False Awakening: Dreaming About Waking Up

a man dreaming he is awake

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.

graphical results of a poll about false awakenings

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.

Sleep fragmentation

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.
  • 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.

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? 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.

506 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I keep having the recurring dream where my mother is trying to kill me she takes a pillow and suffocated me then the dream jumps to another the location in the home it was her office in the house and it’s as if she’s stressed with life and her partner all I remember is her sitting in a chair out of it stressed, bald headed and blood coming out the sides of her head while she talks to my stepfather. I knew I was dreaming when I noticed there was a dog their that I never seen in my life. Once I realized the dog was fake I knew I was dreaming. Then I skipped a dream and I was locked up in the room I sleep in but it was a bit different and I was scared… I wanted to wake up I was trying to yell but I couldn’t use my voice and then for some reason all the cellphones I ever had in my life appeared on the table in the room I was in and I couldn’t find my actual cellphone And I had no desire to explore I was devestated and scared and overwhelm I wanted to wake up and I don’t know if it’s because I remembered what my mother did to me in my dream and I was expecting her to come out and do the same again but I was afraid I was trying to make noise in my dream so that I can alert my roommate in my real life to wake me up but it was of no use. So I gave up and turned off all the phones and went to the bed and lay there and finally awoke. —— it was in deed an odd dream.

    I had another one a couple months back ever since I started living with my roommate. Long story short, I rented a room and for some reason in one night I had 6 awakenings in my dream and the 7th one was the real final time when I actually woke up. I remember in one of the episodes that I woke up since I knew I was dreaming I was trying to imagine myself wearing this dress I wanted from Macy’s and it didn’t work I got so mad and said whatever, and for some reason when ever I laid back on the bed and gave in to the idea that this will wake me up. I woke up in another dream that happened 6 times. And in one of the episodes I also remember opening my door and instead of seeing the kitchen I saw a hallway with a bunch of doors and one door was open and when I went to peak in it looked like a crime scene, I knew I was dreaming and since I do have pretty frightening dreams I ran out and went back into my door and jumped into bed. Lol in the dream I was thinking I probably left my dna there so it was a mixture of deep sleep and lucid dreaming so confusing. And every time I jumped into bed with hopes of waking up I’d wake up to a dream. When I woke up I felt exhausted and I even felt paralyzed for a minute that felt forever I didn’t move afraid because I didn’t know if it was another dream. Thankfully it wasn’t but it was too early and I had to fall asleep and I wasn’t looking forward to another lucid dream.

    Idk guys but my dreams are a bit too odd and overwhelming for me, and i can’t explain this state of fear that I tend to be in I was panicking to wake up it feels real and exhausting.

  • I had a false dream last night. This was my third one so far. In my dream, i was at school with my friends and we were having fun. That day there were visitors and we went to watch the a special show they prepared for us. While watching it i realized that i was in a dream. All of a sudden i saw something blurry. It was a button. My friends were arguing at that time and it felt like that was going to happen to distract me telling them about it. Stupidly i pressed the button. I woke up. But not at home in bed. Instead i woke up in a forest. I saw a man that look like he was 43 or something. He said there were monsters in the forest. I was freaking out, saying to myself how am i gonna get out of this dream (i knew i was in a dream)? I thought if i go killed i might wake up. I went to search for a monster to kill/eat me. I found one but for some reason i was too scared so i screamed. I ran till i reached the old man. I said to myself, its my only chance to wake up. So i went up to the monster and it ate me in one piece. Was scary but didn’t hurt. Finally i woke up. I was relieved and saw my sis on her phone so i hugged her (she had no clue what was going on). That’s the end of my story :)

  • It doesn’t happen every night but this happens to me often.
    I go to sleep, then i ‘wake up’ in my room. Everything in my room look EXACTLY like my room to the last detail before I went to bed. Like my blue cardigan hanging of the left bedpost draping just so. Or a dinted solo can sitting on top right hand side of my cupboard. The only thing out of place is how I feel which is an instant terrible dread like something horrible is going to happen at any moment. And when I try to get out of bed I can’t move at all. I try to move again and again and it doesn’t work…
    I’ve had this dream so often that I can now recognise pretty quickly it’s a dream and I tell myself to wake up. I wake up in my room and then I go through the same process. It’s still a dream. I realise it’s still a dream while not being able to move and tell myself to wake up. This process can repeat itself three or four times in a row before waking up for real. It’s pretty crazy.

  • hi,1st I had a dream but just usual dream its happen to me like a year ago in that dream a black women close my face with pillow to suffocate me n wants to kill me on that dream i don’t know its a ghost/other things after that i woke up fast and i was like what just happened but i’m still alive thanks god its just a dream but its not about that coz i just had dream within dream right now,i’m in bed sleeping and bcz i miss my bf hand so i just imagined his hand on my face but that hands feels so real and it pushes me on that pillow n that things i mean black man with shadow said something to me but i can’t recall,i can’t breath or moves my body n i taught i’m goin to dead but then i wake up on that dream n run go to toilet coz i was frightened by it n my bf suddenly back home n i told him that i was dreaming n same dream like a year ago and he said that was just a dream don’t worry and then i suddenly woke up n think about that weird dream

  • i have dreams that i am awake and wake up and not awake but still I wake up and then I wake up and wake up repeatedly it can happen for hours after the alarm clocks been going off for hours already and i’m going to get fired from every job I’ve ever had because I can’t wake up like normal.

  • Thank you for posting this info. I have experienced false awakening or nested dreaming twice in my adult life. Both times I have been far a long in pregnancy around the seventh/ eighth month in real life. First time was in 2014. Terrifying falsely woke up at least 7-8 times before actually waking up. Then it happened again last night waking up 3 times before I actually awoke. Both times were terrifying and I then have a hard time deciphering the dream world from the real world. I have to seek reassurance from family that I am now in actually in the real world and no longer in a dream state. Very panicked and terrified once I actually do awake. The Dreams are so vivid and detailed they feel real. Last night the first two were mundane and seemed short in length, the third however was extremely frightening involving moving into a house where I recalled it as a memory that was actually from a dream long ago. The house had an ill feeling a very negative energy. Then a little boy appears and he seems so real, but when others claim they cannot see him I realize he is actually ghost. Once this realization sets in his face begins to morph into more demon like features and his eyes turn all black. He gets angry with me that I am trying to get him to move on to the after life. He will not leave the house. I gather my family and tell them we are leaving immediately even without our half unpacked belongings. A large dog is then there trying to keep us from leaving the house. He lunges for my neck to bite/attack me. I jump out of the way just in time and we begin to leave the house. Once outside a landscaper approaches me and asks “are you Oriana?” I say “yes why” he says “I have a call on my cell phone for you” he holds out a flip phone and I can hear static and a voice trying to speak through the static so I refuse the call and tell him “anyone who I know will reach me on my own phone.” And I continue to leave with my family knowing the voice on his phone is the demon boy in the house trying to get me to stay.
    I awoke in reality to my young daughter crying and my older daughter asking me if I was alright. I was very shooken up and couldn’t move for a few moments. I blinked several times and had to ask her if we were back in reality.

  • I woke up in my Dream in my room panicked panicking, Freaking out & I grabbed my phone for light an some reason no lights in my room would turn on I felt something in the room with me I tried playing loud music in my dream thinking it’d wake me up but I couldn’t I was so scared I remember slapping myself & pinching doing everything & I still couldn’t wake up at the same time I was feeling drowsy like I was going to fall asleep in that dream I’ve never been so scared I walked by the animals in my dream an they were hissing as if I were something bad an I went back to my bed an laid their scared then woke up for real am breathing heaven an stayed up after that ☹️

  • I remember dreaming about something. Then in the dream I remember vividly feeling like I was suffocating of drowning. So I woke up (False awakening) and I turned over thinking “Thank you that was just a dream” and I remember reaching for my phone, turning it on and looking at the time. It was 1:26 pm. So I turn back over and went back to sleep. Then I had another weird dream. I don’t remember much but I remember feeling as if the two dream were related but I didnt know how. So when I actually woke up I turn over, turn my phone on, and it’s only like 9:30 am. The weird thing is it was so vivid that I thought it was real life.

  • I just had a nested dream but the last one was really weird maybe it was sleep paralysis mixed with a inner outer body experience? Anyway I “woke up” feeling relived I had escaped the last two false Awakenings. After a few seconds in though I relised I was still dreaming and started freaking out because I couldn’t move so I thaught I was experiencing sleep paralysis. I than relised though that I was lying on Someone elses body when it moved it’s toe I did too but I couldn’t feel my toe move only see both of our toes moving. I started freaking out more because this usually leads me to some how feeling like I’m suffocating because I’ve rolled over or the blankets going over my mouth. I could see out of my eyelids because when I woke up I was looking in the same place I was in my dream. In the background it was a mix of weird humming noise that slowly got louder, music I had just listened to or that were stuck in my head, and some dude the same I was lying in reading about lucid dreaming. When I woke up it was one of the best feelings I had ever had.

  • So I just came across this because I just woke up from having multiple false awakenings in one of the worst nightmares I’ve ever had. I have nightmares a lot, probably 3 or 4 nights a week, but this one wasn’t the average nightmare for me. It was a lot scarier, partly because I knew I was dreaming in the dream, so I would do something in my dream like try to move my hand or grab my phone. And I would think that I was awake, but kept drifting in and out because I was so tired. In this dream where I thought I was awake I would actually get up in my room and everything would seem so real. But then I would start hallucinating and seeing a monster or something and it would kindof start all over again with me being in a dream and “waking up” from it. I’m honestly scared to go back to bed. Like I don’t know if I was sleepwalking at all but it definitely felt like I was moving my body and I’ve never done that before. I’m 20 and a female.

  • The last false awakening I had was just a while ago, but I somehow can’t stop thinking about it which is the reason I’m on this site. I guess I was having a nightmare of being chased by this thing, it looked like a women. She was wearing a gown that was basically torn everywhere and looked all ghostly like. I closed my eyes in the dream which resulted to “waking up”. I was in my bed and just lay there for a few seconds staring at the ceiling before I sat up only to be met with that women standing at the end of my bed. False awakenings can be really frightening.
    Also, there was one night that I guess I was awake but I wasn’t? I dont know it’s a bit hard to explain. But my body felt heavy, I couldn’t move but I was aware that I was in my room but I couldn’t see anything. I tried to call for my parents but I couldn’t move my mouth or speak. However, a few minutes later I could move and speak again. Does anyone know how to explain that?

  • Just tonight I dreamed within dreams, I dreamed that I woke up for 5 times or more and my surrounding looks so real. At the 4th and 5th time it bothered me, because I voluntarily tried to wake up but I was trapped inside a dream. After a while my dog barks at me then my eyes gets to open, it took a some seconds before I was able to move. Moving felt heavy as well as if something is pressing down on me. It was a weird scary event that I only experienced for the first time. But the 4th and 5th time I tried to wake up was the fun part, I can control the scenes in my dream like I was awake.

  • My “false awakening ” wasn’t per say a bad one I dreamt i was in my bed and my ex tapped my shoulder and asked me to move over so he could lay down with me. I only concern is that why would I be dreaming of an ex when i have a husband is it a sign that I yearning my ex’s company or that I’m not happy. It just confused me a little when I woke like why?

  • My other half was away for the night last week and around 5am I was woken by a really strange loud noise coming from the floor by the side of my bed and thought I must have knocked my phone onto the floor in my sleep and an app had opened but I couldn’t see it lit up anywhere so got up to turn the light on but it wouldn’t work, I got back into bed and the noise started coming from the other side of the bed and I could hear people talking to each other outside my bedroom door, then the talking started coming from my tv in the corner of my room and because my light wouldn’t turn on I was trying to turn on the tv but that wouldn’t switch on either so I got back into bed and pulled the duvet over my head because I was scared and just lay there with my eyes closed until I fell asleep…. which is when I actually woke up.
    I had no idea I was dreaming because all of my surroundings were the same and I consciously made the decisions (or at least I think) to get up and turn on the light and try to turn on the tv but I couldn’t make them work.

  • hi everyone, i just came across this site after having a dream with 4 false awakenings…this is the first time in a very long time i have had one.
    i kept waking up in my bed but the sutroundings were different. i knew it was my room but didnt click on to why it looked so different i could see a staircase behind it and my house isnt set up like that. i kept walking down these zets of stairs which were like a quiet old hotel amd made my way into the reception area where people were watching a programme on a historical war. then as soon as i was looking for my cigarettes id wake up again in the same bed thinking i didnt hace a cigarette and so i went down the stairs again and this time different people there including a friend of mine so i was talking to him when out of nowhere u wake up again…but this time i was trying to make sure i was actually awake. when i get up i click my neck out of habbit amd when i was doing it i put my fingers on my neck and could actually feel the movement i feel when i really do it so this convinced me i was deff awake.. so i sat up which was a major struggle and focused on this weird lego looking statue thing in my room…i wasnt scared just confused as ever and gasping for a cigarette then out of nowhere it turned at me and within 1 second i was fighting with an older looking man and i chased him back down the stairs amd coins were on the floor so i started to pick them up and throughout it all i was thinking please tell me im awake…but i wasnt the last episode was sleep paralysis but i knew just nefore it that i was dreaming but had no intention of staying in the dream..i finally woke up and felt very confused…wouldnt say distressed but uncomfortable that my own mind is capable of tricking me repeatidly for some reason…ive had my cigarette now and eating some sweets haha. message me if you get something like this.

  • I had multiple false awakening with a nested dream, and only twice I got up and moved around. It felt different and I was scared to see what was behind me, and I felt tired as well. Trying to wake up only to find out I was there again in the same position as I did when I left. Then when I went to walk around a family member came to visit and it was during the holidays. The last time was when I called my aunt because she’s a nurse and she had the same voice of worry, and I was on the verge of tears. Finally I woke up and wondered if it was still a dream and I reached out to get my phone and relief flooded me, seeing everything how it was when I fell asleep.

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