Your alarm goes off. You roll out of bed, rub your eyes, and start your daily routine. Maybe you make it as far as your first meeting of the day, or you might only get to your first sip of coffee. At some point, your actual alarm goes off and you actually get out of bed and start your day. And you realise that you had only dreamt that you woke up as usual.
This type of dream, in which you go through the motions of normal life while still in a dream state, is known as a "false awakening." According to Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist and couples therapist, there's no reason to be concerned if this happens to you.
Even if you don't find your dreams upsetting, it can be helpful to explore them, since they're often more connected to your waking life than you think. "We dream about what we’re not facing during the day," says Kari Hohn, dream analyst. "If we block something out of consciousness, it can appear in our dreams." According to Lundquist, sleeping gives us an opportunity to process feelings that we neglect or ignore when we're awake.
We dream about what we’re not facing during the day.
Kari Hohn, dream analyst
For those who believe that something deeper is at play with their false awakenings, Hohne offers two key interpretations that may help you understand your dreams.
First off, if you experience only the occasional false awakening (once a year or once every few years), Hohne says it's likely due to a change in your schedule or an increased sense of urgency around an upcoming task. This sort of false awakening may occur the night before a trip, major life event, or anything that requires you to be on your game. The pressure to perform likely stresses you out to the point that that those concerns bleed over into your dream.
On the other hand, recurring false awakenings, which Lundquist says tend to be pretty rare, tend to reflect something else. "[This] seems to relate to a situation that somebody doesn’t want to face," Hohne says, describing this subcategory of false awakening as a "double wakeup call." In one sense, you're "waking up" twice — once in your dream and again in real, waking life — but Hohne's term also refers to the realisation you'll inevitably reach after reflecting on the content of your dream.
Here's what she means by that: Even in hyper-realistic dreams like false awakenings, there's usually one element that tips you off that you're not actually awake. It might be an item that's completely out of place in your house or a person who you never run into on your way to work. "Look for the most bizarre part of it and don’t dismiss it," she says. This outlying element isn't just a sign that you're dreaming — it's also a clue as to why you're having this kind of dream in the first place.
Hohne offers the example of finding your purse in the freezer (which, if you ask us, is pretty strange). You use this item to hold your personal belongings, and in that small way it acts as a symbol for your identity. Discovering it in a dark, cold place could indicate that you feel forgotten or unsure about your role in your family or household.
Whatever your specific "purse in the freezer" may be, encountering a symbol for your anxieties or fears in a dream suggests that you haven't reckoned with them in your waking life. You can start to address this issue by keeping a dream journal, which will give you a space to reflect — either on your own or with the help of a professional.
If you're ready to delve deeply into what's inspiring your dreams, Lundquist says it can be helpful to have a therapist lead you through the exploratory process. "Identifying the source of anxiety can feel sometimes like catching a mouse — it sometimes doesn't want to be found," he says. "Therapy is the best place to examine what's going on."
As confusing as a false awakening can feel, Hohne emphasises their value, explaining that they aren't something you should seek to prevent. If you realise mid-dream that you're having a false awakening, try to not wake up, she says. "Try to go with it and be a witness to it." Then be prepared to give your subsequent feelings the attention they deserve.