What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Many believe that daydreaming causes a number of problems. It can take you off task, reduces motivation and mental focus, and bring productivity to a grinding halt. However, as “dangerous” as it can be, daydreaming is a part of life. In fact, it can help alleviate the mind, allowing it to rest for a period of time. 

Not all daydreams are created equal. In fact, there are many different ways that daydreaming can be harmful to your psyche as well as your overall mental health. One way is known as maladaptive daydreaming disorder (or MD)

<H2>What is Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder?</H2>

Although maladaptive daydreaming disorder is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), evidence suggests that there is a mental illness or disorder associated with excessive daydreaming. 

This daydreaming disorder typically involves daydreaming more than normal. What moves this daydreaming behavior into a mental health problem is that individuals spend more time daydreaming, which compromises their relationships with reality.

Unfortunately, because maladaptive daydreaming is relatively new to the psychological discourse, there isn’t a great deal of research on the subject. As a result, clinicians are often left to their own theories as to what triggers maladaptive daydreams. The key here is understanding the different triggers.

For example, a person with maladaptive daydreaming prefers a fantasy life. His or her daydreams take up an inordinate amount of time. They prevent people from having normal lives and responsibilities, such as keeping a job, engaging in meaningful relationships with others, and caring for personal needs.

<H3>Define Maladaptive</H3>

The term maladaptive in psychology refers to the inability to correctly adapt a behavior. In simplistic terms, a person who displays maladaptive behavior typically has various complications in many parts of their lives.

For example, a person with maladaptive behaviors may have difficulty with human interaction, act upon dangerous thoughts, and experience more problems due to his or her aberrant behavior.

There are many different causes for maladaptive behaviors. Maladaptive behaviors may be due to neurological problems, mood disorders, behavioral conditions, or even physical conditions or handicaps. Any issue that can cause the mind to improperly process sensory information may cause maladaptive behavior. Many times childhood trauma is responsible for these maladaptive behaviors or later in life.

The good news is maladaptive behavior can be identified by an experienced therapist. A good therapist can also drill down to the root cause of the maladaptive behavior and then initiate therapeutic modalities to correct it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often a successful treatment method. Severe cases of maladaptive behaviors may require other interventions, such as psychotropic medication. Either way, finding the root cause of maladaptive behavior is critical to ensuring that the patient can deal with behaviors that interfere with his or her life.

<H3>Define Daydream</H3>

Many believe that some daydreaming is actually healthy. A famous example of daydreaming is Zach Braff’s character J.D. in the hit television show Scrubs. J.D. was often found daydreaming, and rarely did his daydreams impact his performance. Although daydreams are essentially harmless, we may often wonder where daydreams come from… What constitutes a daydream?

For many people, a daydream can mean simply allowing their minds to drift off for a quiet minute or two. In terms of the maladaptive, or more serious daydreaming issues, daydreaming begins to get in the way of regular day-to-day life.

In some cases, daydreams are a product of a fantasy prone personality. If you notice a person’s repetitive movements or facial expressions that seem out of sync with a current situation, these are key indicators of daydreams gone wrong. Daydreaming is often used as a coping mechanism for those dealing with social anxiety. 

Often, daydreams are just small moments in a day that don’t amount to much. However, when a person seems to constantly be in his or her own world, and isn’t in sync with reality, then this could be a sign of maladaptive daydreaming. 

The difference between a daydream and a hallucination is a person who is daydreaming knows they are daydreaming. A person who is hallucinating believes what they are experiencing is real.

<H2>Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder Symptoms</H2>

There are several symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The most problematic symptoms are those that are consistent with stereotypic movement disorder, self-injurious behavior, or noting a person relating to fantasy characters. 

There could be several causes for this type of behavior. Here are some of the different disorders and descriptions that can lend themselves to fomenting maladaptive daydreaming disorder in patients:

  • Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Autistic children and adults often struggle with relating to the world around them. There are several different levels and symptoms to this particular disorder. One of the hallmarks of ASD is children or adults is maladaptive daydreaming. They prefer daydreaming to the real world. Note: These are not hallucinations.

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: OCD is an anxiety disorder. Maladaptive daydreams could be obsessive-compulsive symptoms because the anxiety associated with this disorder manifests in daydreams. Patients will often resort to daydreaming to seek comfort and relief.

    In some cases, daydreams become daily compulsions and rituals. A person must daydream in order to proceed to the next event in daily life.

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder: More colloquially known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative disorder is less about distinct, “Sybil” personalities and more in tune with an inability to relate to reality. Maladaptive daydreaming is often visible in this disorder.

There are several other disorders, which can also lead to maladaptive daydreams. However, the key for all of them is that daydreaming must be frequent, extend longer than normal, and negatively impact a person’s daily activities.

<H2>Maladaptive Daydreaming Test</H2>

Many therapists are aware of maladaptive daydreams. Although additional studies and research are needed, there has been a substantial increase in awareness of this condition. More and more therapists are interested in better assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients who may be suffering with maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

Many therapists diagnose patients by conducting a structured clinical interview. This particular maladaptive daydreaming test or interview involves noting a patient’s behaviors along with their descriptions of their problems with daydreams. Then, the clinician or therapist compiles all recorded information, and refer to the maladaptive daydreaming scale to determine if the patient’s daydreams are normal or maladaptive. 

After performing an assessment, a therapist or clinician will determine if a patient’s daydreams are indeed maladaptive. If so, treatment for the underlying issues and causes will begin. 

<H2>Maladaptive Daydreaming Treatment</H2>

Treatment for maladaptive daydreaming begins with understanding the underlying causes of the different disorders that affect a patient. For example, if a person is suffering from a psychiatric disorder instead of an anxiety disorder, the treatments will be quite different. 

In some cases, a psychiatrist will prescribe psychotropic medication with the intent of dulling the symptoms. Psychotropic medications have been used as treatment methods in psychology for decades. They dull many psychological symptoms, allowing a patient to easily navigate daily life. In the case of maladaptive daydreaming, psychotropic medications can help reduce the occurrence of maladaptive daydreams.

In the event psychotropic medications are not prescribed, the next best treatment method is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of therapy that allows a therapist or clinician to get inside patients’ thought processes. It also seeks to reorient thoughts, causing the person’s behaviors to recondition simultaneously. The positive results are diminished maladaptive behaviors, including daydreams. 

CBT is often the best route for treating and addressing anxiety disorders. Anxiety involves cognitive processes rather than a psychiatric problem. Therefore, many patients who suffer with anxiety disorders often benefit more from CBT rather than medications. However, there are medications available for patients with severe anxiety disorders.

<H2>Maladaptive Daydreaming: Final Thoughts</H2>

For many people, maladaptive daydreaming is a way of life. Although most patients with maladaptive daydreaming disorder are aware that they are daydreaming, they are often unsure of why they have these issues. However, when daydreams begin to affect day-to-day life, activities, and responsibilities, it’s time to involve a professional to take a closer look. 

Furthermore, if you notice that a friend, family, or loved one seems to be off in his or her own world, or seems detached from reality, then there could be a psychological reason for his or her behavior. It’s important to approach the issue with compassion and care rather than make accusations or respond with anger.

All in all, if you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, and you are concerned with your or his or her ability to function, then it’s important to seek help. A reputable clinician or therapist will be able to determine if daydreaming is truly maladaptive, and if they are associated with maladaptive behaviors. There’s nothing wrong with getting help. It is recommended to seek a qualified therapist who can accurately assess how your daydreams affect your life. 





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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