Your alarm goes off. You sit up, rub your eyes, get out of bed, and stagger toward the kitchen to make coffee and feed the howling cat.
Ten minutes later, the cat is purring and you’re enjoying your first sip of coffee when — the alarm goes off again.
Lying in bed, you wonder if you’re really awake this time, perhaps even pinching yourself before making a move to get up.
A false awakening refers to the strange experience of “waking up” when you actually remain asleep. It can involve vivid, realistic images that leave you feeling anxious and confused.
Some people also experience nested dreams, or more than one false awakening on the same occasion.
Sleep paralysis, which usually happens as you start to fall asleep or wake up, isn’t quite the same as a false awakening.
Research does suggest, however, that many people who experience one often experience the other.
With sleep paralysis, you briefly lose the ability to talk or move your muscles. You might also find it somewhat difficult to breathe.
Some people also hallucinate with an episode of sleep paralysis. It might seem as if someone else is in your room with you or holding you down on your bed.
The key difference between sleep paralysis and a false awakening is that sleep paralysis happens when you’re awake, not dreaming.
Sleep paralysis typically occurs when you move from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep into wakefulness. Your brain wakes up, but your muscles remain temporarily paralyzed, just as they are during REM sleep.
No, but you might feel a sense of something bad coming depending on the type of false awakening you experience.
According to researcher Celia Green, PhD, in her book “Lucid Dreaming: The Paradox of Consciousness During Sleep,” there are two main types of false awakenings:
- Type 1. A type 1 false awakening proceeds in a fairly straightforward way. After “waking up,” you do the same things you typically would. This type often won’t feel scary as it happens, though you might feel disoriented or somewhat distressed once you actually wake up.
- Type 2. With this type, you might wake up with a sense of foreboding or feel convinced something strange or bad is about to happen. This type of false awakening could resemble sleep paralysis, especially if you dream you wake up and can’t move or escape from some type of malicious presence in your room. When you do wake up, though, you’ll be able to move normally.
While type 2 false awakenings can feel unnerving, there’s no evidence to suggest they actually mean something bad is about to happen.
Similar to lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis, false awakenings are considered one of the hybrid, or overlap, states between sleep and wakefulness.
Many people who experience false awakenings also have lucid dreams.
In a lucid dream, you realize you’re dreaming. This knowledge allows you to maintain some control over your surroundings and even change the course of the dream.
There’s also some evidence to suggest lucid dreams commonly end in false awakenings. You might even “wake up” and start describing your dream to someone else before truly waking up.
A false awakening can become a lucid dream, especially if you begin to notice certain details that differ slightly from reality.
For example, your furniture might not be in the usual place, your lamp might not turn on, or you might open a book and find you can’t read any of the words.
Suspecting you aren’t actually awake might lead you to try manipulating the dream in some way or telling yourself to wake up.
To date, there’s not much research on false awakenings, and experts have yet to determine exactly what causes them. As with sleep paralysis, they may relate to disrupted REM sleep.
A few suggested explanations for false awakenings include:
- sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea
- anticipation, or knowing you need to wake up early for a specific reason
- noise and other disturbances that interrupt your sleep without fully waking you up
Stress and anxiety in your daily life can also have an impact on sleep and potentially appear in your dreams.
If you’re worried about something that’s going to happen shortly after waking up, you might dream about waking up and getting ready to face the stressful event. These stressful events can include:
- a difficult exam
- dentist’s appointment
- job interview
Research from 2011 offers another potential explanation for false awakenings.
According to the theory of dream protoconsciousness, your brain prepares for consciousness during REM sleep, using its internal representation of your everyday world.
This model serves as a starting place for your dreams, the theory suggests. But most dreams include plenty of other elements that make them seem much less realistic.
False awakenings could happen when hyperarousal, or increased alertness, during REM sleep keeps you from experiencing more typical dreams, like those involving flying, falling, and other surreal happenings.
Instead, the dreams may rely on more specific memories of familiar surroundings and your typical daily routine.
As strange as they might feel, false awakenings generally don’t pose any cause for medical concern. There’s no evidence to suggest that they occur as a symptom of any physical or mental health condition.
That said, it’s worth looking into any unusual occurrence that regularly disrupts your sleep. False awakenings could happen along with other symptoms that do have a more serious cause.
Talk to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist if you also notice any of the following symptoms:
- trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- fatigue or exhaustion after several hours in bed
- daytime sleepiness
- frequent nightmares
Improving the sleep you get each night could help reduce the frequency of false awakenings. Here are some general pointers for better sleep:
- Turn off your phone and other electronics at least 1 hour before bedtime.
- Use our sleep calculator to figure out how much sleep you need.
- Take some time to wind down before bed.
Mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, can also contribute to disturbing dreams and affect the quality of your sleep.
It’s a good idea to reach out to a therapist for any mental health symptoms that don’t improve after a week or two, especially if mood changes occur along with physical health symptoms, such as changes in your sleep habits.
False awakenings can feel very unsettling, especially if they happen often. It’s hard enough to get out of bed once, much less a second time (or third, or fourth).
Like all dreams, false awakenings will end eventually. If they become a regular annoyance or keep you from getting restful sleep, talking to a sleep specialist may be a good option.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.