Table of Contents
- What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
- Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms and Characteristics
- Examples of Maladaptive Daydreaming Behaviors
- Causes and Risk Factors of Maladaptive Daydreaming
- Implications and Concerns of MD
- Treatments for Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder
- Alternatives to Maladaptive Dreaming: What to Do Instead
Daydreaming is a common human experience, and when done in appropriate amounts, it can even help with problem-solving and perspective-taking. “Experts estimate we spend about 47% of our waking hours in a daydream, momentarily distracted from the world around us as we let our mind wander,” says Dr. Heather Wright for the Sleep Foundation. However, she adds, “If your daydreams are so intense that they interfere with your daily life, you may be a maladaptive daydreamer.”
To daydream means to shift your attention away from your current environment toward an internal train of thought, imagery, or fantasy. When overdone, this behavior becomes not only a major time waster but also destructive.
Unlike typical daydreaming, which can be a harmless and fleeting diversion, maladaptive daydreaming is characterized by vivid and immersive daydreams that can last for hours, often accompanied by repetitive physical movements and a strong emotional attachment to the characters and scenarios imagined.
The recognition of maladaptive daydreaming highlights the fine line between benign mental escapes and those that can become disruptive to daily life. In this article, find out why some people turn to maladaptive daydreaming to escape real life and difficult emotions, plus potential treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy and stress management.
- Maladaptive daydreaming refers to a pattern of excessive, intrusive daydreaming that disrupts one’s life.
- “Maladaptive” means not providing adequate or appropriate adjustment to an environment or situation.
- “Daydreaming” in this context refers to intense and prolonged fantasies that people play out in their heads.
- Maladaptive daydreams can be extremely vivid and all-consuming, often compared to a movie or a novel in their detail and complexity.
- These intricate fantasies often serve as bandaids for a boring reality or negative feelings.
- When daydreams become a behavioral addiction, they’re no longer a creative or calming outlet but a source of distress and a disruption in one’s ability to function.
What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
Maladaptive Daydreaming (MD) is a term that describes a condition where a person experiences intense daydreaming that interferes with their daily life and functioning. MD is more than just “getting lost in thought”; it’s a compulsive, often lengthy behavioral problem that can consume hours of a person’s day, significantly impacting their productivity, relationships, and overall well-being.
It’s estimated that MD affects between 2.5% and 4% of adults and as many as 20% of people with ADHD.
“Maladaptive daydreaming disorder” isn’t officially recognized in the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by psychologists to diagnose similar behavioral addictions). Yet, the increasing number of personal accounts of MD plus growing research suggests that it’s a real and impactful experience for many people. It’s especially common among survivors of trauma and those with other mental health conditions.
The term “maladaptive daydreaming” was coined in 2002 by Professor Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist and dissociation researcher. Somer originally observed MD in trauma survivors as a way to escape difficult real-world situations and feelings like depression or anxiety.
Somer’s definition of MD is “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.”
Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms and Characteristics
“Daydreaming actually exists on a spectrum. On one end, you have the ‘mind wandering’ type of daydreaming, which is brief, typically mundane in subject matter, and doesn’t impair functioning in any way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have maladaptive daydreaming.”Dr. Eli Somer for Wondermind
While most people daydream, the frequency and intensity vary from person to person. To be considered maladaptive, daydreams have to invoke certain psychopathological symptoms and negatively impact the dreamer’s life.
According to a 2016 study published in Consciousness and Cognition, “Findings demonstrate that MD differs significantly from normative daydreaming in terms of quantity, content, experience, controllability, distress, and interference with life functioning.”
Here’s more about how maladaptive daydreaming is defined and what “being trapped in a daydream” feels like for those dealing with this condition:
- The Daydreams Are Intense and Long: Compared to normal daydreaming, maladaptive dreams occur more often and last for longer, such as for hours on end. Many people can multitask by daydreaming at work or school while still being productive. However, with MD, this isn’t possible due to their intensity.
- They Cause Emotional Reactions: People with MD can experience deep emotions in response to their daydreams, including happiness, sadness, joy, and grief. The daydreams can cause both positive and negative emotions, but overall, they’re enjoyable enough that the dreamer keeps engaging with them.
- They Lead to Distress or Impairment: These types of daydreams cause stress and difficulty in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The Cleveland Clinic explains that MD is similar to an addiction, stating, “Maladaptive daydreaming is often compulsive, which means a person feels like they need to do it . . . daydreaming more often can make it a strong habit, so it’s very hard to stop doing.”
- The Dreams Are Accompanied by Repetitive Movements: Some people make repetitive motions while daydreaming, like rocking or pacing. Playing music while daydreaming is also common, which can lead to movements like swaying or dancing.
- The Dreamers Are Aware of Reality: People with MD are aware that their daydreams are just fantasies. This is a crucial distinction between MD and psychotic disorders in which the person hallucinates and cannot differentiate reality from fantasies.
Research shows maladaptive daydreaming overlaps with addictions and a number of other mental health conditions and behavioral disorders, especially those related to dissociation. These can include conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
Fluctuations in these conditions can influence the daily intensity or frequency of maladaptive daydreaming episodes. “Daily elevations” in maladaptive daydreaming refers to changes in how often they occur depending on someone’s overall mental health status.
Examples of Maladaptive Daydreaming Behaviors
“People who have this problem often report spending 4–5 hours per day immersed in daydreams . . . Often, they become so engrossed in their daydreams that they even prefer their inner fantasy life to their real life, and may become irritated, annoyed or upset when they can’t escape into their daydreams.”Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS
Example #1: Gaining Recognition and Praise
Sarah might spend hours each day imagining an alternate world where she is a celebrated musician. In her daydreams, she goes through intricate storylines, like performing at big concerts, facing challenges with bandmates, or navigating fame. While the daydreams themselves are enjoyable, she may neglect responsibilities, miss appointments, or isolate herself from friends to continue her internal narratives.
Example #2: Becoming the Hero
After facing bullying at school, Jake might immerse himself in a daydream where he’s a superhero, confronting villains and saving the day. This offers him an escape from his distressing reality and gives him a sense of power and control.
Example #3: Finding Love and Romance
Ava, feeling lonely, may daydream about detailed romantic relationships with a celebrity or a crush. These daydreams might consist of dates, conflicts, resolutions, and deep conversations. She feels seen and validated in her dreams but is still lonely and disappointed once the dreams are over.
Causes and Risk Factors of Maladaptive Daydreaming
Like other mental health conditions, MD is thought to be caused by a combination of factors, such as someone’s mood, upbringing, and genetics. Potential causes of maladaptive daydreaming can include:
- Using Dreams as Coping Mechanisms: Some people use maladaptive daydreaming as a coping mechanism in response to stress, anxiety, trauma, or other negative emotions. A 2020 study published in Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice found that among 100 patients with a history of trauma such as abuse, about half experienced maladaptive daydreaming in addition to other types of dissociation. While trauma is a risk factor for MD, not everyone who experiences MD has undergone trauma.
- Habit Formation: The more frequently one engages in maladaptive daydreaming, the more it becomes a habit. This could lead to daily elevations (more daydreaming) if the individual gets accustomed to retreating into their daydreams.
- Triggers: Just as certain events or stimuli can trigger episodes in conditions like PTSD, specific triggers might lead to increased maladaptive daydreaming in susceptible individuals. This could be related to stress, reminders of past events, exposure to certain media, or other factors. Daily challenges or increased daily stress often lead to more frequent or intense episodes. Stimuli such as music, books, or movies, can also be triggers and intensify or prompt daydreams.
Psychologists can spot signs of MD and diagnose this problem in patients using specific questionnaires and diagnostic scales, such as those related to ADHD, OCD, and depression. A newer scale was also developed in 2016 to identify MD, called the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale-16 (MDS-16).
MDS-16 includes a set of questions that reveal if someone is daydreaming in excessive amounts to the point that it’s disrupting their life. An example of an MSD-16 question is: “When a real-world event has interrupted one of your daydreams, how strong was your need or urge to return to that daydream as soon as possible?”
Implications and Concerns of MD
“As a person spends more and more time daydreaming and doing less interacting with others, the weaker their social abilities become and the harder it gets to start and maintain relationships.”Cleveland Clinic
As mentioned above, the reason that MD is destructive is because it interferes with someone’s ability to function as a normal adult. Here are some of the problems that MD can lead to:
- Emotional Distress: The emotional highs and lows experienced within the daydreams can have aftereffects in the real world, leading to mood fluctuations. While the daydreams themselves can be pleasurable, the realization of their effects and the potential contrast between fantasy and reality can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or sadness.
- Interference With Daily Responsibilities: Maladaptive daydreamers can spend hours lost in their fantasies, often at the cost of real-world tasks and responsibilities. Daily tasks, work, or school assignments can be neglected due to the time consumed by these daydreams.
- Social Isolation: Those who engage in MD might prefer their fantasy worlds to real-life interactions, leading to social withdrawal. Prolonged periods of MD can lead to social isolation as one may prefer their imagined worlds to real-world interactions.
- Sleep Disturbances: The urge to daydream can disrupt regular sleep patterns, causing insomnia or other sleep-related issues.
- Impaired Work or Academic Performance: Due to the time-consuming nature of these daydreams, an individual’s work or academic performance can suffer.
- Feeling Misunderstood: As MD is still a relatively new concept in the realm of psychological studies, many people, including health professionals, might not recognize or understand it. This is another cause of isolation and in some cases, depression.
Treatments for Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder
While daydreaming in itself isn’t harmful and can be a source of creativity and relaxation, when it becomes excessive and starts affecting one’s life negatively, it might be time to seek help or employ strategies to control it.
Here are ways to help manage or stop maladaptive daydreaming:
1. Awareness and Monitoring
- Recognizing the Problem: Identifying and accepting the issue is the first step. Some people might not realize how much time they’re spending in their fantasies, so pinpointing how often the daydreaming is happening is a good starting point.
- Monitoring and Awareness: For people who are aware that they engage in maladaptive daydreaming and are working toward managing it, tracking “daily elevations” or fluctuations could be useful. This can help to identify patterns or triggers and develop strategies to address them.
2. Professional Help
- Working With a Therapist: Therapists or counselors can help individuals with MD find coping strategies, such as ways to manage stress or anxiety. It’s recommended that people with ND find a licensed mental health professional who specializes in trauma, dissociative disorders, depression, PTSD, and/or OCD.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT has shown promise in helping individuals gain control over MD, including by limiting the amount and duration of daydreams by up to 50%. CBT works for MD because it identifies thoughts that contribute to addictions or dissociation and replaces them with healthier and more realistic thoughts and behaviors.
- Medication: In some cases, medications are used to manage conditions related to MD, such as ADHD or OCD, which may help lower the frequency or intensity of daydreams.
3. Limiting Triggers and Distractions
- Removing triggers: Some people might be prompted to daydream by specific triggers, such as certain types of music, locations, or activities. Recognizing and avoiding these can be helpful.
- Scheduling Daydreaming: Allocating specific times of day for daydreaming, such as 30 minutes before bed, can help in managing and gradually reducing the time spent on these fantasies.
4. Managing Stress
- Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices help people learn to tolerate the present moment and reality more easily instead of trying to escape them.
- Staying Active: Engaging in regular physical activity can divert the mind from daydreaming while also reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Getting Enough Sleep: Adequate sleep is useful for preventing daytime fatigue, which can worsen depression symptoms.
- Joining Support Groups: Online communities and forums can offer support and understanding from those with similar experiences. This is especially important for people with conditions such as MD that aren’t widely recognized and can feel isolating.
Alternatives to Maladaptive Dreaming: What to Do Instead
While daydreaming can have many positive aspects, such as helping with creativity and memory consolidation, it’s essential to strike a balance between escape mechanisms and staying grounded in reality. If daydreaming becomes excessive, it can interfere with one’s mental health, therefore it shouldn’t be used excessively or in place of other healthy coping mechanisms.
Here are ways to improve one’s general mental health and to cope with issues such as stress in a productive way:
- Engage in Real-Life Activities: Take up a hobby, learn something new, or engage in social activities that provide the pleasure and distraction of daydreams.
- Express Creativity: Channel a vivid imagination into writing, art, or other creative outlets.
- Stay Connected: Strengthening real-life relationships can help in feeling more connected and less reliant on fantasy worlds. Finding like-minded people online (such as on the Day Dream Place website) can also offer support.
Want to learn more about limiting distractions and improving productivity? Check out this article:
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- Summer, J. (2023, August 8). Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Tips. Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/mental-health/maladaptive-daydreaming
- Robson, D. (2022, August 28). ‘I just go into my head and enjoy it’: the people who can’t stop daydreaming. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/aug/28/i-just-go-into-my-head-and-enjoy-it-the-people-who-cant-stop-daydreaming
- Somer, E. (2002). Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 32(2/3), https://somer.co.il/articles/2002Malaptdaydr.contemp.psych.pdf
- Laderer, A. (2022, December 22). Here’s What Maladaptive Daydreaming Really Feels Like. Wondermind. https://www.wondermind.com/article/maladaptive-daydreaming/
- Bigelsen J, Lehrfeld JM, Jopp DS, Somer E. Maladaptive daydreaming: Evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Conscious Cogn. 2016 May;42:254-266. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.03.017. Epub 2016 Apr 12. PMID: 27082138.
- Maladaptive Daydreaming. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23336-maladaptive-daydreaming
- Pietkiewicz IJ, Nęcki S, Bańbura A, Tomalski R. Maladaptive daydreaming as a new form of behavioral addiction. J Behav Addict. 2018 Sep 1;7(3):838-843. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.95. Epub 2018 Sep 21. PMID: 30238787; PMCID: PMC6426361.
- Shafir, H. (2021, May 26). Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Treatments, & How to Cope. Choosing Therapy. Reviewed by Kristen Fuller, MD. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/maladaptive-daydreaming/
- Ross, C. A., Ridgway, J., & George, N. (2020). Maladaptive Daydreaming, Dissociation, and the Dissociative Disorders. Psychiatric Research and Clinical Practice. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.prcp.20190050
- Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale. Trauma Dissociation. http://traumadissociation.com/mds
- (2022, August 27). The 16-Point Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale: How Do You Score? Discussing Psychology. https://www.discussingpsychology.com/maladaptive-daydreaming/16-point-maladaptive-daydreaming-scale/
- Somer, E. (2018, January). Maladaptive Daydreaming: Ontological Analysis, Treatment Rationale; a Pilot Case Report. https://doi.org/10.XXXX/ftpd.2017.0006