The False Awakening Loop: Why We Get Stuck In Dreams


It’s happened to all of us, some more than others.

A dream loop.

You wake up in the morning, get out of bed, and start your morning routine; you brush your teeth, take a shower, the works. But then the most curious thing happens. You wake up.

False awakenings, at best, are unnerving. Waking up within a dream, or getting stuck in a loop dream, can be an interesting start to your day, to say the least. At worst, they can be downright terrifying.

false awakening meaning

There’s nothing quite like realizing that what you thought was real was literally all just a dream. As a matter of fact, a false awakening can be so scary that pop culture has capitalized on the fear of being stuck in a dream loop.

Movies like Inception and Nightmare on Elm Street have repeatedly shown characters in circumstances where they wake up over and over again as if they were in a Russian nesting doll of false awakening dreams.

False awakenings are at their worst this way, when there doesn’t seem to be an end to them, constantly having a dream within a dream.

For those who are constantly plagued by what could be classified as nightmares, you may want to figure out what’s going on—and how to stop it. But before we get into that, what exactly are false awakenings?

What is a False Awakening?

Wikipedia describes false awakenings as a ‘convincing dream about awakening from sleep.’

There are variations to this theme, such as the previously mentioned phenomenon of waking up again and again. Very Well categorizes two types of false awakenings.

The first type is a dream in which the dreamer goes about their usual daily routine, until they wake up, sometimes due to a sense that the dream isn’t real.

The second type is one that could be better described as a nightmare. In this type, the dream may consist of monsters or beings that instill a sense of fear in the dreamer.

While the second type is considerably more frightening than the other, false awakenings can still be dreadful, no matter the type. So how exactly do we steer clear of them?

What Science Can Tell Us About False Awakenings

Dreams, as a science, continue to elude us. Despite our modern technology, there is still a lot to be discovered about the deep states of sleep.

false awakening and sleep paralysis

As a matter of fact, there are still a number of questions surrounding the function of dreams themselves.

Some say that dreams are important reflections of our unconscious; others say that dreams are basically our brain’s way of throwing out useless information.

Whatever the theory is, there is barely any science to back it up, and we have even less data on phenomenon surrounding dreams.

The REM State

Nonetheless, there are still a few things we know about dreams and false awakenings.

For one thing, we know that most dreams occur when the brain enters the deepest part of sleep, called the REM phase.

In the REM phase, many interesting things occur; MRIs have shown that brain activity is similar to when we are fully awake.

The theory is that, in the REM phase, the brain cannot distinguish what is real and what isn’t a dream, processing both dreams and reality in the same way.

The fact that some people act out their dreams (sleepwalking or peeing in their beds) supports this theory.

As a matter of fact, the only reason why all of us don’t sleepwalk is because of atonia, a condition triggered during the REM phase in which our muscles are completely relaxed, so we are unable to move while we are dreaming. Disorders affecting muscle atonia leads to disorders like sleepwalking.

false awakening dreams

On the other hand, atonia can occur even after you have already gained consciousness. Have you ever woken up and realized that you cannot move at all? This phenomenon is called sleep paralysis.

According to the NHS, sleep paralysis occurs when you’re still partly in the REM phase, but are awake, which is also why sleep paralysis often occurs as you’re first waking up or falling asleep.

What Causes a False Awakening?

The theory between false awakenings and sleep paralysis is that what happens during both is similar. It could be that we have gained consciousness, and we will our body to get up and move.

However, perhaps due to muscle atonia, we cannot physically move, and the brain processes this order to move within the dream.

Therefore, we go about our day, brushing our teeth and putting on clothes — but in reality, we are still asleep.

There are a few reasons why our consciousness (or lack thereof) can be disrupted, causing false awakenings.

The most common ones are sleep disorders, like insomnia. In insomnia, the brain essentially cannot ‘shut itself off.’

There are also physical reasons why sleep can be fragmented, such as sleep apnea, which is when sleep is disrupted by physical ticks, such as snoring, pauses in breathing, and teeth grinding. Causes may also be environmental, such as loud noises or bright light.

On the other hand, there are people who believe that false awakenings hold a purpose that simply cannot be explained by science.

As with most theories surrounding sleep and dreaming, there are those who believe that false awakenings are a sign from a higher being, or from an entity that is not of this world.

Here’s a video showing an example of false awakenings.

How to Stop False Awakenings

Because false awakenings occur because of a fragmented sleep phase, the trick to stopping false awakenings is to wake yourself up.

How to Identify What You’re Dreaming

Of course, before you can wake yourself up, you will first need to figure out that you’re dreaming. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to determine this.

  1. “Am I Dreaming?”

If you find yourself doubting whether or not you’re dreaming, chances are you’re completely awake or close to waking up.

Most of the time, we can’t tell at all, so if you find yourself doubting, your sleep has likely been fragmented.

  1. Count Your Fingers

This may be a weird one, but even the most vivid of dreams don’t have fully fleshed out details. Chances are, you’ll be off a digit or two, or simply cannot focus enough to count all the way.

Alternatively, you could also try remembering specific details, such as your address, telephone number, or the names of your immediate family, down to their middle names.

Dreams don’t often let us focus very well, and these details can help you figure out whether you’re dreaming or not.

  1. The Threshold Test

Have you ever walked into a room trying to look for something, and then completely forget why you’re there?

Studies have shown that our brain tends to forget information after we have gone through a threshold, such as doorways.

This can also be a trick that you can employ in the dream world. If you go through a threshold, chances are your dreams will change completely, without any connection to the previous one.

having a dream within a dream

Waking Up

Now that you can identify when you’re dreaming, waking up is next in order.

  1. Focus on Details

Pick one object in your dream and focus on it intently. Try to look at every part of the object. While doing this, the object may warp and feel like it’s ‘slipping away from you.’

Keep on focusing and, chances are, you’ll be able to focus your thoughts back to the real world.

This technique is much like counting fingers, which you could also do. Remembering details can also be enough to focus yourself into waking.

  1. Try to Feel Your Own Presence

The other technique involves connecting yourself to your physical form.

In your dream, lie down and focus on physically feeling your body. You can even try to move a finger to connect to your own presence.

How to Prevent False Awakenings?

Of course, prevention is easier than a cure. Here are a few ways to ensure that your sleep remains undisturbed, and that you can wake up feeling refreshed rather than dazed.

  1. Stick to a Sleep Schedule

A regular sleep schedule that you stick to religiously is bound to help with sleep disorders. As a plus, it’s better for your overall health!

To keep a proper sleep schedule, go to bed and wake up at pre-determined times each night and day respectively.

It doesn’t matter if you can sleep immediately, as the important thing is to adjust your body to a routine, so that it doesn’t freewheel.

  1. Create a Nighttime Routine

stuck in a dream loop

Speaking of routines, performing the same tasks before bed can help put your body in a relaxed state.

It’s a signal to your brain to start easing itself into sleep, so that you don’t go to bed with a racing mind.

  1. Watch Your Caffeine Intake

Did you know that caffeine stays in the body for up to eight hours? If you’re a coffee drinker, chances are you drink coffee way too late in the day, and that disrupts your sleep schedule.

Even if you claim that you’re used to the caffeine and can’t feel the effects, it may still be affecting your sleep.

Try to avoid a cup after 2 pm; in the afternoon, you can opt for drinks that have less caffeine, such as decaf, chocolate, or tea. On that note, be aware of any caffeinated food that you may be ingesting before bed.

  1. Exercise

Exercise helps blood circulation, which means, among other things, better oxygen to the brain. Regular exercise can give you better sleep—as long as you do it right.

Don’t try exercise or activities that require intense exertion thirty minutes before bed. For those who want a bit of movement before bed, a short walk can do wonders for your health.

This video shows an example of what to do if you find yourself stuck in a dream loop.

When to See Your Doctor

Often times, false awakenings are nothing to worry about. Most of us will have them now and then, but they are a harmless phenomenon.

The harm in them is mainly due to their unnerving nature, which can put the dreamer on edge for the rest of the day. However, false awakenings that happen often, and multiple times in one instance, can be disruptive in your everyday life.

There is also a possible link between mental health and false awakenings, in that false awakenings can be induced by disruptions in the REM state.

PTSD, insomnia, and anxiety disorders can make false awakenings more frequent than for most people.

For those who find their false awakenings disruptive, consulting a medical professional may be necessary. Your doctor can prescribe medication that aids your sleep and prevents disruptions.

In some cases, therapy may be necessary to address underlying factors. Those with anxiety disorders and PTSD, as well as other, similar disorders, can be taught relaxation techniques to ease their brains and bodies, so as to avoid false awakenings.

Other sources of anxiety can also be addressed in therapy, so that the unconscious is put at ease.

What False Awakenings Mean

If you suffer from numerous false awakenings, you may want to figure out the root meaning. As such, we turn to science for answers that it does not have.

Nonetheless, we can look to proven facts and persuasive theories about the unique condition.

false awakening

In our modern world, we often ignore the signals of our bodies; because of this, our sleep is often sacrificed for the sake of productivity. However, it can’t be ignored that sleep is essential for us to function in our daily lives.

If you suffer from regular false awakenings, chances are there’s something stressful or anxiety-inducing that you need to pay attention to.

Whether it’s concerns about an upcoming task or a racing mind before bed, evaluating your life and routine could help in preventing false awakenings without help from a doctor.

Whether they are supernatural or just a mental hitch, they tell us that something needs our attention. No matter what you think, sleeping well and staying healthy is always a good idea, false awakenings or not.

Do you have experience with false awakenings?

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