Have you ever had a dream in which you’ve woken up, only to then wake up a little while later for real?
Perhaps you even got out of bed, started your morning routine and then snapped out of a fantasy breakfast to find yourself back in bed?
Waking up twice in a row without falling asleep in-between sounds impossible. But that’s what it can feel like if you have what’s called a false awakening.
False awakenings are remarkably vivid dreams in which you think you’ve woken up. Only to then later realize that you were, or still are, asleep the whole time. And like dreams generally, they can range from being fairly mundane to quite distressing.
In this article I’ll be looking at false awakenings and ways to manage them. You’ll find some practical techniques for preventing them if they’re upsetting you.
And I’ll also look at ways to become aware that you’re dreaming, using it as a stepping stone to the fascinating world of lucid dreaming.
False awakening poll
In 2016 I polled 557 readers regarding their feeling about false awakenings. The majority, 324, said they found it distressing. Interestingly though, 91 said they enjoy it or find it interesting. A further 59 said that it can lead to a lucid dream.
Too real to be a dream?
One of the fascinating features of a false awakening is just how vivid and real it can seem. So much so that you might not question the reality of it, even if you have some feeling that it could be a dream.
Quite often the experience takes the form of waking up to then do something quite normal. You might get dressed, go to the bathroom or sit and have breakfast for example.
Typically it’s only when you wake up for real that you realize what happened, and puzzle over what a remarkably realistic dream it was.
For some people though, there might be a few more episodes yet before the eventual real waking. It’s uncommon, but repeated false awakenings all within one sleep are not unheard of.
This extended version of multiple false awakenings is sometimes referred to as nested dreams, or dreams within dreams.
It might sound a little like the stuff of movies such as 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 wonder whether you’re still dreaming or not.
What causes false awakenings?
False awakenings don’t yet have any firm scientific explanation. It’s understandably a difficult area to research, especially as scientists still don’t agree on why we dream. The two most common theories are:
Worry or anxiety
If you’re worrying about something happening the next day, you might dream about getting on with the day. Your brain might then dream of waking up, perhaps as the starting point for rehearsing whatever it is you’re worrying about.
Some also believe that expectations play an important role in dreaming. If you’re worrying, you might expect to sleep badly and wake up in the night, or need to wake up early for an important day. This could influence your dream and create false awakenings.
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 that for consciousness are both active. This fragmentation could then lead to vivid dreaming of gaining consciousness and waking up.
False awakening or sleep paralysis?
False awakenings are sometimes confused with one of the scariest of all sleep disorders, known as sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis can occur either upon waking up or falling asleep. During an episode your body is paralyzed but your brain is conscious and aware of your surroundings.
But what some people experience is a false awakening in which they dream of waking up and unable to move. This can of course also be very frightening, both in the dream and when you wake up and remember what just happened.
In the article I wrote about sleep paralysis, many readers have since described experiences which sound more like a false awakening rather than sleep paralysis.
The key difference is that the paralysis does physically occur during sleep paralysis; you will lie in bed and feel unable to move at first except for perhaps your eyes, a finger or toe.
On the other hand, the paralysis during a false awakening takes place purely within the dream, and you will usually then wake up in your bed and be able to move normally.
False awakenings are not thought to be an indicator of mental illness. In fact they are quite common, and it’s thought that most people experience them during their lives. So in that respect they don’t usually require treatment.
However, if you’re repeatedly having them and they are distressing you, then you can speak to your doctor about it. They might consider the following options:
- Dream rehearsal therapy (see the article about stopping nightmares for more on this).
- Anxiety or stress treatment if thought to be a cause.
- Medication in certain circumstances, for example with associated PTSD.
It could be though that the best option is not to worry about it 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: stopping 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 odd it was.
It’s an altogether different experience to become aware of it whilst you’re still in the middle of it.
How do you gain that awareness though? And once you do, do you decide to try and wake up or go with it and see what happens?
The answers to those questions are part personal choice, and perhaps part whatever level of awareness you actually manage to achieve.
So let’s take a look at what you can do in the throes of this strange experience.
1) How to wake up properly after a false awakening
If you have a false awakening, you might just wake up naturally afterwards anyway, sooner or later. A moment of awareness within the dream may never actually happen.
Even if you do realize you’re dreaming it doesn’t always follow that you can just decide to wake up; sometimes it can take a little effort. Especially if it’s an unpleasant dream which somehow grips you.
If you do realize you’re still dreaming rather than awake though, here are some actions which might help you wake up for real:
- Try and 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. This is also a very effective technique if you’re either experiencing sleep paralysis or are dreaming of being paralyzed.
- Try blinking rapidly in the dream.
- Focus your gaze on one thing in the dream.
- If there’s a mirror, try and look at yourself.
- Try and do something complex in the dream.
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.
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) Turning a false awakening into a lucid dream
If you’re the adventurous type, then the idea of lucid dreaming may be an exciting and fun one. And false awakenings are often reported by the lucid dreaming community (for example in the world of lucid dreaming) as a potential bridge.
In some ways it’s a fairly straight-forward 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.
Becoming aware that you’re dreaming can be confusing though, especially when you just dreamed that you woke up.
Here are some techniques to do 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 current address, mobile phone number or someone’s date of birth. If you find it difficult, then it’s a sign you may be dreaming.
- If you’re in a familiar room, try moving into the next room or hallway. You may find that it suddenly changes into something which shouldn’t be there.
- If there’s any writing, numbers or symbols in the dream, try and read them. Reading can be difficult in dreams and you may find the words or numbers blur or morph.
- If in doubt, you probably are asleep. Despite the fact that your brain can create incredibly vivid scenes, if you’re even asking yourself if you’re dreaming, you very likely are.
- If doing a complex task, 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. If you’re 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 in fact still asleep. If that doesn’t then 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 may 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 scientists are still largely unconvinced about the efficacy of any one technique. For example, a review of scientific research by Heidelberg University in 2012 suggests that the techniques don’t work on demand.
So it may be that time, patience and a little luck is required if you’re to master the art of lucid dreaming.
Ways to prevent false awakenings
Using false awakenings as a bridge to lucid dreaming doesn’t appeal to everyone. And if you regularly have nightmares or unpleasant dreams, you may be far more interested in getting out of them. And of course you may just struggle to gain any control in your dreams.
In which case there are some things which might prevent them. Or at the very least help stop them happening again the same night.
Please note that these ideas are not set in stone as cures; they may or may not work, but are definitely worth trying. In many ways they are suggestions which are thought to help a variety of sleep problems, not false awakenings specifically.
- Avoid caffeine, especially in the evening. False awakenings may happen more to hyper-sensitive people, so avoiding stimulants like caffeine might help.
- Also avoid alcohol in the evening since alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns.
- 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 mindfulness exercises.
- Do regular exercise. It might also help to go for a short walk in the evening before bed. And if you have a false awakening, or series of them, then getting out of bed and having a short walk or doing some stretching might help prevent it happening again.
- Have a light snack before bed. The article about good bedtime snacks has some ideas for you. And if you experience an episode, get up and have a snack or some milk, then go back to bed.
- Try and keep to a regular sleep pattern. This is one of the most effective ways to help you sleep better in general. Getting enough sleep, avoiding sleep deprivation and having a stable routine can help prevent strange things happening when you do sleep.
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? Do you think it’s something you would like to try and achieve, or would you prefer to just stop them happening?
Feel free to share you story and views in the comments below. I’m sure other readers will also find your experience useful and interesting.