How Complex PTSD Drastically Improved My Dreams

Before understanding my diagnosis and researching what CPTSD meant for me, I had nightmares every night.

As someone who has struggled with sleep all my life, I have to say, all of my best ideas happen around the time I’m asleep — in the last moments of consciousness, inside the realm of dreams, and the first moments of waking up.

Let me back up. A little over a year ago, I was (finally) diagnosed with C-PTSD. Learning about my diagnosis, the symptoms, and how they apply to my experience, has been the single most enlightening thing in my life. My struggle with nightmares, insomnia, sleep paralysis, and night terrors — the whole lot — started making more sense. Did you know that restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement are also part of the myriad of sleep disturbances linked to PTSD?

Now that I’ve been in therapy, I have a greater handle on it. That is to say, I do get sleep now. I even have the occasional inspiring dream — in fact, the fantasy fiction novel I’m working on is inspired by a collection of such dreams. I once had a dream that I climbed a mountain with Mac Miller, which felt so real that I’m inclined to believe it was a convergence of astral planes, or something paranormal like that (don’t try telling me otherwise!)

Once I began my journey of healing from PTSD, I wondered why it seemed like so many other creatives attribute sleep to their best ideas. We have Elias Howe to thank for dreaming up an easier way to sew, leading to the sewing machine – all because of a dream about cannibals. Without Paul McCartney’s dreams, we wouldn’t know the beautiful soundscape of Yesterday. Even the beloved children’s character Stuart Little was born from E.B. White’s dreams!

Ways Sleep Impacts our Creativity

The Hypnagogic State

The hypnagogic state is the transition from being awake to being asleep. It is triggered by being deeply relaxed — something I definitely was not achieving before my healing journey. In a study done by neuroscience researchers at the Paris Brain Institute, it was found that N1 (the first sleep stage, Non-REM 1) directly engages the functions necessary for creative thinking. This hypnagogic state allows for nonjudgmental pattern recognition between abstract ideas and memories. This process allows the brain to create new neural pathways; in other words, the free association that happens here mimics the brainstorming process done before any large project.

Honestly, this study blew my mind — they used a math equation (ew) with a hidden rule that they found many of the subjects were able to unlock only within the onset of sleep in what they call the “sweet spot” of creativity. Here’s another resource with graphs outlining this incredible experiment.


When we dream, our executive functioning and logical thinking mind are shut off while the emotional areas of our brains light up. This is how the idiosyncrasies of the dream realm mimic reality with extra flair and an unbiased voice. This allows for creative problem-solving of difficult life situations to happen literally in your sleep.

Do you want to learn how to lucid dream?

Some personalities may also be dream-prone and more likely to recall their dreams later. As soon as I began remembering more adventurous, exciting things from my dreams, I immediately took to keeping a dream journal. I also started reading before bed — just be careful not to pick up your riveting romance novel and instead go for something less exciting.

The Morning After – Hypnopompia

The hypnopompic state is the transition leading out of sleep, into wakefulness. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur less frequently and haven’t yet been tied as concretely to creativity. That said, musical artist Beshkin recounts their experience — and they’re not alone. I have found this time period to be a jump start to some creative concepts myself. Especially when my partner gets out of bed and stirs me almost awake, but not quite – somewhere in between. My mind grasps for a reason to wake up, often latching onto a stray thought about that day’s plans or my current worries. As the area of my brain in charge of sleep begins to waver, my thinly veiled dreams become a creative layout for previously undiscovered ways to solve these stressors.

I still have stressful dreams, and I still have hard mornings, but nothing compared to how I used to suffer. Now when I have a busy mind before falling asleep, I say thank you to my shadow self for trying to keep me safe and attempting to safeguard me from painful memories. I thank my mind for granting me better dreams; I thank my body for the gift of the hypnagogic state, and for deep, dreamful sleep.


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