Maladaptive Daydreaming: What It Is, Symptoms & Tips

February 22, 2024

When daydreams take over, where do you turn for answers? Maladaptive daydreaming is a condition where vivid daydreams commandeer your attention, and you end up spending excessive amounts of time daydreaming. While daydreaming can act as a beneficial coping strategy for some individuals facing mental health issues like anxiety, it becomes maladaptive when it disrupts daily functioning. This excessive daydreaming can hinder important aspects of life, including work, hobbies, and personal or social relationships. Recognizing the causes of maladaptive daydreaming and exploring treatment options, such as professional therapy, are crucial steps toward enhancing overall quality of life.

Key Takeaways

  • Maladaptive daydreaming is a behavioral addiction that involves intense and vivid daydreams, which can serve as an escape from reality or a way to cope with stress, negatively impacting daily life and productivity.
  • There is typically no formal diagnostic standard for maladaptive daydreaming, but it is often associated with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and PTSD, which can complicate the management of this behavior.
  • Treatment options for maladaptive daydreaming include professional help, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, improving sleep quality, managing fatigue, understanding symptoms and triggers, and addressing associated mental health issues.

What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming, often mistakenly categorized as excessive daydreaming, is a behavioral addiction where individuals spend a significant amount of time daydreaming. These aren’t your average daydreams. They are immersive, vivid, and emotionally intense, frequently serving as an escape from reality or a coping mechanism for difficult emotions. 

The term “maladaptive daydreaming” is relatively new. It was coined in 2002 by Eli Somer, a clinical psychology professor in Israel.

There’s limited research available on how commonly maladaptive daydreaming happens. That’s partly because this isn’t an officially recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) yet. However, one early study put the number at 2.5% of adults in Israel, and slightly higher — about 4.3% — for younger adults who are students.

Another study estimated that maladaptive daydreaming affects about 20% of adults with ADHD. That would mean it affects at least 2.2 million adults in the United States, which doesn’t even account for people who have it but don’t have ADHD.

Despite the lack of formal diagnostic criteria, efforts to understand and assess the severity of maladaptive daydreaming have led to the development of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS). This tool has shown efficacy in evaluating the condition's impact on individuals.

Maladaptive daydreaming, is more than just a daydreaming disorder. It’s a complex condition that can severely impact an individual’s daily life and mental health. This condition in severe cases can interfere with an individual’s ability to manage ordinary life circumstances, and can negatively impact the quality of their life. But what exactly does a maladaptive daydream look like? And how can it affect your life? We will now examine further.

Understanding Maladaptive Daydreams

Unlike healthy daydreaming, which minimally impacts daily activities, maladaptive daydreams are intense experiences that disrupt daily functioning. They often involve repetitive physical actions, like pacing or rocking, further distinguishing them from normal daydreaming.

This form of daydreaming acts as a reprieve from intolerable emotions and conflicts, offering a temporary escape from reality. Recognizing daydreaming triggers can assist individuals in managing their symptoms.

How Does Maladaptive Daydreaming Disrupt Daily Life

Maladaptive daydreaming can cause significant disruptions in daily tasks and productivity. By causing a dissociation from the world, it can lead to difficulties in focusing, completing tasks, and impacting work or school performance. Not only does it affect an individual’s productivity, but it can also strain their relationships and fulfillment of responsibilities.

Often, individuals experiencing maladaptive daydreaming may:

  • Prioritize their daydreams over real-life obligations
  • Neglect their duties, leading to strained interactions with others and impacting relationships
  • Feel a lack of control over their daydreaming, leading to feelings of shame and guilt

The Link Between Maladaptive Daydreaming and Mental Health Conditions

Maladaptive daydreaming typically does not exist in isolation. It’s frequently linked to other mental health conditions such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • PTSD
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Depression often coexists with maladaptive daydreaming, with individuals showing increased signs of depression. Anxiety disorders are often linked to maladaptive daydreaming, with signs of both generalized and social anxiety. Even though there’s no standardized diagnostic method, acknowledging its influence on mental health is necessary.

This makes it a complex condition that requires comprehensive understanding and management. This is why one of the most common treatment options for a maladaptive daydreamer is to speak with a mental health professional who can work with you to understand your symptoms, the severity of your condition, and spend the necessary time with you to properly address the issue. The mental health professionals at Resilience Lab are here to provide you with the dedicated and personalized care that you deserve.

Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming

The manifestations of maladaptive daydreaming can be disruptive and distressing. Excessive daydreaming often interferes with social activities, work, and other pursuits, and is often accompanied by strong feelings of shame and guilt. To formally diagnose maladaptive daydreaming, a mental health professional would need to evaluate the individual’s symptoms and their impact on daily life.

Physical symptoms are also common in maladaptive daydreaming. Individuals often display repetitive movements such as:

  • Rocking
  • Pacing
  • Running
  • Spinning

People with maladaptive daydreaming experience symptoms that not only impact their mental health but also manifest physically, disrupting daily life. Physical behaviors such as pacing, rocking, spinning, and running can interfere with routine activities and social interactions, illustrating the depth of engagement with their daydreams. Beyond these physical manifestations, emotional and cognitive symptoms include intense feelings of longing or yearning within their daydreams, difficulty concentrating on real-world tasks, and feelings of distress when unable to daydream. Together, these symptoms paint a fuller picture of how maladaptive daydreaming can significantly affect an individual's functioning.

What Actually Causes Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Examining the origins of maladaptive daydreaming reveals diverse contributing factors. These include childhood trauma, mental health conditions, or these daydreams serving as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions or situations. It can be difficult to fully understand the cause of a mental health behavior such as maladaptive dreaming because each case is different for each individual. That's why finding a therapist who can dedicate the required time to understanding your individual situation may be the best option.

Generally, this form of daydreaming may serve as an escape from distress or helplessness, particularly in the context of trauma or mental health issues. Frequently, it is associated with mental health conditions such as:

  • ADHD
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • OCD
  • PTSD

Who Does Maladaptive Daydreaming Most Commonly Affect?

Certain demographics are more prone to becoming maladaptive daydreamers. Although this condition can impact anyone, young adults and individuals with a history of abuse or trauma are most commonly affected.

Maladaptive daydreaming most frequently affects individuals aged 15 to 40. While it is more common in males, it's particularly prevalent among those in the student-age category, which includes both younger individuals and older students pursuing higher education or returning to school. This distinction underscores that maladaptive daydreaming can impact adults engaged in academic studies, not just younger students.

Treatment Options For Maladaptive Daydreaming

While maladaptive daydreaming can be challenging to manage, there are several treatment options available. These most commonly include:

  • Professional mental health support
  • Enhancing sleep quality
  • Fatigue management
  • Understanding your symptoms and triggers
  • Addressing related mental health disorders

Seeking professional help from a mental health therapist who has experience with treating behavioral addictions and maladaptive dreaming is critical. Individuals should speak with their therapist regarding maladaptive daydreaming if they experience a sense of addiction to daydreaming or if their daydreaming significantly disrupts their daily activities. In addition to professional help, specific lifestyle improvements such as enhancing sleep quality and effectively managing fatigue also play significant roles in treating maladaptive daydreaming.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.

Professional Mental Health Support

Professional help, particularly cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), can be highly effective in managing maladaptive daydreaming. It assists individuals in:

  • Disengaging from maladaptive thoughts
  • Identifying triggers
  • Challenging unrealistic beliefs
  • Developing alternative behaviors

Therapists play an important role in handling maladaptive daydreaming. They utilize various therapeutic models, including CBT, to assist individuals in:

  • Identifying the underlying reasons for their daydreaming
  • Addressing any unresolved trauma or past issues
  • Identifying triggers
  • Recommending strategies for managing this condition
  • Addressing underlying mental health conditions

The therapists at Resilience Lab offer mental health care that is a personalized fit for your needs. You can learn more about our methodology to understand our therapy framework.

Enhancing Sleep Quality

Enhancing sleep quality is another important part of managing maladaptive daydreaming. Good sleep hygiene can help individuals feel more alert and less fatigued during the day, reducing the likelihood of slipping into daydreams.

Establishing regular sleep schedules can aid in managing maladaptive daydreaming by enhancing sleep quality, reducing stress, and establishing a consistent routine for daydreaming. Other recommended sleep hygiene practices include establishing a calming bedtime routine, and avoiding electronic devices before bedtime.

Fatigue Management

Fatigue management is also key in handling maladaptive daydreaming. Exposure to natural sunlight, especially bright light, can positively affect mental alertness by reducing fatigue, which in turn can aid in managing maladaptive daydreaming.

For those with limited access to natural sunlight or during seasons with shorter daylight hours, light therapy lamps offer a beneficial alternative. These lamps, commonly used to help with depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), work by simulating sunlight to boost energy levels and improve overall mood, combating one of the key components of these conditions: fatigue.

Caffeine consumption plays a significant role in increasing alertness and reducing fatigue by blocking adenosine, a sleep-inducing chemical, which in turn improves reaction time and wakefulness. However, it’s important to monitor caffeine intake, with the appropriate daily allowance for adults being up to 400 milligrams.

Understanding Your Triggers

Comprehending your symptoms and triggers is a vital step in managing maladaptive daydreaming. Identifying triggers allows individuals to gain insight into the situations, emotions, or thoughts that prompt their maladaptive daydreaming, thereby empowering them to better manage their symptoms.

Typical triggers for maladaptive daydreaming encompass psychological factors such as:

  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Large life changes
  • Past trauma
  • Difficulty with everyday challenges
  • Emotions like fear and self-doubt

Upon recognition of triggers, individuals should take measures to reduce the day-to-day impact of  them or gain a deeper understanding of why these triggers result in maladaptive daydreaming.

Treating Associated Mental Health Disorders

Addressing related mental health disorders could potentially reduce the symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming. Disorders such as OCD and anxiety, which are frequently linked to maladaptive daydreaming, can be effectively treated with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Cognitive behavioral therapy can aid individuals in comprehending the reasons behind their maladaptive daydreaming and offer techniques to effectively manage it, especially when it is associated with underlying mental health disorders. This therapy is widely recognized as an effective approach for a range of conditions that may relate to maladaptive daydreaming such as:

  • OCD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Dissociative disorders

Tips For Living With Maladaptive Daydreams

Living with maladaptive daydreams can be challenging, but there are several practical tips that can help manage this condition in daily life. These include practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries, and engaging in social activities.

Mindfulness training is beneficial for focusing on the present moment, reducing the inclination towards excessive daydreaming. Implementing specific boundaries, such as designated daydreaming times or creating distraction-free environments, helps in managing triggers and maintaining control over daydreaming habits. It's also helpful to engage in social activities that demand attention, focus, and active participation. Choosing activities that require direct involvement, rather than passive ones like watching a game or a play, can minimize opportunities for daydreaming by anchoring individuals in the reality of the interaction.

Maladaptive Daydreaming Prevention

Prevention is often considered an important strategy for helping with conditions such as maladaptive daydreaming. Strategies for preventing this condition include addressing underlying mental health issues, practicing self-care, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

As stated earlier, addressing underlying mental health issues can prevent maladaptive daydreaming by helping individuals process trauma, identify triggers, and develop coping mechanisms. Participating in self-care activities, such as incorporating enjoyable and stimulating activities into your daily routine, can play a significant role in preventing maladaptive daydreaming. Occupying your mind with tasks and goals, and participating in activities with others to keep your mind grounded can also prevent maladaptive daydreaming.

How Can Resilience Lab Can Help Treat Maladaptive Daydreaming

Professional assistance can be extremely beneficial in managing maladaptive daydreaming. Resilience Lab can help by providing:

  • Personalized psychotherapy that is customized for your needs
  • A holistic assessment to address contributing factors for your unique situation
  • Personalized care that offers measurable outcomes

We welcome you to learn more about our mental health professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are a few of the most commonly asked questions about maladaptive daydreaming. Although each case is unique, below are the broad answers to some of these questions. For a more specific answer or guidance, we recommend you reach out to our team of therapists.

What are the most common symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming is marked by symptoms like prolonged intricate daydreams, trouble focusing, and a strong emotional investment in these fantasies. Individuals may find themselves isolated because of daydreaming, leading to disruptions in daily activities and the exhibition of repetitive physical movements during their daydreams. Despite being aware of the excessive nature of their daydreams, they often find it challenging to disengage from them. For those experiencing these symptoms, seeking professional help can be beneficial.

Can you grow out of maladaptive daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming isn't typically something one 'grows out of' like a childhood habit. Instead, it often requires conscious effort and strategies to manage or reduce its impact. Some individuals may find that the intensity or frequency of their daydreams diminishes over time, especially with the development of new coping mechanisms or lifestyle changes. Engaging in therapy, mindfulness practices, and structured daily routines can significantly help in redirecting the focus from daydreams to reality. However, the journey towards managing maladaptive daydreaming varies from person to person, and it's important to seek personalized guidance and support, such as the resources offered at Resilience Lab.

What is an example of maladaptive daydreaming?

An example of maladaptive daydreaming might involve someone imagining themselves as a successful novelist. They spend several hours each day lost in detailed fantasies about their fictional success, developing complex storylines and characters. This daydreaming becomes so absorbing that it interferes with their real-world responsibilities, like work tasks or social interactions. They might pace around the room or make facial expressions as they deeply engage with their daydream. Despite realizing that this extensive daydreaming is impacting their daily life, they find it difficult to stop or control it. This scenario illustrates how maladaptive daydreaming can create an immersive inner world that competes with actual life engagements.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.

Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.

Get started with therapy today.

Our team can help you find the right therapist.