False Awakening: Dreaming About Waking Up

a man dreaming he is 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 a fantasy breakfast to find yourself back in bed?

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

Dreaming about waking

False awakenings are often remarkably vivid dreams in which you think you’ve woken up. But later, you’ll wake up in your bed for real, remembering that you had just dreamed about waking up.

Sound confusing? It certainly can be for many people.

In this article, I’ll be looking at false awakenings and ways to manage them; you’ll find practical techniques for preventing them if they’re upsetting you.

You’ll also discover ways to become aware that you’re dreaming. And potentially 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 vivid and real it can seem. So 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 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

For some people though, there might be a few more episodes yet before the eventual real waking. 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 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 wonder whether you’re still dreaming or not.

What causes false awakenings?

There’s no scientific consensus on the cause of false awakenings. It’s understandably a difficult area to research, and there’s very little written about it in medical sources.

The two most common theories are:

Worry or anxiety

If you’re worrying about something important the next day, you might dream about it – 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 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 anxiety could influence your dream and create a false awakening.

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 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 sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder 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 of course also be very 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 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, it might help to speak to your doctor about it. They might consider the following options:

  • Dream rehearsal therapy (see the article about nightmares for more on this).
  • Anxiety or stress treatment if it’s 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, 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 afterward 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.
  • Try blinking rapidly.
  • Focus your gaze on one thing in the dream.
  • If there’s a mirror, try and 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.

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

artistic image of a woman dreamingIf you’re the adventurous type, the idea of lucid dreaming may be an exciting and fun one.

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 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.

Becoming aware that you’re dreaming isn’t always so easy though, especially when you just dreamed that you woke up!

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.
  • In a familiar room, try moving into the next room or hallway. You might find it changes into something which shouldn’t be there.
  • Try to read any writing, numbers or symbols in the dream. Reading can be difficult in dreams and the 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 even asking yourself if you’re dreaming, you very likely are.
  • 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 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 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 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 perhaps patience and a little luck are required if you’re to master the art of lucid dreaming.

Ways to prevent false awakenings

Lucid dreaming won’t appeal to everyone; if you have bad dreams, you might be more interested in stopping them altogether. And of course, controlling your dreams can be easier said than done.

In this case, there are some techniques which might help prevent them. Or at the very least, 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 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 calming mindfulness exercises.
  • 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.
  • Keep to a regular sleep pattern and don’t allow yourself to become overly 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 you story and views in the comments below. I’m sure other readers will also find your experience useful and interesting.

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