False Awakening and Lucid Dreaming May Disturb REM Sleep

Fragmented States of Consciousness May Lead to Confusion and Anxiety

A man reaches to turn off his alarm clock after a false awakening and nightmare disturbed his REM sleep dreaming
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If you have ever had a dream in which you thought you had awakened but instead remained asleep, you are all too familiar with the concept of a false awakening. What is a false awakening and what does it mean? How is it related to lucid dreaming? Do false awakenings require treatment? Learn more about this interesting phenomenon of sleep and how it might interact with dreams and nightmares.

Defining Two Types of False Awakenings

False awakening occurs when an individual dreams about waking but in fact remains asleep. It is a fairly common occurrence. Almost everyone who remembers their dreams experiences them at some point in life.

Interestingly, false awakenings may occur repeatedly; like a Russian nesting doll, the dreams and false awakenings may be layered within one another. As a result, the dreamer believes they have finally awakened yet they continue to sleep only to falsely awaken yet again, sometimes numerous times.

False awakenings may be associated with anxiety and confusion about whether you are in fact asleep or awake. They may also be associated with an out-of-body experience in which the affected person is separated from his or her body and perceives it like an outside observer. This is called dissociation.

In addition, false awakenings may be linked with lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon by which the sleeping person becomes partly aware of the dream state and takes control of the narrative. This can allow directed dreaming, in which you can choose what you do in your dream.

False awakenings are divided into two types. Type 1 is characterized by mundane activities of waking: getting up, taking a shower, getting dressed, having breakfast, and leaving for work. At some point, the dreamer realizes something is not quite right and this may provoke a true awakening in which the person recognizes it was just a vivid dream.

Type 2 false awakenings are described as less pleasant with a more tense or ominous feeling. These may be associated with hallucinations or apparitions of foreboding people or monsters. Such events are more likely to be considered nightmares and may have associated anxiety.

Why Do False Awakenings Occur?

False awakenings may suggest a degree of dream and sleep fragmentation. It is possible for the brain to be in multiples states of consciousness or sleep simultaneously. One might imagine that with false awakenings the part of the brain that is responsible for consciousness may be activated while the part that generates vivid dreaming persists.

Sleep may be fragmented for many potential reasons, including:

  • Sleep apnea (often associated with snoring, witnessed pauses in breathing, gasping or choking, teeth grinding, frequent urination at night, or excessive daytime sleepiness)
  • Periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS)
  • Insomnia (frequent awakenings with difficulty returning to sleep)
  • Environmental noise (causing awakenings)
  • Other causes

When consciousness is more fully attained, waking from REM sleep may trigger the symptoms of sleep paralysis. In addition, intense fragmentation of sleep and wakefulness may frequently occur in narcolepsy

As false awakenings occur commonly without any associated psychiatric or physical illness, it is unlikely that they represent any abnormal pathology. Instead, it is a frequent manifestation of dreaming that does not require any treatment. If recurrent dream content proves to be upsetting, dream rehearsal therapy can be employed. This treatment involves redirecting the storyline of the dreams to be less upsetting, often to an alternative ending that is less nightmarish.

It may be necessary to treat anxiety if this is identified. In the setting of PTSD, medications like prazosin may be helpful to relieve nightmares. Antidepressant medications can also be useful to suppress REM sleep, and this may reduce the frequency of these false awakenings.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing disruptive or disturbing dreams, speak with your doctor or a board-certified sleep specialist about some of the options available to help you to sleep better. In some cases, identifying an underlying sleep disorder may lead to full resolution of the occurrences. Medications may also be used if other therapy fails to resolve the false awakenings and they are disruptive.

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