It’s pretty typical and even healthy to daydream, as daydreaming has been linked to increased creativity and goal setting and often serves as a way to give the brain some rest. However, people who engage in maladaptive daydreaming tend to spend excessive amounts of time and attention engrossed in complex, vivid, and structured daydreams, often being distracted from their real lives. Maladaptive daydreamers may have difficulty controlling their daydreaming, but they do recognize that their dreams aren’t reality.
Many (though not all) maladaptive daydreamers begin engaging in their daydreaming in childhood as a means of coping or escaping tough life events or trauma. This often involves creating fictional characters or ideal versions of themselves or their lives. Their fantasies can allow them to escape from feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, boredom, and general unhappiness, and can sometimes continue into adulthood.
The fantasies of maladaptive daydreamers are often quite complex, involving various characters and storylines. These storylines allow them to not only control the lives of their fantasy characters, but they also allow them to rewrite their own stories in an idealized way.
Many maladaptive daydreamers experience these stories as movies or plays within their minds, sometimes using stimuli such as images, video clips, or music to intensify their daydreams. They may become so involved in their fantasies that they make movements, facial expressions, or vocalizations while daydreaming. The more vivid they can make their daydreams, the more they are able to disengage from their reality, leading to an ongoing desire to engage in maladaptive daydreaming.
This cycle can make maladaptive daydreamers feel that they need to constantly rely on their fantasies to meet their emotional needs, further disconnecting them from their real-life relationships and responsibilities. Neglecting daily tasks can have unhealthy impacts on work, school, relationships, hygiene, the upkeep of living spaces, etc.
Difficulties related to maladaptive daydreaming may include things such as becoming upset or frustrated when daydreaming is interrupted, not meeting deadlines at work or school, being unable to focus on tasks or conversations, ceasing leisure activities or hobbies in favor of daydreaming, not being able to control daydreaming to focus on other things, needing to daydream to feel calm, preferring daydreams over real-life activities and interactions, and excessively using movies, games, music, the internet, or fan fiction to augment daydreams.
While it’s estimated that humans spend a good portion of our time with wandering minds, there are some clear distinctions between typical daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming. These distinctions can be made according to the content of the daydreams and the impacts the daydreaming has on a person’s life.
Typical daydreaming usually consists of daydreams that are short, is often used for creative purposes or reaching goals, provides a mental respite, is considered less significant than someone’s real life, does not lead to distress or problems navigating daily life, is related to distraction or boredom, and attention can easily be redirected or reinstated.
In maladaptive daydreaming, however, daydreams can last for hours, creativity and productivity are lessened, daydreaming is used as an emotional escape rather than a mental break, and daydreams are considered equally important to or even more important than someone’s reality. Additionally, maladaptive daydreaming tends to eventually lead to distress or problems navigating daily life, can be highly enjoyable while the person is fantasizing, and it can be difficult to control or stop.
While not currently a recognized diagnosis, maladaptive daydreaming appears to share many of the same traits as other neurodivergencies or diagnoses, particularly those related to impulse control, attention (such as ADHD), dissociation, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive behavior (such as OCD). Maladaptive daydreamers also often experience difficulties related to anxiety, depression, and PTSD or C-PTSD.
Since maladaptive daydreaming isn’t an official diagnosis, there isn’t a set diagnostic tool to screen for it. That said, there is a 14-part scale, known as the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS), that is sometimes used to determine whether or not a person is experiencing maladaptive daydreaming. Questions on this scale are related to the vividness and content of daydreams, the amount of stress caused by daydreams, the extent of interference in daily life caused by daydreaming, the perceived satisfaction and benefits a person acquires from daydreaming, and the individual’s ability to control, stop, and redirect their attention while daydreaming.
There are currently no evidence-based methods for coping with maladaptive daydreaming. However, since there is a known correlation between trauma and maladaptive daydreaming, many maladaptive daydreamers find trauma-informed therapy to be of benefit. In addition to therapy, coping strategies may include keeping a journal to track daydreaming, exercising, art making, joining a social community with others who experience maladaptive daydreaming, and engaging in mindfulness practices that require a greater sense of presence. Reducing the amount of time spent online, reading, watching TV, or listening to music that enhances daydreams may also be beneficial.