With our dreaming minds, we’re able to recreate memories of people, intense emotions, and complex situations every night without even consciously trying — which is why feeling stuck in a dream where you can’t wake up can be such a powerful (and even disturbing) experience. If you’re trying to wake up from a dream but can't, there could be a scientific explanation behind why you’re unable to shake this state. However, if you’re open to dream interpretation, these nocturnal visions could also indicate that your subconscious mind is trying to send you a symbolic message about your waking life.
Whether the explanation is medical or mystical, it can be disorienting and even scary to feel stuck in a dream and unable to wake up. Many of us have had the experience at one point or another — perhaps it involved being so deeply in a dream state that you slept through your alarm, or maybe you've even unsuccessfully tried to wake yourself up from a dream that you knew you were having.
If you’re trying to wake up from a dream but can't, there are some explanations — both scientific and symbolic — that can help explain why. Read on to find out what it means when you’re stuck in a dream.
You’re Experiencing Sleep Paralysis
Have you ever felt like your mind woke up before your body did, leaving you paralyzed on your bed and still experiencing some of the sensations from your dream? If so, it’s possible you’ve experienced sleep paralysis, which is a well-documented medical phenomenon that’s affected up to 8% of the population at one point or another. During sleep paralysis (which takes place when someone is in between a sleeping and wakeful state), a person feels fully conscious, but they’re unable to move or speak and may experience a feeling of intense dread, the sensation of being suffocated, or even hallucinations. It can feel a bit like being stuck in a waking nightmare that you’re unable to wake yourself from.
The reason we feel trapped during sleep paralysis is because the body is still "paralyzed" from sleep (a natural instinct that keeps us from walking around or moving while we’re dreaming). If the conscious mind has partially awoken before your REM cycle has finished, you may experience this strange and unsettling phenomena. While it may feel like being trapped in a bad dream, sleep paralysis is actually a harmless glitch in our sleep cycle — and people who are suffering from sleep deprivation, trauma, anxiety, or depression could be at higher risk of experiencing it.
You’re Having A "False Awakening" Dream
Have you ever had the experience of waking up, turning off your alarm, getting out of bed, and starting your morning routine... only to realize you're actually still dreaming? These types of dreams are known as "false awakenings" (yep, they have a name!) and they can be hard to wake yourself from. False awakening dreams can happen repeatedly in a single REM cycle, and can be extremely vivid and realistic — so when they happen, it can feel as though you’re actually stuck in a dream.
If you do find yourself trapped in a repeating loop of false awakenings, some sleep experts advise trying to wake yourself by attempting to wiggle your toe or move a limb, blink rapidly, or do a complex physical maneuver in the dream, like running or dancing. By focusing on moving your physical body, you may be able to trick your brain into entering a conscious state and give yourself an escape route from your dream loop.
You’re Sleep Deprived
Having ultra-realistic dreams that are hard to wake up from may simply be a side effect of not getting enough sleep. According to Scientific American, sleep intensity and the vividness of dreams is increased in people who are sleep deprived. This is because during an average night of sleep, our longest REM cycle (which is when dreaming takes place) lasts for about 40 minutes. But studies show that both the intensity and the length of your REM cycles increase dramatically if someone is experiencing sleep deprivation. If you notice you regularly get stuck in intense and long-lasting dreams, make sure you're getting a full night's sleep to try to offset the feeling.
You’re Feeling Held Back By Something In Real Life
You may also want to examine the symbolic reasons behind finding yourself trapped in a dream — as feeling stuck in a dream with no way out can be a sign of the frustrations you're facing in your real life. “When you feel trapped in a dream, it represents areas where you feel stuck in your waking life,” mystical practitioner MaKayla McRae tells Bustle. This could be related to anything from an unhealthy relationship that’s holding you back from finding love to a dead-end job that’s become a hindrance to your career growth.
Being stuck in a dream could also indicate that you're holding onto old belief systems that are no longer serving you (such as old family traditions that don’t resonate with your values or long-held negative beliefs about yourself that need to be dismantled). If you’re regularly feeling stuck in a dream where you can't wake up, dig deep and reevaluate your relationships, belief systems, and current life situations to find areas that make you feel restricted, powerless, or inhibited from being yourself. Once you address these issues and free yourself, you might stop having so many dreams that are hard to get out of.
You’re On The Verge Of A Breakthrough
If you’re stuck in a dream and can’t wake up, it could indicate that you’re getting close to reaching a goal, passing a threshold, or making an important change in your waking life — but that you haven’t quite reached the mark. “Dreams that you feel you can’t wake up from symbolize situations where you feel you’re on the verge of a breakthrough or close to breaking a bad habit, but it’s still just out of reach,” McRae says. “You’re almost there, but not quite yet — it’s that ‘on the tip of your tongue’ type of feeling.”
If you’re close to a personal finish line in your real life, you might feel a sense of impatience about the situation — which could manifest in your dreams as a feeling of being trapped or stuck in one place. Try to examine whether there’s anything you’re feeling a sense of anticipation about moving forward on and find ways to channel that frustration productivity.
You Need To Revamp Your Routine
Being stuck in a dream that you can’t seem to wake from could indicate a need to mix things up in your daily life — as it may be a metaphor for feeling stuck or stagnant in your current routine. “Dreams that keep going on and on can represent an area where you feel your life is playing in loops — as if what’s about to happen next in your life is so predictable that you’ve become bored,” McRae says. “This type of dream is a sign you need to shake up routines that leave you feeling stuck.”
If these type of dreams are happening often, McRae suggests asking yourself where in your life you feel you’re replaying the same things over and over. Find ways to bring fresh energy and variety into your relationships, daily habits, or any other situations where you feel stuck in a rut.
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