In October of 2016, I wrote an article detailing sleep paralysis, the terrifying phenomenon where one “wakes up” within a dream, unaware that they are still dreaming, with the inability to move.
In that article, I briefly mentioned a separate phenomenon of dreaming called false awakenings. For those of you who have never experienced it, here is a look into what false awakenings consist of, and my experiences dealing with them.
I’m awake. I have been for what feels like a couple of hours. Before that I had been sleeping peacefully in my bed, with my girlfriend beside me. I’m not entirely sure the exact timing of my recent events since waking up. Life at this instant, for some odd reason, is extremely blurry.
Moments ago, I was in a car watching a movie and before that, I was in a classroom getting advice from an instructor on an article I have in progress. Now I am sitting on my couch, watching football on a brisk fall Sunday. I don’t know how I transitioned from the classroom to the car to here so fluidly, but I feel comfortable nonetheless.
My girlfriend is sitting with me. We are not saying much to each other. My focus is mostly on the football game on my TV. I also have my laptop in hand, to check on other NFL scores.
Without mention of where she’s going, my girlfriend suddenly stands up and walks out through my back door. As she exits, I notice the door’s blinds are fully rolled up, so I can peek out at her if I so please.
I look down at my watch and notice it’s nearly dinner time, which doesn’t make sense. Just a couple hours ago I had been sleeping, awaiting the morning. How can it be this late?
I begin to panic. With my head now on a swivel, I shift to check on what my girlfriend is still doing out in my backyard. The blinds are somehow closed now, and my house feels freezing. I have the unsettling feeling that she is completely gone. In this instant, I realize I’m dreaming, and I have been awake in a realistic dreamscape for several hours. Immense fear settles in my stomach. I become dizzy and vomit. My body melts, and I collapse. I need to wake up. I start yelling out for help to anyone who can hear me.
Through muffled shouting, my girlfriend shakes me conscious, and I realize I’m still in bed. Now, I’m actually awake.
That was a dream I had just a few days ago.
A false awakening is the off-putting experience of waking up within a dream and going about your day, without the realization that you are still actually asleep. There are two types of false awakenings, the first being more common:
You wake up in a place familiar to you, but certain small details are altered. Your abilities to speak, walk, or perceive simple things like time and language might be dramatically hindered. As you go about your daily activities, a feeling grows within telling you something is wrong.
Usually one dramatic instance (such as me noticing the time not matching up in my dream, and the blinds being miraculously closed when they had been open) makes you aware of the fact that you’re within a dream. This feeling is an unwelcome one, which usually results in a nightmarish wake-up.
The second type of false awakenings is even worse. From the get-go, everything is dark upon waking up. You feel completely awake, but you have no control over anything. In one instance I had of a type two false awakening, I woke up in a haunted version of my grandmother’s old house. I walked through the house, which was covered in dust and an oil-like liquid, to find corpses of my father and sister. It was one of the most terrifying moments in my life that I can recall.
Sometimes, these false awakenings can occur on a loop. In a case like this, I will repeatedly wake up unsure at first of whether or not I’m actually awake. A few times, this loop has continued for close to a dozen consecutive wake-ups. It can be psychologically damaging, and makes it a challenge for me to fall back asleep once I’ve finally “woken up.” Worst of all, it makes me question reality constantly the days after.
It’s virtually impossible for me to pinpoint what the cause of these nightmares can be. While conducting research on Google, the most common possibilities for false awakenings suggested anxiety, or irregular sleeping patterns. But when I usually get it, I’m not anxious, and the large majority of reading I did on false awakenings showed inconclusive results. The only similarity I have when I get a false awakening is that I’m usually sleeping on my back (which is also always when I have sleep paralysis).
According to a recent article from Business Insider, scientists have been trying to figure out for decades what occurs in the brain when we are dreaming, and how our dreams are affected by our conscious and unconscious selves. We are still a while off from getting answers.
For the time being, the only resolution I’ve come to is that it might be time to consult a sleep therapist. The combination of sleep paralysis and false awakenings, both of which I get multiple times a year, weaken my ability to sleep comfortably. They make me feel like something is distinctly off in my head, even when I feel relatively healthy.
When dreams and reality distort and blend into one, I feel shaken and lost. All I can do after a false awakening is hope that it doesn’t happen again for a decent amount of time.