What Is False Awakening and Lucid Dreaming?

Thinking You've Woken Up When You're Still Asleep

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Have you ever woken up only to find that you are still dreaming? This is a common sleep event known as false awakening. While false awakenings often occur for no reason, there are certain conditions that may cause them, including sleep disorders that disrupt REM sleep.

This article looks at the science of false awakenings, including the types, causes, and symptoms of this common dream state.

man reaching to turn off alarm clock

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Types

Sleep scientists divide false awakenings into two types:

  • Type 1 false awakening is a dream state in which nothing special happens. The person may dream about doing mundane things like getting up, taking a shower, and getting dressed. At some point, the dreamer may realize that something is not right and wake up.
  • Type 2 false awakening is a nightmare state that involves tense, anxious, or frightening images or feelings. The dreamer may or may not be jolted awake by a scare.

Both type 1 and type 2 involve vivid dreams in which the feelings, images, and events are so intense and life-like that you feel that they are real and remember them the next morning.

Symptoms

In simple terms, a false awakening is thinking you are awake while you are dreaming. They are very common, and almost every person will have them at some point in their life. With that said, the symptoms can vary from one person to the next.

The features of a false awakening may include:

  • Lucid dreaming: When a dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming
  • Pre-lucid dreaming: When a dreamer starts to wonder if they are dreaming (even if they don't become fully lucid)
  • Directed dreaming: When a person in a lucid dream takes control over what happens in the dream
  • Looping: When a person keeps "waking up" again and again in a dream
  • Non-realism: When things don't make sense in a dream (such as spaces with impossible proportions) or the dreamer cannot do things (like talk or scream)
  • Dissociation: An out-of-body experience in which the dreamer perceives the dream as an outside observer
  • Sleep paralysis: The temporary inability to move or speak after waking up

Recap

Although false awakenings are very common, the symptoms can vary from one person to the next. The dream may be mundane or scary, realistic or non-realistic, or lucid or non-lucid,

Causes

Vivid dreams are more likely to occur during REM sleep, the stage of deep sleep that involves rapid eye movements. Some experts believe that false awakenings occur when REM sleep is interrupted. This is a form of sleep fragmentation, also known as divided sleep.

It is thought that when REM sleep is disturbed, the person may be partially conscious even if they remain in a dream state.

Causes of sleep fragmentation include:

  • Insomnia: A common sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Sleep apnea: A disorder in which there are frequent and/or lengthy pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS): The repetitive jerking, cramping, or twitching of the legs during sleep
  • Narcolepsy: A disorder in which a person will suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times
  • Environment: Including sleep interruptions caused by noise or bright lights

All of the conditions can affect the quality of sleep and, in turn, cause subtle breaks in REM sleep.

Recap

False awakenings are thought to be caused by interruptions in REM sleep. Causes of fragmented sleep include insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and a noisy environment.

Coping

As false awakenings are not linked to any illness, mental or physical, they are not usually something to worry about. But if a dream recurs and is very upsetting, it can lead to anxiety, depression, somniphobia (the fear of going to sleep), and sleep deprivation.

If this occurs, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist known as a somnologist. The specialist may recommend a treatment known as dream rehearsal therapy in which you create and practice non-scary endings to recurring nightmares. Some studies have shown that the practice is very useful in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The high blood pressure drug Minipress (prazosin) is also sometimes used to reduce nightmares in people with PTSD.

Summary

A false awakening is a common dream event in which you think you've awakened even though you're still dreaming. The symptoms can vary from one person to the next. Some dreams may be realistic, mundane, and straightforward, while others may be bizarre, frightening, and repetitive.

Although false awakenings often occur for no reason, some experts believe that they are the result of subtle breaks in REM sleep.

A Word From Verywell

If you have disruptive or disturbing dreams, speak with your doctor or a board-certified sleep specialist about treatments that may help. This usually starts by diagnosing the underlying cause using a sleep study or other techniques.

It is important to see a doctor if a sleep disorder is causing chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, loss of memory or concentration, or changes in your mental state.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes false awakenings?

    Researchers are still unclear, but some believe they involve a disruption of REM sleep. This could happen when your sleep is disturbed by noises or when you're feeling anxious.

  • Can you stop false awakenings from happening?

    Getting a good night's sleep is probably the best way to prevent false awakenings. That's because they tend to happen when your sleep is disturbed. Speak with your doctor if you have frequent problems with falling and staying asleep.

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