What Is The Meaning and Cause Of False Awakening Dreams?

6 Min Read | By Nicholas Barber

Last Modified 15 September 2023   First Added 10 June 2022

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

What Is The Meaning and Cause Of False Awakening Dreams?

False awakening can involve vivid, realistic images that leave you feeling confused and anxious. So if it has happened to you, it’s only natural for you to be curious to understand why it happened, what it means and, if you found it traumatic, if there’s anything you can do to prevent it happening again.

In this article we explore the science of false awakening that can happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep including the types, causes, and symptoms of this common dream state.

Related: What Are Reoccurring Dreams and How Do They Happen?

What are false awakening dreams?

False awakening is defined as, “a vivid and convincing dream about awakening from sleep, while the dreamer in reality continues to sleep.”

In contrast to normal dreams, which are often nonsensical fantasies, false awakenings are usually completely mundane. You may think you’ve woken up in your bed, or that you’re in a familiar place like your office.

An NCBI study into the phenomenon found the setting may be identical to real life or there may be small details that are different, such as lights that don’t turn on, or doors that don’t lead where they’re supposed to.

Sleep scientists separate false awakenings into two types:

  • Type 1 – a dream state in which nothing out of the ordinary happens. You may dream about doing everyday things like getting up, taking a shower, and getting dressed. At some point, you may realise that something’s not right and wake up.
  • Type 2 – a nightmare state that involves you feeling tense, anxious, or frightening images or feelings. You may or may not be jolted awake by a scare.

According to research by the American Psychological Association, the kind of activities you may experience during a false awakening include:

  • Waking up in the middle of the night and going to the bathroom or kitchen, then returning to bed
  • Exploring or wandering around the dream environment
  • Thinking about a dream you just had before the false awakening, in the belief that you’re now awake.

The false awakening dream


Beep, beep, beep! Your bedside alarm’s ringing pulls you out of a fantastic dream about living on a desert island. You stretch, yawn and sit up. Oh well, back to reality. Turning off the alarm, you flop out of bed and stagger zombie-like towards the bathroom.

Five minutes later, you’re downstairs in the kitchen making a round of toast and a cup of tea when the alarm goes off again. What on earth?

Lying in bed, you pinch yourself to to work out if you’re really awake this time, before making the effort to get up again. This time for real!

What causes false awakening dreams?

Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly what causes false awakening. However, they‘ve found it often happens when the sleeper is anticipating something stressful, such as an episode of insomnia. If this happens, you may be more likely to experience a false awakening because you can’t relax enough to drop off to sleep.

Although the exact cause is a grey area, according to one study some potential causes of sleep fragmentation may include:

  • Insomnia: a chronic sleeping condition that can affect your ability to stay focused and well rested
  • Sleep apnea: a disorder in which you have frequent pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Narcolepsy: which causes you to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times

False awakenings may also be triggered by a nightmare or by sleep paralysis, according to the Sleep Foundation. They’re often linked to the morning wake-up process. But if you suffer fragmented sleep, you’ll find false awakenings can also often occur in the middle of the night.

How does false awakening differ to sleep paralysis or lucid dreaming?

A study by the The National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has revealed close links between REM sleep phenomena like lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, and false awakening. And they are more common than we might think. Of those surveyed for the research, 88% had experienced at least one of these phenomena.

However, there are major differences. During lucid dreams, you’re actually aware that you’re dreaming. You can even influence the outcome of the dream. Conversely, in sleep paralysis, you wake up but your body is frozen as if paralysed. Another investigation by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM) found that the brain is not awake during sleep paralysis but in a dreaming state, explaining why hallucinations are often associated with sleep paralysis.

Are false awakening dreams harmful?

Don’t panic! If you’ve ever been distressed by a vivid episode of false awakening, please feel reassured that the experts don’t believe they’re harmful. As false awakenings aren’t linked to any illness, mental or physical, they’re not usually something to worry about.

However, like other events that happen at the margin between being awake and asleep, false awakenings may sometimes provoke fear, unease, or anxiety. If a dream recurs and is traumatising, it can lead to anxiety, depression, somniphobia (the fear of going to sleep), and sleep deprivation.

According to the Sleep Foundation, false awakenings can also happen multiple times in a row, which may be distressing if you feel like you’re unable to wake up. Similarly, false awakenings may lead to false memories, in which you remember having done something but then later discover it was all just a dream.

How do I stop false awakening dreams?

By and large, there’s no treatment for false awakening. However, if you are suffering from frequent and upsetting episodes that are affecting you, it could be a sign of an underlying worry or general anxiety.

If your mental health is suffering from repeat false awakenings or other REM sleep phenomena, the first thing to do is talk to your doctor for advice on how to sleep more soundly. Actions you could take, which can also apply to sleeping disorders in general, include:

  • Stick to a regular sleep pattern, and try to avoid becoming sleep deprived
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants, especially in the evening
  • Try to calm your mind before going to sleep
  • Exercise regularly. Try taking a short walk in the evening before bed.
  • If you do have a false awakening, get out of bed for about 10 minutes before trying to sleep again.

Related: How To Fall Asleep Fast – Quick & Simple Tips | The Sleep Matters Club (dreams.co.uk)

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