What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Have you ever found yourself sitting at the bus stop, waiting in the supermarket queue, maybe stuck in a dull meeting, and realized your mind was wandering off? Daydreaming is just one of those things people do. But if you find that your fantasies are starting to get in the way of real life, that could be maladaptive daydreaming.

Although it isn’t an officially recognized mental illness, maladaptive daydreaming has been noted by some psychologists.

Maladaptive daydreams are more than just our mind wandering when we’re bored. They’re absorbing, full-blown fantasies that blur your connection with reality slightly.

And while it’s nice to start imagining just what the sand will feel like on your next beach holiday, or put yourself in the shoes of your favorite TV protagonist who’s just about to hook up with that cutie, sometimes it can become a problem.

So let’s take a look at what maladaptive daydreaming disorder (or MD) actually means.

What Exactly Does Maladaptive Mean?

Adaptive behaviors are the set of skills and actions we learn and use to function in daily life and social situations. They’re things as simple as getting dressed in the mornings or catching the bus, to having conversations. These behaviors allow us to meet the challenges of daily life, however small or large they might be.

When you add the prefix “mal” on it becomes the opposite. This Old French word means something bad or wrongful. Maladaptation, therefore, is an inability to cope or manage a situation or circumstance in an appropriate or constructive way.

Maladaptive behaviors are actions that undermine. In some cases, they can even be destructive. They’re often developed as coping mechanisms for certain situations, and tend to be ways of avoiding challenges rather than facing them.

Just like adaptive behaviors, these can be simple things like nail-biting. When we’re stressed, some of us might nibble at our nails as a way to release the tension. Although it doesn’t have any major negative impact, it’s not really socially acceptable and it’s also not great for our fingers.

There are more extreme examples which might be associated with mental disorders or stem from negative experiences like childhood trauma. For example, avoidance coping is when a person avoids stressful thoughts or feelings to protect themselves from psychological hurt. This actually ends up creating more stress and anxiety. More extreme examples could include self-injurious behavior, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Daydreaming usually isn’t as disruptive as some of these extreme behaviors, but when it starts to

So What Exactly is a Daydream?

Daydreams are thoughts not quite linked to reality. They take place in waking time and, although the individual daydreamer is aware that it’s not reality, they can become quite absorbed in the characters and fantasy.

The type of daydreams we’re referring to here generally aren’t just errant thoughts, planning what’s for dinner or how to fit your power weight class into your busy schedule.

They’re the more involved type when your contact with reality is temporarily blurred as your mind explores an alternative fantasy. Often this has strong visual elements and it tends to be focused around pleasant thoughts, hopes, and ambitions. Individuals with a fantasy-prone personality are more likely to find themselves slipping into these intense daydreams.

You’re probably not alone if a parent, teacher, or someone else with authority has told you “Stop daydreaming!” It can get a bit of a bad rap in general, but the truth is it’s not bad by default.

Daydreaming can be a useful way for us to express our creativity and let our brain sort through thoughts and ideas. It can give us a break from everyday life and give us time to explore our own desires or to work out what’s important to us for in future.

It’s only when daydreams become disruptive to you living your daily life when you could really consider them to be maladaptive. You might find that:

  • You’re using daydreams to avoid or escape dealing with real-life situations.
  • Daydreaming is getting in the way of participating in ordinary life.

The Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Like we mentioned, this is not an officially recognized disorder or mental condition. In part, its lack of official status is due to the difficulty of pinning down what daydreams are. Because it has less of an impact on mental health than some other disorders it’s also had less attention.

While there’s no official list of symptoms, there are definitely signs to identify excessive daydreaming behaviors.

  • Your daydreams are very vivid and very immersive. It could be like being in a private movie running in your head. These fantasy worlds may have their own characters, settings, and plots that are totally unrelated to where you are at the time.
  • Your daydreams last for a long time and it’s difficult to break out of them. There’s often the temptation to stay in them, even when you become aware you’ve been fantasizing for a little while.
  • Your daydreams get in the way of completing everyday tasks and start to disrupt day-to-day life.
  • You might choose daydreaming over human interaction.
  • Sometimes other things happening in real life – like listening to music, reading a book, or even hearing people having a conversation – will set you off into your fantasy world.
  • Your sleep is disrupted.
  • You might suddenly become aware that, while daydreaming, you’ve been making repetitive movements unconsciously – like rocking back and forth or twitching. Or you might make facial expressions while you daydream. There can be some similarity to obsessive-compulsive symptoms.
  • Your attention span might be shorter than previously.

There are similarities between maladaptive daydreaming and symptoms of some psychiatric disorders, especially those which involve detachment from reality and becoming absorbed by fantasy. Despite this, someone with maladaptive daydreaming tendencies will still be aware that their dreams are not reality (however much they might like them to be).

Some people who experience maladaptive daydreaming might also experience other issues. This can include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dissociative identity disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

A DIY Test

There is actually a maladaptive daydreaming scale for measuring how maladaptive your fantasy tendencies might be. Professor Eliezer Somer of the University of Haifa in Israel came up with a 14-part scale for identifying maladaptive daydreaming. It rates and ranks five main characteristics of daydreams:

  • The content and detail of dreams
  • The person’s ability to control their dreams (as well as their desire to dream)
  • The perceived benefits of daydreaming
  • The distress caused by daydreaming
  • The extent to which the daydreams interfere with the ability to carry out daily activities.

If you just want something a little simpler, you can use these eight statements as a reference point:

  • I’ve lost hours or days fantasizing, sometimes without even realizing I was daydreaming.
  • The imaginary characters, world, and storylines from my daydreams are elaborate enough that they could be a movie or TV show.
  • I have sometimes lost sleep, skipped meals, or neglected other needs because of my daydreams.
  • I often find when I watch films, read books, or listen to music I start daydreaming.
  • I make facial expressions while I daydream, or sometimes find myself making repetitive movements.
  • I miss deadlines or fail to complete important tasks because of my fantasizing.
  • I often loose time I should be spending with family, friends and other people to my daydreams.
  • My daydreams make it hard for me to focus on my job, schoolwork, or other tasks that require concentration.

If you answered yes to at least five of the questions, you may have MD.

Dealing with Maladaptive Daydreaming

There is a range of ways you can start to deal with the disruption daydreaming may be causing in your life.

If you’ve been tired, finding ways to get more sleep and banish fatigue can help. Make your sleeping time precious and protect it. Aim to get either more sleep or find ways to increase your sleep quality. Stick to a schedule, do something calming at least an hour before bed, and stay away from blue screens. Oh – it might also be a good idea to avoid those tempting afternoon stimulants like caffeine.

Let other people know you’ve been daydreaming a bit too much and would like to kick the habit. Tell your friends what the symptoms are, and invite them to interrupt you if they notice it happening.

You can also try to keep track of what sets off daydreaming sessions. When you know what the triggers are, you can either avoid them or simply be more aware of your behavior at those times.

Therapy can sometimes help, especially with identifying triggers and finding techniques for managing and coping. If there’s something you’re avoiding in your life, it may be time to face it. Cognitive behavior therapy can be useful to work out what the underlying causes may be.

When it comes to medication, we suggest trying other techniques first. It’s very rare that daydreaming will be severe enough to deserve medication. Really, it’s a much better idea to try other approaches first. Medication won’t solve the problem, just help manage it.

Don’t Give Up Your Dreams

If your daydreams are disrupting your life, it’s a problem – just like anything else. But remember, you don’t necessarily have to give up your dreams and fantasies, just find a way to keep the balance in check. Daydreaming can be a great outlet for our minds.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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