Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Dreams

“If your mind is strong, all difficult things will become easy; if your mind is weak, all easy things will become difficult.” – Chinese Proverb

Acupuncture, TCM and Dreams - Coral Springs, South FloridaBy Susan Tretakis – Those of you who know me, know that before counseling, before Acupuncture and TCM, I was an English teacher.

For over ten years, I taught secondary and post-secondary literature. One of the more joyful lessons – at least for me – involved interpreting with my students the writings of Henry David Thoreau.   It didn’t matter what grade I was teaching, somehow, someway, Mr. Thoreau’s words would be said, studied and remembered. I will even tell you – unashamedly – that I visited the Walden Pond State Reservation – gladly paying the $15.00 out of state entry fee just to breathe the same air as my “literary crush”.

And every lesson – somehow, somewhere – included Thoreau’s quote, “Dreams are the touchstone of our character.”

My relationship with dreams has been troubled. I know that sounds strange. For most, the word “dream” connotes something fun, something sought after and/or aspired to. I, too, have dreams and goals for both my present and my future. For me, though, the word dream drags into the spotlight its wicked stepsister: the nightmare.

As a child I suffered from frightening nightmares. Way before the FitBit craze, I was an active sleep walker. I remember waking up on the first floor of my home in Queens, sitting in a chair hours after going to sleep in my bedroom upstairs – and not remembering how I arrived there or why.  Back in those days (we’re talking early 50’s here!) any concrete medical knowledge was limited about such things. Warm milk, supportive parents helped. Today, while the medical community has provided more insight into both nightmares, night terrors as well as sleepwalking, treatment is still somewhat dubious in nature.

Most of my younger nightmares can be tied to specific events – usually social and academic concerns – but as I got older, nightmares evolved into far more complex entities. In an undergraduate psychology class dealing with dreams, it was a recommendation that I keep a notebook by my bedside so I could record the actual nightmare when I woke from it. By writing it down immediately, I was able to avoid forgetting key parts and be able to come back later to see if there was another interpretation.

In fact, it was my interest in dreams and nightmares that led me to my postgraduate studies in psychology. It was here that I learned I wasn’t alone and that perhaps, my character was not as tormented as Thoreau’s words had led me to believe.

While much of the research and literature on dreams and nightmares deals with children and adolescents, both Doctors Freud and Jung did much to teach us about dreams with adults; Freud believed that dreams, by their very nature, had hidden meanings while Jung believed that dreams expressed an individual’s unconscious state through symbols and metaphors. In the 1970’s, “The Activation-Synthesis theory” was conceived by Harvard professors Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley and theorized dreams and nightmares was the brain attempting to make sense of random stimulus. As a side effect of the brain’s normal activity, therefore, dreams had no “real” meaning. While this theory was revolutionary at the time, the continual advancement of technology has led to tremendous revision of this theory. In the 1980’s, when I was in graduate and post graduate studies, Finnish psychologist Anti Revonsuo, documented sleep studies that involved the brain showed that the amygdala (the fight or flight section of the brain) appears as it does during an actual survival threat. He believed that dreams, by providing a rehearsal of sorts for similar real events, are an evolutionary trait designed to help us practice being safe.

As someone who periodically wakes from 3D nightmares so vividly real that it takes me time to recognize that it is “just a dream”, I wanted more information. The clinician in me believes that dreams can tell us about our desires, regrets, fears and emotional states. The TCM-groupie in me felt there was much more to learn.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, dreams are connected to five specific organs – liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys – and that dreams and nightmares may reflect the condition of these organs. In TCM we know that internal balance is everything, yet most of us don’t notice any imbalance until we have the symptom. Perhaps, then, dreams and nightmares may be indicators of our overall health.

“Events in dreams and nightmares are symbols, and it’s generally believed that our dreams are our subconscious way of working out the emotions and issues of our lives. According to TCM, your Heart houses your Shen, which embodies your conscious thought, memory, subconscious and soul. When your Heart is strong, your Shen rests in your Blood; therefore, at night, it will be easy for you to fall asleep, stay asleep and have appropriate dreams. When your Heart is weak, it will “float” at night producing symptoms such as insomnia, early waking and vivid and/or disturbing dreams. Because the Blood is not a comfortable place for it, the Spirit is disturbed and can’t rest properly.”

While there are some universal nightmares shared by many, the subjects of nightmares vary greatly from person to person. Again, here is where the beauty of Traditional Chinese Medicine stands out: in TCM, there is no “one solution for all”, no “one magic pill”. TCM practitioners tailor individual treatment, be it acupuncture, herbal formulas or nutritional supplements. This approach to healing is difficult for many who are used to instant gratification in most aspects of life, including health care. Let’s be candid: we want “an app” for whatever ails us.

Acupuncture has shown itself to be an effective treatment for nightmares, along with herbal formulas that help enrich the blood that flows to the heart and liver while regulating and calming the liver meridian. “Paring an herbal remedy with regular acupuncture treatments is critical for success. Clinical studies have shown that acupuncture helps to release neurotransmitters into the central nervous system, including serotonin which regulates sleep patterns. As a result, acupuncture can be used to improve the quality of sleep without the sluggish effects associated with most sleeping pills.”  

My academic training has taught me that people have this incredible ability to funnel their emotions into their bodies. While at times this may be a good thing, at other times it can cause serious illness. Acupuncture, by definition, works by addressing the root cause of a condition. For me, Acupuncture has had a cumulative effect, meaning I believe each treatment builds upon each other. I find it quite telling that my TCM diagnosis of a “spleen qi deficiency”, as well as identified stagnation in my kidney, liver and stomach, much of my totally unrelated symptoms are indeed, very much related.

For myself, while I have discarded most of my Western prescriptive treatments for nightmares, I will continue to keep a journal of my “3D nightmares”, but I think I’ll begin to add the positive, happy dreams I experience as well.   I think that before I meditate out of fear for what may happen if I do not find the time, I will meditate for the comfort it gives me in this moment. By addressing blood stagnation issues, Acupuncture has enabled me to “flip” the switch on what scares me so that I can learn from these fears. My weekly association with compassionate and knowledgeable TCM professionals is a blessing in many ways; thanks to their insight and suggestions, I am beginning to view my nightmares as lessons from which to learn – so that I can continually grow.

As Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs work their magic, I think it is now time for me to care for – as well as view – my Heart through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Confucius wrote that “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. When ones heart is at peace, the world is at peace.”

And really, who am I to argue with Confucius?

The Acupuncturists of Margate, Coral Springs and Coconut Creek offer free consultations daily.