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What can dreams tell us about our physical and mental health?

A crystal charm which allegedly can heal and provide energy.

The crowd rushed at me, embraced me in an uncomfortable way. I struggled to get away, or get help, and then I woke up. That was my recollection of a dream to Akira Cheung Ka-fai, founder of HARMONIC Holistic Healing Centre.

Cheung is a clinical hypnotherapist who specialises in the interpretation of dreams.

He said that graphics and sensations may be merely symbolic representations of real-life issues, but emotions and feelings are not distorted, but are real because the subconscious mind does not lie.

“With more intense emotions and feelings, or more frequent occurrences, messages from the subconscious mind become more important and urgent to the conscious mind,” he said. 

Cheung does not think one should use the conscious mind and rational thinking to interpret dreams, because the landscape can change and is symbolic, and sometimes what appears in a dream may not necessarily be the problem.

It wasn’t until we tried to understand and analyze my dream that I fully understood how the conscious mind can block out the subconscious mind.

“So what was the scene in the dream? Who came up to you and hugged you,” he asked.

“A wedding, a relative’s wedding, and then my mum’s relatives interrupting me,” I said.

“But now that I clearly remember that wedding from my secondary school days, and it wasn’t that terrible, and my relatives weren’t that annoying,” I added, 

But soon I realised it was my conscious mind analysing the dream. 

“What emotion did you feel in the dream,” he asked.

I closed my eyes and tried to recall the dream and identify the strongest feelings in that situation. 

“Pure annoyance, a struggle to break free, a feeling of powerlessness,” I said.

“Elements and images in dreams can change and are symbolic only, but the feeling is always true, and that’s what the subconscious mind tells you,” he said.

What are dreams? 

According to Oxford Dictionary, dream is defined as a series of images, events and feelings that happen in mind while asleep, yet there are different disciplines in the understanding of dreams.

In 1899, the Austrian neurologist and father of psychoanalysis, published  “The Interpretation of Dreams”. . As the pioneer in the study of the relationship between dreams and the subconscious y, he believed that dreams represent a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes. 

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” Freud said in his book.

In his 1940 “An Outline of Psychoanalysis”, Freud saw dreams as unconscious attempts to resolve conflicts caused by past experiences. Similar to Freud, Carl Gustav Jung believed that dreams follow the compensation principle and act as compensation when humans face the unknown and mental imbalance. However, critics say these disciplines lack scientific support.

In 1962, Rosalind Cartwright, a neuroscientist and sleep disorder researcher, began empirical studies on dreams using the “sleep laboratory”. She believed the function of dreams is to maintain self-identity in the face of life changes 

In modern science, neuroscience has a different approach toward dreams. In the “Activation Synthesis Model”, proposed by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977, they believe that dreams do not have a specific meaning. 

“In their theory, dreams are just random brain waves created at night under the cerebral cortex, and they are generated by neural cells trying to integrate and analyse brain waves as they are transmitted to the cerebral cortex,” said Tiffany Ip Nga-min, a lecturer in neurolinguistics and dream analysis at the School of Professional and Continuing Education of the University of Hong Kong.

She believes that dreams are not meaningless, but rather reflect certain messages in the subconscious.

For Cheung, dreams are a way to communicate with our subconscious. In his hypnotherapy services, contact with the subconscious is paramount and dreams serve as a tool to identify the messages sent by the subconscious.

“We may not be aware of (messages) in the conscious mind, but we can understand ourselves or our clients through dreams, and learn about things and thoughts that the conscious mind does not acknowledge or note,” Cheung said.

Traditional Chinese medicine though takes a different approach. Practitioners think of the sleeping state and dreaming in terms of a balance between Yin and Yang and the Five Elements. Mok Tik-lun, a registered Chinese medicine practitioner and postdoctoral fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese Medicine said there are two types of interpretations of sleep and the Five Elements (Wuxing - 五行). 

From the perspective of sleep, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe that brain activity and thinking should only occur during the day, while sleep should be close to a status of stillness (沉寂), keeping respiration and other organ activities slow so that  Yang Qi (the energy of Yang in Yin and Yang) returns to our internal organs (臟腑) during the night (陽氣潛藏).

“If Yang Qi fails to return to the organs, and remains active outside the body, it is like a beam of sunshine that should not appear at night, and the person would wake up feeling uncomfortable or unrefreshed,” he said.  

Mok said it is normal to have dreams occasionally, in which daytime thoughts appear. 

Another perspective of dreams in traditional Chinese medicine is the Five Elements. Qi is defined as the vital life force, and certain “Qi movement” appear in dreams because story elements can be related to the Five Elements, guiding Chinese medicine practitioners to check if problems occur in the corresponding organs. This is related to the interpretation of dreams.

Different interpretations of dreams

So how do we get information from dreams about what our subconscious mind is telling us, or in Chinese medicine, what is the message about health?

Ip described the subconscious mind as a “genius scriptwriter” that uses different scripts, characters, settings, and plots to create messages. For example, a dream may be exaggerated by creating a house on fire to remind the dreamer not to forget to switch off the electricity before going to sleep.

She thinks it is important to remember and record the emotions as soon as you wake up in order to perform dream analysis because different people may react differently when faced with the same elements.

By recording significant events that occurred in reality during the relevant daytime period for analysis, Ip thinks that might give a clue to what led to the dream.

So in her course, the examples of dreams come from around her, even from herself, rather than from famous cases abroad. She believes that dreams are culture-specific. For example, the symbols that appear in dreams may only be acceptable in Chinese culture, hence local dreams are easier to understand and analyse.

A salt lamp in Cheung’s area shone an orange light in the room.

Mok Tik-lun believes that  the  images in dreams are  “Qi movement linked to the Five elements through inductive reasoning

The association of the “Qi movement” with the Five elements provides indicators for the related organs. For instance, dreams of rain and foot bath may be related to the element “water”, which can be related to the kidneys if weapons and knives appear, they may be related to the element “metal” which is linked to the liver.

Elements in the WuXing Related organs Related emotions and feelings
Fire 火 Heart 心 Joy 喜
Wood 木 Liver 肝 Anger 怒
Earth 土 Spleen 脾 Thought & Anxiety 思&憂
Metal 金 Lung 肺 Sorrow 悲
Water 水 Kidney 腎 Fear & Fight 恐&驚

*note that the elements and corresponding organs and emotions are not directly correlated, just a similarity in Chinese medicine.

Colour is also a sign of dream interpretation. For Mok, it can be related to “Qi movement” and the Five elements. For example, red corresponds to the “fire” element and the heart. For Cheung, it is an indicator of a subconscious emotional message.

In addition to the scenery and images in the dream, Cheung said what happens outside the dream is equally important for interpretation. 

In Cheung’s analysis, other than the feeling of dreaming, the background of the person in the dream is also an indicator for the discovery of the problem. 

Details such as the status in the family, the first time the dreamer saw a scenery, and what occurred in reality during that time can be used in his analysis and guidance to reflect on the actual issue brought by the subconscious mind.

“What I can do is to search for messages with the client through suggestions. Only the client can ultimately figure out the message because it comes from the client,” he said.

How are health and dreams related? 

Dream interpretation in Chinese medicine is more about the effects on physical well-being. According to  Huangdi Neijing (literally the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor or Esoteric Scripture of the Yellow Emperor, 《黃帝內經》), nightmares are considered to be the “Qi” that causes the disruption of Yin and Yang (淫邪陰陽逆亂之氣), thus adversely affecting the peaceful state of sleep.

Mok said that sleep is the mechanism of the “Qi” of nutrients and defence (營衛氣). The “Qi” of defence is the defence of the body against a poor state of health, such as colds. When faced with nightmares or the inability to sleep, it means the “Qi” of defence cannot enter the organs or that at night the “Qi” enters the kidneys and becomes abnormally active,  causing people to have dreams.

He said the discipline has a strong traditional Chinese medicine influence that cannot be explained by modern western mechanisms. 

“Fundamentally, we have different views on the function of the kidney. In Western medicine, the kidneys are mostly associated with the excretory system, which is the urinary system. But in Chinese medicine, the kidneys store our most valuable “Qi” and “Blood” (氣血),” he said.

Ip and Cheung provided answers about the psychological aspects. 

Ip said that the constant repetition of nightmares and panic attacks is likely a result of stress that needs to be faced and that dreams are a  tool to tell that there is a problem to be faced. She added that dreams have more to do with the heart and caring for one’s own well-being, and therefore can be related to one’s work, school, family, relationships and health.

Cheung believes that dreams are associated with many external aspects of health and well-being, such as relationships, work performances, or unmotivated life. But the root cause is psychological, with subconscious happenings affecting the quality of sleep through dreams, leading to health problems brought on during the day. 

There are many physical health issues related to dreams and sleep, including sleepwalking, hypnic jerk, sleep paralysis, and inability to wake up on one’s own, all of which Ip believes can be explained by science, such as a mismatch between the muscles and nervous system, or illusions due to fear. 

Mok believed that physical movements while dreaming are related to the Five elements, such as crying, sweating, and grinding teeth grinding. If you clench your fist and grind your teeth, it may be due to pressure on the nerves and teeth, which is related to the liver and kidneys.

When asked about dream-related health issues, Cheung does not treat dream-related clients as patients.

“I don't label them as patients since no one is perfect, and even for those who feel good and healthy, they have information in their mind that they don’t know. They are clients solely because the problem is happening to them, and if the issue was happening to me, then I would be the client,” he said.

Study of dreams is yet to develop in Hong Kong 

Despite having nightmares, I didn’t seek help for months. Along with the journey to understand my dreams, it was difficult to find data about Hong Kong people’s dreams.

Ip said most people think that dream study is abstract, or misunderstand it as fortune-telling, leading to a lack of attention to one’s own dreams and health conditions.

Mok said that not only in society but also in Western and Chinese medicine, there is a lack of study and it is hard to measure and learn, while people think that dreaming is normal and only related to stress, so they will not tell their doctors, resulting in difficulties in academic progress.

Cheung believes that the nature of dreams is difficult to understand and easy to forget after waking up, and people tend to forget to care. And in Hong Kong’s solution-based environment, medicine is used to solve problems instantly, causing a lack of attention to less measurable topics.

In recent weeks, my nightmares have stopped coming. I don’t think my subconscious mind has many new messages for me.

But there was one term that came up frequently throughout the journey- harmony. To Mok, harmony of the body’s functions in accordance with the natural laws of  Chinese medicine is the key to health, and Cheung explained his concept of harmony is about acceptance of oneself, including past failures will become the nourishment for future success.

At the end of my journey, although there’s no perfect conclusion of dreams and their relationship to mental health, I managed to find some level of harmony and co-existence with my inner self, in terms of physical and mental well-being.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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