Have you ever been convinced that you’d woken up from sleep, but in fact, you were still dreaming? If so you might have experienced a false awakening.
A false awakening happens when the dreamer wakes up during their dream only to realise they are still dreaming and wake up later on. While the dreamer believes they are awake, they might go through the motions of turning off an alarm, getting out of bed and eating breakfast. However, they will then suddenly find themselves waking up for real, still in bed.
How Does False Awakening Happen in Regular and Lucid Dreams?
False awakenings are a mix of sleeping and waking states of consciousness. Our brains are in a kind of semi-conscious state; not quite awake but not fully asleep either. Actually, many sleep disturbances happen during this mixed brain state, including lucid dreams and sleep paralysis.
During lucid dreams, the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. They can even influence the outcome of the dream. In sleep paralysis, the dreamer wakes, but their body is frozen as if paralysed. However, false awakenings are not the same as sleep paralysis or lucid dreaming. The dreamer might experience paralysis but only within the dream. Once they have actually woken up they can move as normal.
False awakenings occur during regular dreams and lucid dreaming. Sometimes, during a false awakening in a dream, the dreamer can become aware that something feels a little ‘off’ in the dream. They get a sense that all is not quite as it should be.
They can also occur several times within one dream. The dreamer can believe they have woken up many times while they are dreaming. They then wake up properly, only to discover that all the previous times they were still asleep. False awakenings that occur again and again within the same dream are ‘nested’ dreams.
2 Types of False Awakening
There are two types of false awakening:
Type 1 is the more common kind of false awakening. Type 1 false awakenings happen once or twice a year. Here the dreamer goes about their normal business of waking up. For instance, they might get out of bed, turn on the shower, prepare breakfast, wake their children up, etc.
During this type of awakening, the dreamer may or may not notice that their surroundings are a little strange. The environment might not be realistic to them. For instance, they might wake up somewhere other than their bedroom.
A typical type 1 false awakening occurs where the dreamer believes he or she has overslept and is late for work. They ‘wake up’ in their dream but in reality, are still asleep in bed. Only when they wake up properly do they understand what has happened. It is a surprise to the dreamer but not overly worrying.
Type 2 is a rarer kind of false awakening. Type 2 false awakenings can occur several times in one night. Here the dreamer is aware of a sense of foreboding. They know something is wrong but can’t put their finger on it.
In these types of false awakenings, the dreamer wakes to an atmosphere of tension or stress. They are immediately apprehensive upon waking. They feel suspicious and uncomfortable. The environment feels weird although the dreamer can’t quite account for what’s wrong. They just know something isn’t right.
Causes of False Awakening in Dreams
False awakenings in dreams are associated with broken or disturbed sleep patterns.
- Frequent getting up to use the toilet
- Teeth grinding
- Daytime tiredness
- Environmental noises
- Restless leg syndrome
False awakening dreams are linked to mixed brain states and/or underlying anxiety. Mixed brain states are associated more with Type 1 awakenings, whereas anxiety is linked to Type 2 awakenings.
Mixed brain states
There is still much we don’t know about the brain and various levels of consciousness. In particular, the possibility that our brains can experience several states of consciousness at once.
So, in effect, we can be asleep and dreaming but also awake at the same time. It is during this mixed brain state that we become confused. Are we awake or still asleep? If our brain is in that grey area between two states of consciousness, it’s not surprising that we’re not sure whether we’re dreaming or have woken up.
Most people will experience false awakening dreams once or twice a year. In these cases, a specific event will trigger the awakening. For example, you might have an important job interview the next day and you dream that you’ve overslept and missed it.
Anxiety or worry
On the other hand, some people experience recurring and frequent false awakenings in their dreams. This is linked to underlying anxiety or worry in real-life that is not being addressed.
These awakenings are associated with the Type 2 dreams where you feel uneasy upon waking. You awake to an over-riding sense of foreboding. Experts believe that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you need to face up to the problem or worry in your life. In a sense, this is your subconscious giving you a wake-up call. Your brain is literally waking you up twice.
False Awakening in Lucid Dreams
False awakenings occur in lucid dreaming. The lucid dreamer is aware of being in a dream. As such, to some extent, they can control what happens and what they do.
There are two separate elements of control within lucid dreaming;
- Manipulation of the environment or the characters within it
- Control over one’s own actions within the dream
False awakenings appear to be linked to the lucid dreamer exerting self-control, rather than manipulating their dream environment. In fact, lucid dreamers are more likely to experience false awakenings.
Symptoms of False Awakening in Dreams
In Type 1 and Type 2 false awakening dreams, there are clues that can signal you are not awake. These are usually a single thing that appears out of place. For example, a person you wouldn’t expect to see, or an object in your house that shouldn’t be there.
You will usually have a sense that something is not quite right. But there are ways you can test yourself. Look at your environment carefully; are the windows and doors straight and the right size? Does the clock face have the right numbers on it?
It is important to recognise what is out of place. This is for two reasons:
- It is a clue that makes you aware that you are still dreaming.
- It can lead to the underlying problem that’s worrying you.
Dream analyst Kari Hohn reminds us:
“We dream about what we’re not facing during the day. If we block something out of consciousness, it can appear in our dreams.”
Dreaming allows us to process the thoughts and experiences of the day. Even subconscious ones.
Is There a Treatment for False Awakenings?
Generally speaking, there is no treatment for this kind of sleep disorder. However, if you are suffering from frequent and upsetting false awakenings that are affecting you, it could be a sign of an underlying worry or general anxiety.
In this case, talking therapy might be sufficient to get to the root of your anxiety. Once the worry or stress has been dealt with, your sleep should return to normal. Only if the awakenings are causing you serious distress will you be offered some kind of sleep or dream therapy. Medication may be used to control the symptoms of disturbed sleep.
How to Wake Up from a False Awakening?
Those that are experienced in lucid dreaming will already know how to manipulate the environment in their dreams. However, for anyone who does not experience lucid dreaming, it can be more difficult.
For all the regular dreamers who are not expert lucid dreamers, there are ways to wake up properly from a dream.
- Test your surroundings by focusing on one thing in your dream.
- Ask yourself – does this seem real to me?
- Try controlling what you’re doing, e.g. running or walking.
- Pinch yourself in the dream; does it hurt?
- Tell yourself to wake up right now.
- Move your fingers or toes and continue from there.
How to Turn False Awakenings into Lucid Dreams
Establishing control allows us to feel better about ourselves and the situation we’re in. Turning false awakenings into lucid dreaming is a good way of getting back control. Try the following if you believe you are experiencing a false awakening:
- Do the same thing every day upon waking up. This is your baseline of knowing whether you are still dreaming or not. For instance, always put your slippers on the left foot then right. Then, if this doesn’t happen, you’ll know you are still asleep.
- Find a mirror and look at your reflection. In one study, a woman experienced multiple false awakenings only realised she was still asleep because she happened to glance at her reflection and there was nothing there.
- Look at the clock face and see if you can tell the time. When we dream, our brains shut down the area in our brain responsible for language and numbers. As a result, we find it hard to read clocks and watches when we are dreaming.
Is False Awakening Dangerous?
It is important to remember that false awakenings, in themselves, are not harmful. However, recurrent and Type 2 awakenings do suggest that all is not well with the dreamer. It’s possible that some stress or worry is not being addressed. In this case, therapy to discover the underlying anxiety is the best way forward.
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