False Awakening: Dreaming About Waking Up

photo of a woman dreaming of being awake

Have you ever had a dream in which you think you’ve woken up, only to then wake up later for real?

Perhaps you even got out of bed, started your morning routine, and then snapped out of an imaginary breakfast or journey to work to find yourself back in bed?

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

What are false awakenings?

a man dreaming he is awake

False awakenings are usually vivid dreams in which you mistakenly feel like you’ve woken up. And it’s often only when you wake up later – for real this time – that you realize your previous waking was just a dream.

Sound confusing? It certainly can be for many people, and has been for me on a number of occasions.

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 looking at false awakenings and ways to cope with them if you find them upsetting.

I’ll also look at some interesting techniques to 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. And 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. So 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. Plus you’re still asleep, so normal conscious reasoning isn’t to be expected anyway!

Quite often the experience 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.

So it’s only when you wake up for real that you realize what happened, and puzzle over what a remarkably realistic dream it was.

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 – 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 like the unlikely plot of movies like ‘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’s no scientific consensus on the cause of false awakenings. When I started investigating the causes of my own false awakening episodes, I was surprised to find that there’s very little written about it in medical sources.

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

Two possible theories are:

Worry or anxiety

If you’re worried about something important in your life, you might dream about it. Some sleep experts suggest that this is perhaps to rehearse the event in your sleep.

Your brain might then dream of waking up, perhaps as the starting point for your mental rehearsal.

Some believe 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.

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.


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, 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 the paralysis really does physically occur during sleep paralysis.

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

False awakenings 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.

However, if they are frequent and distressing, it might help to speak to your primary care doctor about it. They might consider the following options:

  • 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 different paths you can go down in terms of self-help: trying to stop them happening, or 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? And 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.

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

1. How to wake up properly during a false awakening

If you have a false awakening, a moment of awareness within the dream 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 even dancing.

All of those techniques, of course, 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 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. Secondly, get moving and explore to your heart’s content.

But 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: 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 idea is 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. Even reading this and remembering it might help trigger that awareness in the future.

If you want to explore the idea of lucid dreaming further, there are lots of online resources which claim to help you learn the skill.

Do note 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. The 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.

So perhaps patience and a little luck are required if you’re to master the art of lucid dreaming.

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 would be preferable.

In this case, there are some techniques which might help prevent them. Or at the very least, perhaps help stop them happening again the same night.

Please note that these ideas aren’t guaranteed to stop your false awakenings specifically. In many ways, they are suggestions which 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 relaxing mindfulness 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 too tired or sleep deprived.

Your thoughts

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

Have you had an experience where a false awakening has then led to a lucid dream?

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.

747 thoughts on “False Awakening: Dreaming About Waking Up”

  1. Recently I’ve been remembering falling asleep and being very aware that I’m going from being asleep to entering a dream and when I try and wake myself up I can’t and it’s starting to distress me. I’ve NEVER been able to know I’m actually entering a dream… I’ve always remembered my dreams and have had a few lucid ones but this evening I’ve realised the point when I’m asleep and actually letting go of reality and dreaming it happened 3 times and on the 2nd time (in my dream) I jumped out of my bed and ran into the dark hallway to chase one of my cats and as soon as I got in the hallway I said to myself wake up & I did… on the third time as I was falling asleep and entering the dream I said to myself (remembering Freddie Krueger from when I was younger!) If I can bring something out of my dream I know it’s real then I woke up feeling very scared.
    I don’t understand why this is happening to me now, I’m a very spiritual person and my mum and me would always say if either one of us died we would try and make contact with the other… my mum died in January this year she was my only friend so now I’m starting to wonder if this is maybe the starting of a visitation dream, I had one a few years back after my brother died, he came to me twice and in one dream he was talking in a different language and I understood everything he was saying until I woke up…
    If anyone has had similar experiences it would be nice to hear your thoughts.

  2. like twice now I’ve had these terrible lucid dreams (well they’re called false awakenings) where I can’t wake up and I’m aware that I’m stuck. like the first time I was at me and Haleigh’s apartment when I fell asleep and in the dream I would “wake up” and run into our room, bc I fell asleep in the living room, and constantly tell her “please help me! I’m stuck I can’t wake up. please please help me!” and every time she’d say “babe you’re awake it’s okay you’re fine, you’re awake.” and then I’d wake up all over again and it would repeat 5 or 6 times. and each time our bedroom was different but she’d say the same thing over and over. she’d tell me I’m awake when I know I wasn’t and I’d beg her over and over to help. I finally woke up after like 5or6 times of this happening almost in a panic attack bc every time it happens I genuinely don’t know if I’ll be able to wake up.

  3. I fell asleep during my study hall, and I started dreaming of me being in school talking to a close friend. I was aware that I was dreaming, so I was just going w the flow and just living in my imagination I guess. At one point I heard the bell ring and I knew I had to wake up to go to my next class. And I found myself not able to wake up, so in my dream I told my friend “hey can you wake me up, I’m dreaming” and he said “what?” He was so confused. And I said “shake me or something, I can’t wake up!!”. While all that was happening, in my dream my body felt as if I was having sleep paralysis (but I wasn’t). And I was getting so scared because I thought I wasn’t going to wake up and I felt like I was trapped in my dream. But then, I calmed myself and told myself to count to 3, and open my eyes quick. I did that, and woke up..

    1. Omg the same thing happened to me. I had 5 bad dreams at the same time with false awakening and sleep paralysis. I was surrounded by dark figures and started praying to wake up but couldn’t. I started blinking a few times because I couldn’t get back to my body or reality. I had to call my mom to make sure I was awake. The devil is a liar God is my shield!

  4. I always know when – it’s not a realistic dream, but sometimes I need to wake up because they won’t let me, they attack and try to eat your energy even if you’re awake.

  5. I have been lucid dreaming and having OBE for nearly 10 to 15 years. I have recently learned to control them and realize that I am lucid dreaming and a little while ago, learned to leave my body and fly.
    I have never had fear while lucid dreaming. Although I have realized lately that I have sleep paralysis also which can be terrifying. But what really has me thinking “what is going on”… I’ve started waking up like I am in the movie groundhog day… within the past year, I have woken up, started my day, then awoke again. Nearly doing the same thing I had done 5 minutes ago.. but this is starting to become a bit annoying because I am to the point I have woken 4 times before waking up FOR REAL.. it is nice to have a name “false awakening” to it. I was calling it “a fake awake”.
    It’s also nice to know there are others.
    I love being able to know I am dreaming and having the control to lucid dream and converse with myself, fly, and try and better my life while sleeping by getting in my subconscious mind. But these false awakening drive me nuts. I guess I will have to start learning to control these also!!

    1. I suddenly now after years of lucidity. I am having dreams within dreams and or paralysis within paralysis dreams. But I can remember and I do know it’s a dream and I try to wake up in one dream eventually I do. Then another I try to do the same. I become more in panic mode and see names, letters or numbers. I even hear the background noise of real life. Its been a concern because in the dreams I almost told myself to jump out the window to wake up. I am so scared I sleepwalk, no evidence I do but its all a bit overwhelming…..

      1. I have these often. In a recent experience just this morning I remember I woke up from a dream where I was being chased. Right as I thought I had woken up and was on my couch near my apartment door to the hallway, I heard fast running up the stairs coming closer to my door to my apartment. I jolted myself and woke myself up like I always do in this case when I’m scared and have false awakenings. Often at times I’ll wake up in sleep paralysis or have a false awakening. I use these experiences in order to OBE and have quite the lucid dreaming experiences. Just about all of my dreams are lucid and very realistically vivid.

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