What Does It Mean When You’re Stuck In A Dream? Here Are 5 Possibilities & Meanings

Dreams are one of the most fascinating aspects of the human experience and an incredible testament to the power of the human mind. I mean, it's wild that we can fully recreate people, intense emotions, and complex situations in our own brains without even consciously trying — and sometimes even wake up feeling like what we dreamed was totally real (which makes it super freaky if you find that you can't wake up from a dream). One of the trippiest things, though, is that scientists still can't even fully explain why we dream. "Amazingly, even though we spend about 27 years dreaming over the course of an average life, scientists still can't agree on why it's important," explained Scientific American. What they do know is that dreams (and the REM sleep cycles that allow for them to happen) are absolutely vital to our health.

But what does it mean if you can't get out of a dream? It can be disorienting and even scary to feel stuck inside a dream and unable to wake up. Many of us have had the experience at one point or another, though — perhaps you sleep through your alarm due to being so deeply in a dream, or maybe you've even unsuccessfully tried to wake up from a dream you knew you were having. There are a number of scientific and spiritual explanations as to why it's sometimes difficult to get yourself out of a dream, so if it's something you've experienced, check out some possible explanations as to why.

You Might Be Experiencing Sleep Paralysis

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Sleep paralysis is somewhat common condition that, according to WebMD, takes place between being fully asleep and awake. During sleep paralysis, a person feels fully conscious but is unable to move or speak at all. This is due to the body still being "paralyzed" from sleep (which is a natural instinct that keeps us from walking around IRL when we're walking around in a dream, for example), but if your mind becomes conscious before your REM cycle has finished, you may experience this strange and unsettling phenomena. In addition to the freakiness of being unable to wake yourself up or move at all, many people report feeling or even seeing a dark presence or other strange hallucinations in the room with them during these experiences, and some claim it feels as if they're being choked or suffocated. It can be extremely difficult to fully wake yourself up from these experiences, so if these are the types of dreams you can't get out of, sleep paralysis may be the cause.

"Dream Claustrophobia" Is A Real Thing

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Ever heard of lucid dreaming? It's achieved when someone becomes fully conscious of the fact that they're dreaming while it's happening (this has likely happened to you at least once or twice!), and some people actually work to develop this skill so that they can consciously control their dreams. If you're an active or accidental lucid dreamer, lucky you! But know that it does have its risks, and one of them is, as Lifehacker describes it, "the possibility of 'dream claustrophobia,' which is when people become lucid in a dream scenario they are unable to manipulate or awaken from." If you're aware you're dreaming but can't wake up yourself up, it could be a case of dream claustrophobia. Rianne Schimmel, an alleged lucid dreaming master, claims she can simply summon a door to a new world when she experiences dream claustrophobia. Theoretically, this could offer someone an escape route from an otherwise stressful situation of feeling trapped. If you can't actually wake up, maybe try the door scenario so you can at least keep dreaming somewhere else.

It Could Be A Phenomenon Called "False Awakening"

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Do you ever feel like you've woken up, turned off your alarm, started brushing your teeth and began your morning routine — only to realize you're still dreaming? These types of dreams, known as "false awakenings," can happen repeatedly in a single REM cycle, making it feel as though you can't actually wake up. But some iterations of a "false awakening" can be even scarier. "What some people experience is a false awakening in which they dream of waking up and being unable to move," explained No Sleepless Nights on its website. "This can of course also be very frightening, both in the dream and when you wake up and remember what just happened." If you do experience this, the website advises 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.

You May Be Sleep Deprived

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Have you ever fully kept dreaming through your alarm because you were so sleep deprived? If you're not getting enough sleep, you may find that it affects your dream intensity, making dreams seem ultra real and hard to discern from real life while they're happening — and potentially hard to wake from. In an interview with Scientific American, Mark Mahowald, a neurologist at the University of Minnesota and the director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, explained, "When someone is sleep deprived we see greater sleep intensity, meaning greater brain activity during sleep; dreaming is definitely increased and likely more vivid." During an average night of sleep, our longest REM cycle (the part of sleep where dreams take place) lasts for about 40 minutes, but studies show that both the intensity and the length of your REM cycles increase dramatically after sleep deprivation. According to a 2005 study, "losing 30 minutes of REM one night can lead to a 35 percent REM increase the next night — subjects jumped from 74 minutes of REM to a rebound of 100 minutes," as reported by Scientific American. So if you notice you get stuck in intense, long-lasting dreams, make sure you're getting a full night's sleep regularly.

It Might Reflect Frustrations In Your Life

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If you believe in dream interpretations, you may want to examine the spiritual reasons behind why you find yourself trapped in a dream. According to Psychic Library, feeling trapped inside a dream with no way out can be a sign of the frustrations you're facing IRL, "They could be equated to a dead-end job you are in, someone holding you back in your career advancement, or a relationship in which you may feel trapped," explained Pyschic Library. The site also notes that being trapped in a dream could mean you're holding on to old belief systems that are no longer serving you (such as family traditions or negative beliefs about yourself), or indicate a feeling of powerlessness in your life, whether that's situational or directly related to your relationships with others. Dig deep and reevaluate your relationships, belief systems, and your situations to find areas that seem off — these could be causing you to have dreams that are hard to get out of.