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.

637 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have had nested dreams a lot lately. It actually scares me because the first time I think I really am awake but the second time I wake up I know I am in a dream. So I try to wake up but I can’t I do end up waking up only to find out I am still asleep. Then I try once again to wake myself up by slapping myself or screaming for help. But I wake once again to find out I am still asleep. Usually happens about 4-6 times before I really wake up, and when I do wake up I get up imediatly and don’t go back to sleep. I hate it when it happens because I am usually screaming (in my dream) for somebody to come get me to wake up but no one comes.

  • 3 out of 5 times I know the dream is going to be a nightmare and that’s when I try to wake myself up. Its awful having full awareness and trying to wake myself over and over again. Each time becoming more sure you’re stuck waiting for what ever scary things your mind conjures up, yet knowing its happened before and you woke up fine and nothing scary came just the hundreds of false wake ups

    The other times I can control what happens make my dream do what I want
    Lucid dreams can be fun but the other times they are terrifying

  • Just happened to me, had a Batman cartoon dream (not bad), woke up saw my “s.o. woke me up to do laundry”. I said “okay no problem I had a really bad dream and kept talking. “ Then I woke up foreal and continued conversation and she said “I’m trying to sleep wtf r u talking about” might go to bed again and set alarms

  • Just this morning, I dreamt about waking up in a dream. I was aware that I am dreaming, so I tried waking up but I can’t. I do think I was experiencing sleep paralysis at that moment. So I struggled waking up, until I roll over the bed and was awake. I cannot remember the stuff after that but then moments later, I woke up again only to realize that I was still dreaming and the previous waking up was just a dream. It was weird and tiring.

  • I have it all the time, mostly when I go sleep for a few hours in the midday.

    I wake up in a dream in a dream in a dream in …. like 5 – 6 times, its really scary, and you feel that your brain is overworking – even in the dream –

    Mostly I wake up and recognize the taste of toothbrush, or something really strange / scary that takes me back in the vivid dream.

    A lot of times I realize that I’m dreaming, I try to move my mouth and wake up, and then I am in another dream lol….

    I have it almost every time, when I go to sleep in the midday. It is pretty cool though cause when you realize you’re dreaminig you can imagine huge 3D objects and just enjoy looking at them with your imagination, for me, who usually has a hard time imagining objects, its pretty cool.

  • Four false awakenings in the same dream at one time, back to back. Glad to know im not the only one.

    Trying to wake up each time and it’s as if my eyes are glued shut and can’t move.

    Annoying that u can’t get up. Feels like an unwanted stranger is playing your mind instead of you. And you are aware of the unwanted stranger.

    Thanks for the read.

  • Sleep deprivation causes false awakening that leds to lucid dreaming. This is based on my experience, I am 23 and i have this false awakening in the past and until now. I work at night and sleep at the morning but I can’t get a solid 7 or 8 hours sleep unfortunately. This happens when you’re having a hard time to adjust in certain changes of your schedules. This forum helps me understand and feel that I am not alone.

  • hi guys, do any of you love nightmares, since puberty, 11 / 12 years old i’ve been able to have the most epic lucid dreams, im now 45 and its getting to be a problem where i can incorporate my alarm clock in to my dream and turn it off, which leaves me late for work, i love my nightmares, if i dont like how its going, i just rewind to where it started going soft and start a new avenue of horror, and go again, does any else have that ability, and how do i stop it?

  • I just woke up from a string of false awakenings. I ‘woke up’ 4 or 5 times in my dream and was convinced I was really awake. At first my dream was very vivid and strange to begin with then it gradually got very whimsical yet twisted. I was flying, body shapes were changing, people were multiplying. Then I ‘woke up’ and walked down the hall to the bathroom but it was the same room as in my dream and when I became aware is when I ‘woke up’ again to what sounded like a radio that was on outside and when I looked is when I realized that was coming from my room. I became fully aware at this point and told myself to look at my phone and if it was strange then I was still dreaming. It was not normal and I knew I was dreaming. In my dream I stood up in my room and slapped myself but I could not feel it, again I knew I was dreaming. My dream then took yet another twisted turn and I was convinced that I was stuck in this nightmare forever, in Hell. I woke up for real this time, checked my phone and slapped myself to make sure I was awake, which I was. It felt like I was choking in my dream and upon waking my throat feels strange, my heart is racing from terror, I am sweaty and terrified to sleep again.

    I have a HUGE life change coming up in about a week or so and this anxiety may have triggered the dream loops. I have had sleep paralysis once and often struggle with bouts of insomnia. I hope this helps someone struggling. Maybe if it happens again I will take Myself on a less terrifying adventure

  • I currently can’t sleep it’s 6am. I had a horrible string if dreams within dreams. It started with me waking up to a world ending earthquake to me waking up to my roomate in my room and my breathing stopping. I woke up for real. Half asleep i set my alarm and fell back into the same series of dreams. Each time my roomates tv got louder and i was more on edge. I finally got up in my dream suspicious it wasmt real to go into an unknown room and turned the tv on. My dad somehow showre up amd suffocated me with dog food. Then i woke up and it was so realistic this time. It was bright out and my roomates dogs came in as usual and i was like ok the dreams stopped..and then one of the dogs turned into a giant monster and the other a pink goat and i screamed until i really woke up.

    Never being sleep deprived again. Absolutely horrifying

  • The other morning I went back to bed after making breakfast for my s.o and I went to sleep and I woke up in my bathroom and I told myself I was dreaming but I was too scared to walk out or try anything I just tried to wake myself up…. Why am I so afraid to explore my dreams? There was more too my dream but I can’t really remember much anymore

  • Just today I dreamt of being awake in a dream but ends up I’m really not awake in reality! This was my second time so I thought that I should move a toe but when I did, I think it was just in my dream that I moved it! I also screamed to myself to roll over the bed I’m in so that when I fall I’ll wake up eventually but it reality I never moved an inch! I was really scared but a few moments later I woke up! Maybe it takes time for us to wake up from that scary dream!

  • I just had a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. I thought I woke up about 5 times. But figured out I hadn’t n I couldn’t wake up. I was also freaking out. It’s 3:22 am n I’m writing this. My surroundings were different n there was some weird words playing in the background on what I think was a clock radio. It was muffled n I thought I should try to listen to what it was talking about but I was afraid. so I concentrated on waking myself up. My body moved in the dream but I noticed it was not real so i continued to try to move my body parts n telling myself to wake up. Very scary n not interested in exploring.

  • I keep having reoccurring nested nightmares where I’m in bed and awake to horrible things like having a seizure or evil things attacking me and causing excruciating pain. Inside the dream I try to scream to wake myself but can’t. Inside the dream i physically strain and sweat trying to move in order to wake up but I’m paralyzed. I can’t wake myself up from the dream inside the dream. I then finally falsely wake up and sometimes I’m so afraid I am shaking. I dream that i get out of bed and try to keep from falling asleep but then it happens all over again. Sometimes in a horrible loop of 8-10 false awakenings. Oftentimes when I finally wake up in real life I have tears streaming down my face and I’m covered in sweat. I’m so afraid of these dreams I try to stay awake as much as I can.

  • Okay so I need someone to clarify what is happening.
    It seems like every time I take a nap, I almost always dream the same thing. In the dream, I think I have woken up, and am vividly seeing the room I fell asleep in and whoever was near me, like if I was on the couch and my dad was sitting in his chair, I will see him in the chair. I will start screaming, begging for whoever is in the room to please wake me up. I often will try and pick up my phone and when I do I can’t ever see it in my hand but I can feel it. So I never can use it to get help. I have also had a dream like this where I thought someone broke into my house and still think it was the worst one so far. But mainly, whoever is in the room with me I dream that they get up and put a pillow over my face. When I lived in my dorm it was my roommate, now that I’m back home to save some money while I’m still in college, it has been my stepmom.
    Yesterday I was on the couch and begged my dad who was there when I went to sleep to wake me up. In the dream they either hear me and put a pillow over my face, or they can’t hear me at all. I can’t ever move usually, and if I do it’s tend to one very very hard to. When my eyes actually truly do open, they are Extremely hard to keep open, and usually they close after trying so hard to wake up and I fall right back into the same dream and I will get so irritated “No! No!! You were finally awake!! Wake up wake up!!”. I am always Exhausted after dreaming like this.
    Has anyone else ever experienced something similar?

    • Yes. back when I was stressed out and depressed I dont have those terror dreams anymore but I know exactly what that is like to be able to pick up my phone and not see it once I ‘woke up’ blind and crawling all over my bed trying to wake up

    • I had an experience similar to that.
      I woke up but I wasn’t in my room, (I didn’t notice that at the time) I felt really tired but I decided to get up. I really slowly moved my legs and I eventually got the covers off, then I woke up in the same room again with my eyes closed and I inhaled sharply.
      I thought it was weird and I thought I already took my covers off, so I tried again, very slowly I moved the covers off and very slowly I opened my eyes, it was kinda hard to open my eyes and I could never fully open them, I was always squinting.
      I woke up again, eyes closed, sharp inhale. I kept repeating to myself, that’s weird I thought I did this already, but by the 5th time I realised I was repeating the same thing in a dream.
      I started to freak out and move quickly, that when everything got difficult, all my limbs were now extremely hard to move and even my eyes were hard to open.
      I kept waking up but it was in quick succession now, I would try to move an arm, wake up eyes closed, sharp inhale, I would try and sit up, wake up eyes closed, sharp inhale, this went on for over 20 cycles. I also found out I could start new cycles manually by sharply inhaling,I was aware it was a dream but I couldn’t do anything to stop it.I could also feel my heartbeat, it was really rapid as I was freaking out (later when I woke up for real my heartbeat was immensely fast as well).
      Then I realised that there were other people in the house, I tried to call out to my brother who I could hear in the next room. My throat was sore and my voice was basically non-existent, it was hard to move my mouth. I kept trying to scream to him and eventually he came into my room, he talked to me although I don’t remember what he said, and then he left.
      I then tried to call out to my mother, I could hear her walking around I tried so hard to move my arms to try and hit something off my bedside table so that she would come in, I was also trying to scream for her. I tried banging on the headboard of the bed, I couldn’t hit very hard at all so it didn’t work. I eventually managed to knock something off but she never came in and she never heard me.
      Then I woke up for real and I first thing I did was get up out of the bed.
      It was a terrifying experience.

  • This has happened quite a few times in my life. The past few months I’ve been noticing it has been happening very often like once or twice a week and it’s been scaring me. Mainly because in the past once I woke up for real I’d stay up and it was done and over with. Now at age 24, i can’t control it I wake for real just long enough for me to process I had been dreaming and then I’m pulled into another dream! Even the times in between when I used the bathroom quickly before laying back down I’d still get pulled in.

    At first I thought it was because I’m an insomniac and it’s hard for me to sleep anyway and I was just getting caught up on sleep, but recently I’ve been okay with getting to bed on time and sleeping my required hours. The last time this happened to me and I couldn’t wake for real until I had slept almost 15 hours because I couldn’t wake. I’d wake just long enough to see the time. First 9:30 then at 11 and then 12 and it kept going and going. And sometimes I can tell when I’m dreaming but I cant control anything that I do or say. Its usually when I try is when the dream takes a weird turn like it doesn’t want me to wake up. I’m glad this is actually a common thing and that I’m not as crazy as I thought I am.

  • I had a completely lucid false awakening loop of a dream this morning. It started with me not recognizing my surroundings. I wasn’t in my house, and I was going to bed with my children. That seemed weird so I explored and realized I was dreaming. I had a full on panic attack because I couldn’t wake up. I threw myself around, jumped, screamed at myself to wake up, hit myself, ran around tried holding my eyes open. I probably could have done some really cool stuff if I wasn’t so freaked out. Never want a dream like this again.

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