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.

Sounds confusing? It certainly can be for many people, myself included 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 discuss some potential 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.

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.

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. 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 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

The good news, if you question your grip on reality because of your false awakenings, 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.

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.

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. 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.

So 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. 

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 that 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 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?

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.

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

  1. so the other day i was asleep in bed.. and i knew i was asleep but i got off the bed and started walking around i remember pinching myself to see if what was happening was real.. i couldn’t feel the pinch but i seen myself doing it.. then i woke up a little freaked out but more interested so i went back to sleep and it happened again everything was so vivid .. in this dream/ false awakening i could feel touches but not pain.. like i could feel pleasure.. then i remember i was running outside then i somehow ended up in this hospital. i wasn’t hurt i have no clue why i was there.. but i was looking at the clock and it said 12pm and i remember thinking i have to get back cause i have to go to work in real life and if it was 12 i was late.. so somehow i woke myself up and i walked out to the living room where my bf was and i was telling him the whole thing from start to finish.. i was questioning whether or not i was truly awake cause that’s how vivid this was.

  2. It is possible that I can suddenly change the plot of my dreams when I experience that I’m dying in my dream, and it’s like I’m sleeping but I’m aware that I’m having a dream. And I don’t think it’s a lucid dream, it’s different.

  3. Does anybody ever wake up from a dream and still see parts of their dream in their waking life until they dissolve into thin air? It’s happened multiple times now where I was dreaming about something before I woke abruptly and I would see a person or object from the dream in my room. One time I dreamt I walked into a spider web. I woke up trying to get the webs off my face and I saw a glowing orange web as I opened my eyes and it floated away and disappeared over the course of a few seconds. Sometimes I’ll see people or animals too. I’m just not sure what to think of it all

  4. It starts with hearing someone in the room as I sleep. But I can’t move or talk to tell them to wake me up so I’m stuck still. Then I start to panic and fear I won’t wake up. And soon I have a false awakening, and I go downstairs to tell my parents to wake me up, but they say I’m already awake. I explain, “We are like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and we are but living on a snowflake and while this life lasts you thousands of years, it is merely seconds of falling in mine.” Then I wake and try more methods for them to wake me up. I’m stuck in a loop. And this is separate, but before I woke up in real life, I felt that I was laying with someone in the same state of being frozen like before. So basically every time this happens it ends how it began the last time this happened to me, because last time this happened I was laying with my boyfriend. There is a pattern to these dreams, but why. I absolutely hate them and I’m so tired, but there’s no way I can go back to sleep now.

  5. Scotty Thornton

    I’m 33 years old. Apparently from reading this I just experienced nested dreams. I was at my mother’s house and my children were sleeping in the other rooms here. In actuality, this is where we are staying tonight. Back to the dream. I saw some sort of apparition. Be it a ghost or demon. I woke up. Left the room I’m sleeping in, but hit my knees and could only crawl. I was trying to get to my daughter’s room. Something was pulling me back. I woke up again. Wiped my head and said goodness. It was only a dream. Now I walk out and there are huge dogs growling at me and I tell my mother about the dream I had of the demon, the dogs growl louder. She asked if I thought it was Jessica. I asked who was Jessica?. She replied that she was my ex. We had been in an accident together and she passed as a result. The apparition appears again in my mother’s room. Only this time making some growling noises. I wake back up again. Walk out the bedroom door and somehow end up in the back of a truck. My ex-fiance Kristen is there. She tells me to grab the baby. I reach for the baby and he’s headless. I start screaming and asking where his head was and she talks as if it’s ok. It’s detachable or something. The baby dies. I wake back up in the bedroom. This time I’m back to crawling to my mother’s room. Crying and screaming bc this demon has me again. It’s walking behind me as I crawl. I look at my mother in her doorway crying it’s behind me. Then my voice goes from my regular tone to me almost speaking in tongue. I escape to some kinda mythical land where Kristen and I are holding each other. Then I really wake up. I’ve had crazy dreams before but this tops em all. I had to get it out while I still had full recollection. Mind you I looked at my clock before I started writing this and all of it took place in twenty mins of being asleep. I’m about to get in bed with one of my children lol. I’m glad y’all had the spot for me to get it out of my head in writing while I looked up what the meaning could’ve been. Thank you

    1. Oooo wow and along comes me, some kind of witch taunting me flying around the room can’t see it attacking me, I roll over see my son in my bed. I realise I’m dreaming think I wake up for my son to be jumped in by the witch I then slap it realising it’s my son. I start speaking in tongues have squashed my son he’s not breathing think about ending my life. The witch’s arm comes out my son like I hear the words gods not forever and then I finally wake up. My son is in his own bed! No one can tell me no different them realms to dam real to not be real. Thank god I come back to this one……..p.s it’s my third false awakening dream this past couple of weeks. I’ve had a few of the years. This week I’m stressed though and have had caffeine before bed and paracetamol and sumatriptan for migraine. U? X

  6. I’m a 17 y/o girl. id say i woke up at like 4 am and slept back. sleeping back is often hard for me also i was restless, had one off from college so i decided to force myself to sleep bc i knew i was tired.. anyways
    i had 2 normal dreams but after the second one i realised that i know that it’s a dream and i could control it so i controlled that dream but woke up from that one into another and controlled that too.. then woke into another & another until i controlled like 5 dreams in a row
    but after that i started getting a little scared because 1) it’s been too long to be in sth that’s not real and 2)the control was slowly ending.. now the dream would do what it wants. this has happened to me before so i didn’t panic i just tried to go with it til i could actually wake up.
    another 5? false awakenings later i tried to do something myself. i tried to scream. i couldn’t. all that would come out was air. i tried to scream just cus i thought my sister who’s (actually) sleeping next to me would help. another false awakening later i tried to scream again so hard, ‘got up from my bed’, did random movements in panic and finally, i could actually scream. but nothing happened. because i was still screaming in my dream.
    i got so desperate to wake up that i would pick characters in my dream like my siblings and my mom and ask/tell them it’s not real. i was scared bc i thought they’d turn into sth scary so i wouldn’t interact with them too much.
    a couple more false awakenings later, i told my mom everything (in my dream) and told her im trapped what do i do.. she didn’t help.. maybe she just couldn’t but then one other false awakening (that was just one split second of a scary dark figure in my bedroom) later, i finally woke up.. but i was tired so i didn’t wait before going back to sleep and got stuck again. happened twice so finally i have decided to not sleep back.
    those were 15 false awakenings (to say the least) in a row. could be wrong with the sequence and didn’t mention what the dreams were but most of the dreams were scary bc when i started finding clues that it isn’t real, things would scare me. the rest were just creepy based on fears i didn’t even know i had.. and the others were weird and terrible like the ones u can’t tell anyone. only the first 2 were like normal dreams and like 2 other were lucid.
    this happened before but it’s worse now & longer and more distressing. ik it’s long lol whoever read it thanks for listening. i couldn’t find a shorter way to write this i still have my head & breath kinda heavy

  7. I am not sure where to categorize my experiences. And it is a regular happening. In so much that I try to avoid afternoon naps – even though I might be bone tired.

    These experiences almost always happen in a noon or afternoon nap.

    I become aware that I am sleeping and dreaming. Then almost immediately I became aware of my surroundings. And it is my exact reality. My house, people talking, dog barking etc. And I know I have to wake up – but can not move.

    Then I force myself to wake up. Put the kettle on, even talk to whoever is nearby – just to realize I am still dreaming. So the struggle starts, dreaming that force me awake, doing stuff, and then find myself paralyzed in bed still. This repeats itself over and over until I eventually really wake up.

    By that time my head feels like stale cotton and is hurting like hell and I am exhausted. Like a zombie then for at least 2 days.

    Would this then be sleep paralysis going over in false awakening and visa versa in a circle?

    1. Ahh this is me! Stubbled across this article for the exact reason. I had a nap and ended up in one of those horrible states. A lot of the time I’m battling with bad things happening, like a reality check, the moment I realise, crap I’m still sleeping, bad things start to happen, such as someone starts breaking in or something like that. This time it was a ghost controlling my movements. All so very strange and I feel like I’ve been stuck on a loop for hours! When I do really wake up I am so panicked and thankful to be really aware, I daren’t fall back to sleep no matter how tired I am. It’s exhausting in itself!

  8. I had one false awakening in my life, although I do have scary things sometimes at night. This daytime one was not scary. I was a teen or in my early twenties, still living at home, and sleeping in the basement because it was hot in the summer. My parents had gone to work. I woke up, I thought, and started up the stairs. That’s when I realized I was light, which is always my indicator that I’m “in this state.” I saw through the windows that it was a cloudy day. I went to the kitchen. The stove clock said 11:10. I started trying to see how high I could jump in my weightless state. It was kind of like jumping on a trampoline. Each time I went higher until everything around me was gray, although I don’t remember going through the ceiling, attic, or roof. I felt that I should go back and instantly dropped back into my body and sat up with a gasp, awake. I could see through the windows that it was cloudy out, and when I went to the kitchen, the stove clock said 11:15. About five minutes had passed since I had looked at it in the “state.” I only wished that I had thought, when I discovered my lightness on the stairs, to go back and look at the couch I was sleeping on to see if my body was there.

  9. I’ve been struggling with nested dreams which I sometimes believe move through episodes of sleep paralysis since I was 13. I’m 29 now and lately, it feels like it has been getting worse. I wake up so tired like I barely slept at all. I use to feel like if I slept on my side and recognized when it happened, I could awaken easily. I did. I do this think stress and pain seem to amplify these episodes more. I try my best to soothe, sleep earlier, listen to meditation music, self-talk, journal, but my anxiety about it doesn’t go away. I try to forget what I see often to have it be easier to go back to sleep. Last night, I remember waking up in a dream trying to move, smile, and just felt as though I was discombobulated (if that makes sense). I thought I woke up plenty of times only to realize I didnt. I finally woke up to see it was 3:13am ..understanding I had finally woken up. Often I think, I did wake up but I am in such a trans of sleep as well that it is hard for me to actually get up because all my mind wants to do is go back to sleep. I often hear familiar voices in these dreams, voices on TV, of family, friends, workers..it’s so strange. I really would like to be a person that can get up nice and early and get the day started but this makes it so hard. I know something is probably bothering me at my core and facing it is difficult – I wonder if this holds similar for others..even if I have a good day..sometimes I am aware something is still bothering me. A few years back, I think i was so anxious I woke up with my hands clasped around the head board really tight and I had to unwire my fingers around it when I woke up. I dont see extremely scary things but more so eerie some nights and other nights just feels like someone is messing with me and I see playful things. I have often found tuning into myself when I am really aware that it’s a dream, finding a way to not panic, and then calling on to God or believing in my own power works. I also think the part about it being a mental rehearsal is true, I have had that happen at times..where I am stressed about a situation and see that play out multiple times until I actually wake up.

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