Healing the Nervous System: Dreamwork Is Required

I don’t remember exactly when I first started experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, but I’ve suffered from panic attacks since the age of seven. I didn’t know that’s what they were then, nor did my parents, nor my doctors. Back then, I may have been described as “sensitive,” or “overreactive.” A doctor may have said once after examining me and finding “nothing wrong,” that I had a “nervous belly.” 

It’s only looking back now that I understand these incidents in the frameworks of trauma and the nervous system. 

I share this mostly as context: Anxiety has been with me for almost as long as I remember.

Hand-in-hand with anxiety were stomach aches, which eventually turned into “digestive disorders.” I’ve spent a good quarter century of my life trying to fix the anxiety, cure the digestive unrest. For sure, I’ve made progress along the way with lifestyle and dietary changes, therapy, personal development classes, and even medication, at times.

In 2018, however, I started learning more about the connection between childhood complex trauma and the nervous system; specifically, the connection between the nervous system and chronic health conditions such as IBS, migraines, and back pain. (I recommend The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van derKolk as a good starting point for learning more about this topic, as well as the work of Peter Levine.) I read many books, listened to podcasts, and attended workshops with various practitioners and teachers of embodiment work.

In 2019, I sought out the support of a Classical Chinese Medicine doctor who I worked with very closely, first on acute physical symptoms, but then more intentionally on the deeper issues, using acupuncture, trigger point dry needling, and medicinal herbs. We honed in on symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system that aren’t so acknowledged or successfully treated by Western medicine alone: startle reflex and hyperarousal, chest pains, disrupted sleep, mood swings, dizziness, frozen shoulder, and gynecological conditions. 

Again, I am sharing this for context mostly (and I will likely write more in detail about this in the future.)

So, how did dreams play a role in healing my nervous system? And how can dreamwork support your efforts to heal yours?

I have been intentionally recalling and engaging with my dreams for about as long as I’ve had anxiety. (I have dream journal entries from when I was 12!) I’ve been faithfully tracking my own dreams, and researching and writing about dreaming for over a decade.

However in the spring of 2021, I attended an online lecture given by Rodger Kamenetz (“Dreams and Afflictive States of Mind”), who I had been following on social media for some time. In the lecture, Rodger shared with the group elements of a novel method of dreamwork called Natural Dreamwork, which resonated with me and seemed complementary to my endeavor to uncover and reacquaint myself with emotions and memories of traumatic experiences from childhood and young adulthood.

While on the table at my acupuncturist’s office (in particular, following big releases of trigger points during dry needling sessions), flashbacks and flashbulb memories were beginning to rise up. So did equally big emotional responses to these memories. I also started having more emotionally intense dreams.

I wanted support for these experiences, as well as a framework for exploring them more deeply in a way that could potentially be medicinal.

Yes, medicinal.

I don’t know that I ever really considered dreams as medicine before then; not in a way that wasn’t figurative, but literal. Yes, I had experienced spontaneous healing through my dreams, but I hadn’t identified a protocol for proactively engaging with the images and feelings that arose. I often felt very alone, even when the dreams brought understanding or relief.

It’s one thing to remember and reflect on your dreams; to think about them, journal them, or share them with a friend. It’s another thing to choose to invite in and work with images and memories, sometimes terrifying or painful, with the intention of healing. For this, I needed a guide; a loving, wise, and humble guide.

This decision to engage with the memories and dream images also required a safe container; a perceptual space built on compassion and kindness, that would allow me to mentally travel backwards or forward in time, and share whatever needed my attention. I would need to face proverbial demons (and sometimes, in dreams, actual demons!) I would need to re-encounter violence or harm, as perpetrator or as victim. I would need to admit to desire, to shame.

Looking back now, I understand how dreamwork has been (and continues to be) an integral feature of healing my nervous system. It’s complementary to embodiment work and therapy. In fact, I would say that dreamwork is required, whether it’s with a skilled practitioner or on your own. 

Our brains are compassionate. They allow us to forget. But eventually our bodies force us to remember; likely, for our own good and in recognition of the growth we’ve done that allows for remembering. When we remember, we often do so in dreams. The images can be confusing, however. And our minds are highly skilled at and experienced with creating narratives that allow us to again forget.

A dreamwork practitioner can see past, beyond, or through your stories.

I am very grateful for my teacher who sees past mine, and can gently nudge me towards clearer vision and, more important, deeper feeling.

When the time is right for you — and not until the time is right for you — I encourage you to incorporate dreamwork into your healing practices. In the face of images that remind me of my brokenness, my dreams offer me new images that make me feel more whole.  

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