False awakenings are dreams that seem like waking life… until you get out of bed and fall down a bottomless chasm. True story. False awakenings can be frustrating, terrifying, and may even begin to impact your daily life, especially when they occur 5 or more times in a row.
The good news is that false awakenings can be managed with a few cognitive tricks and practices. FAs are basically pre-lucid dreams, as the dreamer is questioning reality. In many cases though, the dreamer actually cannot figure out if she is dreaming or not. Until the world is revealed to be an illusion!
It is our ability to think clearly in a false awakening that causes us to assume we’re awake. We’re not awake, we’re aware. So dealing with false awakenings necessitates a crash course in lucid dreaming.
Three Ways to Confirm You’re Dreaming
- If you doubt it, you’re dreaming. If you don’t know if you’re dreaming or not, especially after getting out of bed, you’re probably dreaming. Usually, we’re pretty good at discerning this kind of thing. So if you catch yourself wondering “Is this a dream?”, the answer is yes.
- Test your memory. Try to remember the address of your current location, or your cell phone number. If you can’t come up with these details, you’re probably dreaming. Long term memory activation in REM sleep makes these details hard to get to. Some people suggest doing a “reality check” in the dream by confirming that “everything is in order.” I find this unreliable. We often do not notice incongruities, and assume we’re awake when we are in a dream version of our bedroom. That’s how I fell down the bottomless chasm. Sometimes there are incongruities but sometimes not. The lucid dream world is just as real as waking life to the brain.
- The threshold test. This is a caveat to the reality check method. Often, walking through a threshold can break the spell of a false awakening because the next room will turn out not to be the bathroom or the hallway, but another bizarre room or a place from your past.
How to Wake up From a False Awakening
Many people are alarmed when they realize they are dreaming. This fear can bring on the manifestation of whatever we think is the scariest thing in the world. So it’s good to have some methods for waking up from the dream. This works for waking up from nightmares too when you realize you’re dreaming and want to get out.
1. Try opening and closing your eyes repeatedly …. eventually your real eyes will crack open and break the dream.
2. Stare at one object with focus… it may morph and change, but usually the focus wakes up the part of the brain (the forebrain) that moves us into the waking state.
3. In the dream, lay down as if going to bed. Just lay on the floor, don’t start the search for “your” bed. Close your eyes, and then try to move your pinky finger (or toe, or whatever extremity you choose!) Just as in waking up from sleep paralysis, this can help synchronize the dreambody and the physical body, allowing you to wake up.
How to Prevent More False Awakenings
1. Exercise. Get out of bed and do 10 minutes of light to moderate exercise. Yoga, stretches, calisthenics, stairmaster… whatever is easy. Warning: for some, exercise may make it difficult to get back to sleep. However, this is better than a 100% chance of not getting back to sleep because you’re too emotionally exhausted and scared.
2. The Nap Snack. Have a small carb-heavy snack before going back to bed. Warm milk still does the trick too. But don’t have a nightcap; alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to more weird sleep occurrences.
3. Relax before going to bed. False awakenings seem to be related to hyper-vigilance. So do what you need to do to feel safe and emotionally secure while falling asleep. We all have our little rituals. Time to bring out the teddy bear.
4. Stop partying so hard. In general, refrain from alcohol before bed, and stay away from caffeine anytime after lunch. If you’re prone to FAs, these substances affect your REM sleep more than others. Also, getting good sleep at regular intervals will help. This is why FAs are common with college students and those who work night-shifts, swing-shifts or don’t sleep much in general.
Turn False Awakenings into a Lucid Dream
Of course, if you are feeling adventurous, you can use the false awakening as a chance to explore the dream world consciously. Instead of scrabbling to wake up, take a look around. Explore the house. Walk through a wall and see what’s on the other side. Spin around and marvel at what happens next. In this way, false awakenings can be blessings in disguise.
If you’re having multiple false awakenings, this is a good move psychologically too. Sometimes, these spontaneous lucid dreams may be caused by some emotional material that wants to be confronted. So confront it.
I’ve noticed that, at first, my false awakening dreams are devoid of other characters. But if I wait around, or walk into the next room, often I’ll find some one who wants to interact. Often, there’s drama involved. Usually, though, an angry dream figure is looking for a chance to say some peace, to be heard. Most of a nightmare’s energy is the resistance to whatever needs to be expressed. That’s what makes a nightmare scary — the fact that are being faced with something we don’t want to see. Once you face it, with bravery and with love in your heart, the nightmare figure usually transforms and becomes more communicative. It may never come back, taking those false awakenings with them.
Image credit: “Dream on” by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³