False Awakening: Dreaming About Waking Up

photo of a woman dreaming of being awake

Have you ever started your day, only to suddenly wake up back in bed and realize you’d been dreaming about waking up?

Perhaps you got out of bed as normal and started your morning routine, but then snapped out of an imaginary breakfast or journey to work to find yourself back in bed, probably feeling a bit confused by what just happened.

If this sounds familiar, you might have experienced what’s known as a false awakening.

What are false awakenings?

False awakenings are particularly vivid dreams in which you feel like you’ve woken up even though you’re still dreaming. It’s often only when you wake up later – for real this time – that you realize your previous waking was just a dream.

I know from personal experience how confusing it can be as I’ve had false awakenings on numerous occasions. I jokingly call them mini Groundhog days – they don’t tend to last as long as Bill Murray’s day in the movie, but do have that odd feeling of repeating the start of the day sometimes.

a man dreaming he is awake

Thankfully, I don’t have false awakenings as regularly as some people do, but have had several during the last few years.

In this article, I’ll be discussing false awakenings and suggesting some potential ways to cope with them if you find them upsetting.

I’ll also cover some interesting techniques that you could try to help you gain awareness that you’re dreaming. That way, you might be able to use your false awakening as a stepping stone to the fascinating world of lucid dreaming.

False awakening poll

I asked 557 readers about their experience of false awakenings. 59% said they found it distressing. However, 17% said they enjoy it or find it interesting. A further 11% found it can lead to a lucid dream.

infographic showing the results of a reader poll into false awakenings

Too real to be a dream?

One of the fascinating features of a false awakening is just how lifelike it can seem. Even if you have some vague awareness that you’re dreaming, the fact that you’re dreaming about your normal routine might stop you from questioning it further.

The experience often takes the form of waking up and doing something familiar and normal. For example, you might get dressed, go to the bathroom, or sit and have breakfast.

Nested dreams

Some people experience more than one episode before they eventually wake up for real. Repeated false awakenings, a kind of Russian doll of dreams, can happen in one night. This is something that many readers have described in the comments below since first publishing this article.

This extended version of multiple false awakenings is sometimes referred to as nested dreams, or dreams within dreams.

It might sound a bit like the plot of the movie Inception, but these dreams within dreams do happen, and can leave you feeling like you’re trapped inside your dreams.

False awakenings can seem so real that perhaps even on finally waking up, you might need a while to be fully convinced that you’re actually going to eat breakfast this time.

What causes false awakenings?

There isn’t a great deal of published research on false awakenings and what might cause them. When I started investigating the causes of my own episodes, I was surprised to discover a lack of information about them in medical sources.

As if to mirror its own nature, information about false awakenings is often buried inside articles and research about dreaming in general, lucid dreaming, and other sleep disorders.

Let’s consider some ideas that might help explain why they happen.

Worry and anxiety

If you’re thinking or worried about a past or future event in your life, you might find it’s incorporated in some way in your dreams.

For example, the threat simulation theory of dreaming suggests that we sometimes rehearse events in our dreams, particularly threatening events. This can lead to dreaming about possible life events rather than having more fantastical dreams. So it would make sense that we might dream about waking up and going about our everyday life rather than flying about in a fantasy realm.

Some also argue that expectations play a key role in dreaming. If you’re feeling anxious, you might expect to sleep badly and wake up in the night, or need to wake up early for an important day. This anxiety could influence your dream and create a false awakening.

Real events and everyday life

An interesting explanation could lie in the dream protoconsciousness theory. A study in 2011 looked at false awakenings in light of this theory, suggesting that our innate schemes / daily lives feed into dream content. Since we wake up every day as part of our normal routines, waking up itself becomes a concept that we sometimes dream of.

Another fascinating study published in 2021 looked at the content of 528 dreams that people had while in a sleep lab. They found that the sleep lab itself featured in people’s dreams in 40.7% of cases, either as lucid dreams or false awakenings.

Mixed brain states

It’s argued that your brain can be in more than one state of consciousness at once. So it’s possible that the part of your brain responsible for dreaming and also for waking consciousness are both active.

This could then lead to vivid dreaming of gaining consciousness and waking up. Some sleep disorders can lead to this state, as well as environmental factors such as sudden external noise.

This shares some similarities with sleep paralysis, in which we gain some consciousness while waking up from the REM sleep stage, but there is some overlap between the two. To put it in simple terms, we are neither completely awake nor completely asleep, but a bit of both as the same time.

False awakening or sleep paralysis?

False awakenings are sometimes confused with sleep paralysis, which can occur either when waking up or falling asleep. During an episode of sleep paralysis, your body is paralyzed, but your brain is conscious and aware of your surroundings.

What some people experience is a false awakening in which they dream of waking up and being unable to move. This can also be frightening, both in the dream and when you wake up and remember what just happened.

The key difference is that physical paralysis does actually occur during sleep paralysis to protect you from injury if you act out your dreams in bed.

On the other hand, the paralysis during a false awakening takes place purely within the dream. You will usually then wake up in your bed and be able to move normally.

Treatment

If your false awakening episodes have gotten you worried, the good news is that they aren’t thought to be an indicator of mental illness. In fact, they are quite common and it’s thought that many people experience them during their lives. So in that respect, they don’t usually require treatment.

If they are frequent, distressing, or affecting your quality of sleep or daily life, it’s a good idea to speak to your primary care doctor about it. They might consider the following options:

  • Practical advice to help you sleep better.
  • Investigating if there is an underlying sleep disorder.
  • Dream rehearsal therapy.
  • Anxiety or stress management.
  • Medication – in certain circumstances.

It could be that the best option is not to worry and try to accept it as a normal part of dreaming. Alternatively, there are two interesting self-help options that might help: trying to stop them from happening and using them as a tool for lucid dreaming.

Self-help for false awakenings

It’s one thing to wake up properly after a false awakening dream, and then lie in bed thinking about how strange it was. It’s an altogether different experience to become aware of it whilst the dream is still happening.

How do you gain that awareness though? If you realize that you’re still asleep and dreaming, do you then try to wake yourself up, or just ride it out and see what happens?

The answer to the second question is a personal choice, but it will also be dictated by whatever level of awareness you manage to achieve.

Let’s take a look at some techniques to consider for the next time it happens.

1. How to wake up during a false awakening

If you have a false awakening, a moment of awareness within the dream just might not happen. It’s often the case that we are simply a witness to our dreams, not an active participant.

Even if you do realize you’re dreaming, it doesn’t always follow that you can simply decide to wake up.

If you do become aware that you’re still dreaming, here are some actions which might help you wake up for real:

  • Tell yourself that you want to wake up now – you might as well start with a direct and simple approach!
  • Try to focus your mind on moving a finger or toe. When you gain control of that, move to an arm or leg if you still haven’t woken up.
  • Try blinking rapidly.
  • Focus your gaze on one thing in the dream.
  • If there’s a mirror, try to look at yourself.
  • Try and do a complex action, like running, jumping or dancing.

All of those techniques require a certain level of awareness though. You’ll either have it or you won’t in any given dream. If you’re having regular false awakenings, it might help if you remind yourself of these possible actions just before you go to sleep to cement them in your mind.

Let’s now look at what you can do if you’re not in such a rush to wake up and like the idea of exploring your dreams a little further.

2. Turn a false awakening into a lucid dream

artistic image of a woman dreaming

If you’re the adventurous type, the idea of lucid dreaming may be an exciting and fun one.

False awakenings are often reported by those with a strong interest in lucid dreaming (for example, World of Lucid Dreaming) as a potential bridge.

In some ways, it’s a fairly straightforward concept. First, check that you’re dreaming and therefore become aware that you’re still inside the dream. Then get moving and explore to your heart’s content.

How exactly do you start checking that you’re dreaming? The theory goes that you need to plant the idea in your head that you’re going to start doing ‘reality checking’ in your dreams. Then cross your fingers that it happens.

Reality checking

Here are some techniques to do what’s known as a ‘reality check’, and find out which side of the dreamworld your feet really are:

  • Try and remember facts or figures. It can be difficult to recall factual information, such as your address, phone number, or someone’s date of birth. If you find it difficult, it’s a sign you may be dreaming.
  • Try leaving the room in your dream. The next room or hall might change into something which shouldn’t be there.
  • Try to read any writing in the dream. Reading can be difficult in dreams, so words or numbers might blur or morph.
  • If in doubt, you probably are asleep. Despite the fact that your brain can create incredibly vivid scenes, if you’re not sure if you’re dreaming, it’s more likely that you are than aren’t.
  • If you’re doing a complex task in your dream, perform a reality check. If you’re in the bathroom, see if you look normal or not. If you’re eating breakfast, check if the food tastes as it usually does. In bed, check if the bedding has the right texture or feel.

The theory goes that any of these reality checking behaviors can trigger awareness that you’re still asleep. If that doesn’t wake you up, then you’re free to explore a whole imaginary world of possibilities.

If you’ve never experienced the kind of awareness that doing these things would require, don’t worry about it. Perhaps reading this article and remembering the concepts might help trigger that awareness in the future.

Please keep in mind though that the various suggested methods to induce lucid dreaming still don’t have strong scientific backing.

For example, a review of the evidence for lucid dreaming techniques, conducted by researchers at Heidelberg University in 2012, found that the techniques don’t work on demand. They concluded that:

None of the induction techniques were verified to induce lucid dreams reliably and consistently, although some of them look promising.

However, lucid dreaming does happen, so there is hope. A German study in 2011 found that 51% of the 919 participants had experienced a lucid dream at least once in their life.

New research into reality checking and false awakenings / lucid dreaming

In 2019, researchers analyzed an older web survey about false awakenings and lucid dreams. They found that 62% of the 90 people who have regular lucid dreams also had false awakenings, transitioning from one to the other.

They also found that people who are regular reality checkers tended to have more false awakenings (76% of respondents who reality check).

Moreover, people who check their state with such reality checks were more likely to transition into lucid dreaming from a false awakening.

This research lends some initial support to the technique of reality checking as a way to both cope with false awakenings, and theoretically turn it to your advantage in the form of the opportunity to enjoy some dream control.

As the researchers say:

This appears to be the first empirical datum in support of the frequently self-reported ability of lucid dreamers to turn “actively” their FAs into lucid dreams. 

Buzzi et al.

3. Can you prevent false awakenings?

The idea of lucid dreaming understandably won’t appeal to everyone. If you have bad dreams, stopping them in the first place might seem like a more beneficial option.

In this case, there are some techniques that might help prevent them. At the very least, perhaps you might be able to stop them from happening more than once in a night.

Please note that these ideas aren’t guaranteed to stop your false awakenings specifically. In many ways, they are suggestions that are thought to help with sleep problems in general.

  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, especially in the evening.
  • Avoid alcohol in the evening.
  • Try to calm your mind before going to sleep. If you struggle with anxiety or stress at night, you might find it helpful to do some relaxation exercises in bed.
  • Do regular exercise. It might also help to go for a short walk in the evening before bed.
  • If you have a false awakening, get out of bed for 10 to 15 minutes before going back to sleep.
  • Stick to a regular sleep pattern, and try to avoid becoming sleep deprived.

Your thoughts

Have you experienced a false awakening or a series of nested dreams? What happened and what did it feel like?

Feel free to share your story and views in the comments below. I’m sure other readers will also find your experience useful and interesting.

902 Comments

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  1. I almost always have false awakening loops when I take naps during the day. I always get scared that I won’t be able to wake up in reality and will get stuck in my dream, or even die or something. They almost always turn into lucid dreaming, but I’m never really in control. The more loops, the more confused I get. Sometimes I remember to slap my own face, this is a trick that really helps me realise I’m dreaming, if I feel nothing, I know I’m dreaming. But sometimes I’m so sure I’ve really woken up this time, only to eventually realise I’m still dreaming. I try to avoid naps now, but sometimes a person’s gotta nap you know.
    I also experience sleep paralysis in the false awakening loops, these are the scariest parts, because I really feel like I will get stuck in this state forever.
    Lately, I try to do some breathwork when I’m too stressed to sleep. So today, while experiencing yet another false awakening loop during my nap, I started focussing on my breathing and it ended up in some weird out-of-body experience. I felt my soul being pulled outside my body and by focussing on my breathing I was able to pull my soul back (it was sometimes a fight and difficult to pull my soul back). In some loops, this was more like me trying to imagine this soul pulling to gain consciousness, and in some loops it felt like it was something real.
    Anyway, the focus on my breathing somehow calmed me a bit and made it all less scary. So I hope I remember it next time.
    But I’ll always hate these false awakening loops. Just let me nap in peace please.

  2. In my teenage years, I used to have loads of pre-awakening dreams.
    I used to get up, go to the bathroom, get dressed for school, feed my guinea pigs, have breakfast, then walk up the road to catch the school bus. Then I’d wake up, to start with I used to get a bit confused waking up the second time for real, but then I just accepted it.
    I’ve also had my share of sleep paralysis, which terrified me to start with as I was conscious of trying to move. As I got older I made a conscious choice to relax when it happened, I’d obviously fall back to sleep and be ok. Reading up about it helped to understand what was happening and why…

  3. I lucid dreamed in my sleep realizing I wanted up explore and play in this Fantasyland that is my brain. No limits. Realized I was dreaming from the scene and decided to start jumping but I was flying… so vivid, so beautiful. Like Luigi in Mario 2. So much fun. And as for awakening dreams I’ve had some not in a while but where I would get out of bed and get ready shower eat do all the things that I do in the morning. Thought I was ready to go off to school, and then I woke up and I was confused cuz I was like I just did all this and now I’m late, now I got to do it again. Jesus that was annoying. But I love my dreams. I love interpreting them and I’ve also had sleep paralysis experiences and reoccurring dreams. Dreams are very intriguing and need way more studying. I’ve also had bad dreams some that reoccur also some that actually at the time I didn’t realize but months later thinking about the dream just how divided and odd it was but it actually wasn’t predicting my future. Crazy right? I like dreams. I love them in fact.

  4. I connected false awakening with having caffeine in the evening, and anxiety.
    But weirdly, I sometimes experience sleep paralysis with false awakening together. I dream about sleep paralysis only to wake up again thinking now I can move but again to have sleep paralysis. Then when I finally can move, I experience paranoia dreams in which there is a stranger and I’m terrified of him/her. I’ve been chased or I wonder around my house feeling I’m watched and trying to find who.
    95% of my false awakening are nightmares which cause me huge anxiety when I wake up, 5% is normal chores on a normal day.

  5. I was living in Germany and was a young mother of 25. My marriage was in a bad way and my then husband was not allowed near my flat. I woke up from asleep and got myself out of bed to stand on some lego bricks of my sons. I made my way into my living room and noticed I hadn’t shut my patio doors. I panicked knowing my husband could have got in so I locked the doors (boom). I was awake again, shocked I made my way out the bed to repeat the same thing lego etc (boom). Wake again but unable to move this time and noticed a woman crouched by my bed with a baby. The baby started to fall but I couldn’t move to catch it (boom). Awake again… I was terrified what was happening. I nipped myself so hard I cried. Got out of bed, stepped on lego bricks again, same thing – patio doors ajar. Shaking and crying, I locked the doors, put every light on and blasted the TV till the morning. I found out later that my husband had tried to get in. It was like I had been getting warned to lock my doors.

  6. I just experienced it now. It’s 4:00 am.
    The 1st dream was full of grandmas and something happened that I find creepy, so I decided that I wanted to wake up. I keep saying hotdog in my mind and decided to say it out loud. When I opened my eyes, I’m in my room with my friend. I ask if I had a nightmare, she said yes, and I told her I keep saying hotdog to wake up but she said are you awake? Then she vanished. I closed my eyes again saying hotdog. I open my eyes without her and I can move, but when I touch my phone the light on the other side of my room went on, so I closed my eyes again, sigh, kinda frustrated like I want it over. Then I opened my eyes and I’m still in my room but I cannot move. I try to move my elbow and punch, then I woke up, touched my phone, and searched for this thing.

  7. I just had a false awakening. I was taking a nap with my boyfriend on my side, and then “woke up” and relaxed around the bed. When I thought I need to rise and do other stuff, I can’t. I “woke up” again and realized I was dreaming. This time I woke up and tried to get out of my room, but the second room is an apartment (I live in a house). I realized I was dreaming, I “woke up” again, now in the room with a wardrobe (in reality, there’s nothing). I realized it was a dream after I tried to open the wardrobe, and tried to wake up again, I “woke up” again a couple of times, but not going too far because I tried to wake up for real.

  8. Actually, some strange thing happened to me as I’m doing research on dreams, and listening to so many videos regarding the lucid dreams, and I’m having lucid dreams. As said, we get confused about whether it is reality or not. To check the reality one option is to count your fingers and I did the same because the event that happened in my dreams was the death of my father and I was not able to accept that. But then I remembered to count my fingers and it was six so I was so relaxed at that movement, but wanted to get rid of that dream so I pinched myself and was out from there.

    • My strange dreams have been going on for a long time.. VERY realistic 3D dreams, and when I wake up in not sure if “it” really happened.
      But last night the dream was extra real.. and I realized I was dreaming but I kept the scenario going to see what was going on. I was physically shaking hands with somebody ( not important) and I was watching my housemate Lear that she was dying ( which she IS, but doesn’t know it).
      Eventually, I decided to wake up but made sure to remember everything. I was reminded of John writing the Book of Revelation.. not knowing if he was in reality or not. But I knew both “dimensions” were very real.
      Go figure…

  9. So, it’s 3:23 AM EST and I’ve been up for an hour researching what just happened to me. I don’t feel too comfortable talking about what exactly happened, but I couldn’t wake up. Kind’ve avoiding specific details, in the dream, it started off around 6 pm and I just had dinner with my sister and other parts of the family. We sat all in the living room and before we could start watching a movie, I “wake up.” I say, “Oh.. must’ve fallen asleep and carried myself to bed!” and I went to go get something to eat and drink, and probably stay up and watch TV a little. But as soon as I got to the TV, it was playing static/distorted images and before I could even think about being awake, and I did still question what just happened, I’m “awake” again, face down on my bed and partially covered by my blanket. It was cold, I wanted to move but I suddenly couldn’t. It’s completely dark in my room, more than normal, and I’m generally afraid of the dark, so when something I couldn’t see puts the blanket on me itself and then grazes its hand on my body overall, I immediately freaked out – but I couldn’t move! I was trapped until I “Wake up” again. At this point, it becomes the first need and desire to genuinely wake up. I get out of bed, trying to move around and out of my room but WHOOPS there’s a second door behind the first one, and the handle is all distorted and facing downward, I didn’t even turn it and it opens. The hallway was pitch black, and almost climbing upwards? I was absolutely terrified and ran back into bed, I kept thinking “WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP” and it was still hard finding which reality was mine. I eventually did, and since I’ve been awake trying to get my mind off of it so it doesn’t happen again. I have these dreams a lot, that or dreams that come back after a while, or pure nightmares. Genuinely scary if you ask me. I’ve also never been a Type 1 false-awakening person, it’s always been Type 2 where it just feels terrible and scary.

  10. These past two weeks I have been napping in the morning after I wake up (I wake up and drop my siblings off at school and go back home and nap) and almost every time have a false awakening with sleep paralysis, it’s so terrifying. I have been able to lucid dream my entire life so I know how to wake myself up if I have a scary dream and I’m aware when I’m dreaming. But recently I have been experiencing false awakenings a lot and I don’t know how to get rid of them. This morning I took a nap and “woke up” but couldn’t move. I tried moving my fingers and toes and felt like they were moving but I guess they weren’t. Every time I thought I got myself off my bed, I blinked and realized I was back in the same position in my bed as before. I usually experience 10/20 loops till I wake up. I usually sleep with an alarm on my phone to wake me up and the alarm was the only thing that fully woke me up enough to really move. It’s so scary and I’m only 22 and feel like I’m having a crisis from experiencing this regularly.

    • Exactly something like this happens to me all the time and I just don’t want to explore that shot. I want to wake up and I can’t and everything, I think I’m awake and I’m not, it’s the most frustrating thing.

  11. I had an experience when I was just a kid. I would go to sleep and then I would dream about waking up in my bed. I was on the top bunk. I climbed down the ladder after being woken up by my dad’s girlfriend, she would come in and say the same thing every time and eventually in my dreams I realized I was dreaming because I found myself waking up over and over again hearing the same thing, getting ready, going downstairs for breakfast then being driven to school but I never made it to school. It kept repeating until at some points I was waking up, sitting up and before I can make it down my ladder I would wake up again, this made me feel trapped in my dreams and eventually got insomnia because of this. It was almost every night for weeks, I was falling asleep at school because of how much sleep I lost. I found that every time I questioned what was going on in my dream, everyone I asked would deny everything being a dream, and sometimes their faces would be warped and their voices would sound different…

  12. This happened to me last night. Such vivid dreams and I felt like I was struggling to wake up. When I did wake up I got up for a few minutes. Just felt out of sorts. Later back down on my day bed and it happened again. The dreams were not scary but I felt very unsettled when I woke up. I actually took my blood pressure. I don’t know what causes this but I don’t like it. This is the second time it’s happened. The first time was a scary dream. Very odd and very unsettling.

  13. I had two separate experiences where I keep waking up in the wrong ‘parallel universe’, I tried to go to the bathroom and ‘wake up’ but a strong force dragged me back to sleep and it happened in around 10–20 loops every time I open my eyes I can feel I’m in the wrong reality, my blanket was over me and I was trying to figure out if this time I was waking up at the right reality. My mind knew I was in a parallel universe, and whenever I try to wake up in that reality long enough a strong force pushes me back to the bed and sleep. One time I made it to the bathroom and tried to look at myself in the mirror and once my gaze landed on the mirror the strong force dragged me back to sleep. Another time I tried scream to the person next to me in that reality and when I was saying “help me wake up, I am stuck in parallel….’ couldn’t finish the phrase cos the force dragged me back again. It felt so weird and the moment I woke up in the right reality all the forces felt right and I KNEW I wrongly woke up in a parallel universe or wrong dimension in the previous 20 or 30 rounds. All my beds and bathroom and dolls were the same in the different false awakenings.

    Last night was my second time experiencing this lucid false awakening, and I think I was stuck in the lucid dreaming loop for an hour because I woke up once before that started to happen.

  14. Today I had a really devastating night. I kept being in a loop by waking up in my dream and doing my day all over again. From time to time it did occur that quite a few strange events happened where I died or something seemed too weird to be true to the point I had a small thought, which grew bigger each dream, that I might not really be awake for real. Yet, it felt so vivid and real. It left me in distress each time and got worse the more times I woke inside of it. From dying, getting hurt or simply following my daily routine a billion times I finally woke up this morning for real. When I woke up, I was so confused whether I actually am awake or still stuck in a dream. It left me anxious to not be able to feel the difference between reality and sleep. It made me so nervous. I truly hope this doesn’t happen anytime soon.

    • I’ve never experienced this until this morning. It’s like I wanted to wake up so bad but couldn’t. Then later I tried taking a nap because they say it can be from being too tired. But the same thing happened then. My roommate picks up my son from school for me every day, and during my nap, I could see them coming through the door and me literally greeting my child over and over again. But the second time which I was sure I was real, I went to the bathroom. Once I sat down to pee, I realized I was still covered in a little blanket I sometimes use and was still holding my kitten. I finally was able to somehow wake myself up then because who brings their cat with them to go pee lol. But since I woke up I had a really hard time accepting the fact that I was truly awake. I didn’t think I was anxious or stressed before I went to sleep but I must have been because I woke up with my heartbeat racing and being absolutely terrified of what I was seeing was real or if it was fake. I’m now 30 minutes into being awake and feeling like I’m having a damn panic attack just from the continuous loop my brain was stuck in this morning and after my nap. This junk is scary and I just wanna be able to sleep without that ever happening ever again. They say you can turn it into a lucid dream if you’d like. But I’d rather just never experience it ever again lol. I’m moving my bed when I get home and see if some change in my routine could make it stop. Wish me luck and I wish you luck as well.

  15. So last night was the worst I had in a long time, I fell asleep early, I woke up panicked, I nudged my husband and called his name, I knew by my voice I was asleep! I hit him bit him and screamed! He doesn’t flinch! My son walked past my door and I called his name! Part of my brain was calling his name correctly and the other part was smuggled sound! But part of me knew my son is away at uni!!! I knew I was asleep and was desperately trying to wake up!!! My husband was never in bed and was in the shower and heard me screaming these horrible noises which was myself trying so desperately to wake up! I was in the same position I’d fallen asleep in! Even though to me I was now facing the other way!! I hate it!!