between these needs being met and how many bad dreams people have.

The team used two separate experiments to gain insights. First, they surveyed 200 people (131 women) aged 18 to 33 about life satisfaction/frustration, asking them to report their most common reoccurring dream. They then had 110 people keep a dream diary and fill out psychological questionnaires over three days. By using two studies, the team was able to look at how meeting psychological needs influenced dream themes and dream emotions both in the long- and short-term.

Weinstein and her team found that people who didn't have their psychological needs met as well were in fact more likely to have dreams with negative themes (e.g., being attacked, falling) and feelings. They interpreted dreams more negatively, as well.

The researchers admit there's still more work to do to prove direct causation between unmet needs and bad dreams, and they note some limitations of the study, such as recall bias. Still, the researchers say the work suggests that what we experience on a daily basis really does reflect in what we see when we slumber. The theory is that we dream bad dreams because we're still trying to process and find solutions for what's challenged us through the day. This follows the popular hypothesis that dreams in general are a way for the brain to keep looking at our experiences and make more sense of them.

The significance for business leaders

Weinstein's work is particularly noteworthy for professionals because not having needs met might create a vicious cycle that could spell disaster for your job or entire career: The worse your daily experiences are (or at least, the worse you perceive them to be), the more bad dreams you might have. That said, each bad dream you have can activate your fight-or-flight stress response. Experts have found it takes a full 20 minutes for the hormones associated with this response to fade away and your body to return to a calm state. That can mean it's agonizingly difficult to fall back to sleep quickly and that, through the night, you lose out on quite a bit of rest. That fatigue can add up and lead into work relationship problems, poor productivity and difficulty making even simple decisions--your sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness all tank. Then the cycle starts all over again.

How to protect yourself

Assuming that Weinstein is correct and that unmet needs help shape bad dreams, the most basic answer is to do everything you can to make yourself feel connected, capable and in control. For example,

  • Reach out to others--invite someone to lunch, call a friend, etc.
  • Perform small acts of kindness for others.
  • Give others your undivided attention during conversations and practice active listening.
  • Make good eye contact.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments to remind you how far you've come and what you've done.
  • Make daily to-do lists to help yourself see all the jobs you're able to get through--finishing small jobs gives you a small dose of dopamine, which keeps you happy and motivated.
  • Acknowledge and accept praise instead of downplaying it.
  • Educate yourself about both general facts and your rights.
  • Identify specific goals you'd like to reach and outline specific strategies for each.
  • Ask for time to think before you say yes or no--don't answer based solely on initial feelings or pressure.
  • Spend less time on social media so you don't end up comparing yourself and feeling depressed.
  • Speak up politely (but unapologetically) when it's appropriate.
  • Take time alone to stay in touch with who you are and what you want.
  • Stay organized physically and with your technology. Be good about clearing away digital and real clutter.
  • Listen to, read or watch inspiring media. (TED Talks work great!)
  • Do something creative.
  • Utilize therapists, counselors, clergy or others you trust--they can help you understand and work through a huge range of difficulties.
  • Consciously remove yourself from toxic situations you cannot fix whenever possible.

As you can see from this list, you have plenty of options to find and maintain a positive groove. The biggest thing to remember is that you are your own biggest influencer. No matter what life throws at you, you always have a choice about how to respond.