Dr. Wright, M.D., is an Anatomic and Clinical Pathologist with a focus on hematopathology. She has a decade of experience in the study of disease.
It’s common to get lost in your thoughts every once in a while. 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. If your daydreams are so intense that they interfere with your daily life, however, you may be a maladaptive daydreamer.
Sometimes known as daydreaming disorder, maladaptive daydreaming describes a condition where a person regularly experiences daydreams that are intense and highly distracting — so distracting, in fact, that the person may stop engaging with the task or people in front of them. These daydreams may be triggered by real-life events or stimuli, such as a noise, smell, conversation topic, or movie.
Maladaptive dreamers may dissociate from reality to absorb themselves completely in their daydream and may unknowingly act out the behavior or speak dialogue for the characters in their daydream. The content of the daydreams is richly detailed and fantastical. Some have been described as a soap opera, while others feature an idealized version of the daydreamer.
Maladaptive daydreaming may develop as a coping strategy in response to trauma. The inner world may feel safer than the experience happening outside. For example, people with maladaptive daydreaming found themselves engaging in the behavior more frequently during the COVID-19 lockdown. They felt less able to control their urge to daydream, and the vividness of their daydreams intensified.
Maladaptive daydreaming was first defined in 2002 and is not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The prevalence of maladaptive daydreaming is unknown, but the condition appears to be more common among people with anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Over half of maladaptive daydreamers have a mental health disorder.
Symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming may include:
A person can exhibit one or more of these symptoms.
Maladaptive daydreams can be so immersive and lengthy that the person dissociates from the world around them, negatively impacting their relationships, work or school performance, sleep, and daily life. Studies of medical students have found that those who engaged in maladaptive daydreaming reported a significant decline in their GPA.
Maladaptive daydreamers may spend 4.5 hours of their day distracted by their daydreams. They may become so absorbed with their inner world that it becomes harder to ground themselves in reality. Due to the all-consuming, immersive nature of their daydreams, people may end up neglecting their relationships and responsibilities in the real world, causing them emotional distress. Unfortunately, despite the strong desire to daydream, people generally feel worse emotionally after doing so.
In general, people who daydream — maladaptively or not — are more likely to have troubled sleep. Poor sleep can cause sleep deprivation, which impairs one’s ability to focus, concentrate, and pay attention — all symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming. This may explain why a night of disturbed sleep tends to be followed by a day of maladaptive daydreaming.
Dissociation, another symptom of maladaptive daydreaming, is also associated with sleep disorders. Finally, some of the mental health conditions linked to maladaptive daydreaming, such as anxiety and depression, are associated with poor sleep.
Daydreams are a normal part of existence. They’re typically pleasant, though they can sometimes be annoying. While they can distract us from the task at hand, they offer several benefits, such as the ability to plan future events, relieve ourselves from boredom, find meaning in our life’s story, and boost our creativity.
While maladaptive daydreams can be pleasant as well, they are more likely to involve themes of violence, power, control, sex, captivity, or rescue and escape scenarios. Unlike traditional daydreams, maladaptive daydreams commonly enter the realm of fantasy.
Finally, normal daydreaming occurs entirely in the mind, while maladaptive daydreaming is an immersive experience that is often accompanied by repetitive movements, facial expressions, or verbalizations.
Experts still do not know what causes maladaptive daydreaming, and there’s no official method of diagnosis. While it has been linked to social anxiety or previous trauma, people may develop maladaptive daydreaming without any prior trauma. There is also some evidence that maladaptive daydreamers tended to have active imaginations as children.
Early researchers developed a test known as the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS) to further study and define the characteristics of MD. This 14-part self-assessment can help doctors determine whether a person is suffering from maladaptive daydreaming. A person rates the severity and frequency of their symptoms, answering questions like:
There is more than one proposed MDS reported in the literature. Depending on the scale used, different cutoff scores have been suggested to delineate those with clinically significant maladaptive daydreaming.
Due to the nature of the symptoms, maladaptive daydreaming can be confused with schizophrenia; however, these conditions are very different. Most notably, individuals who experience maladaptive daydreaming know that their daydreams are not real, while those with disorders like schizophrenia have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.
There is some overlap between maladaptive daydreaming and other conditions, however. Individuals with maladaptive daydreaming exhibit more symptoms of depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, and dissociation. They are also more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression.
There is no official course of treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. Fluvoxamine, a drug commonly prescribed to treat OCD, was found effective in a case study of one patient. Typically, treatment focuses on reducing the likelihood of experiencing a maladaptive daydream through better sleep and symptom management.
Adopting better sleep habits can improve your sleep quality and potentially have an impact on maladaptive daydreaming.
Set and follow a regular sleep schedule every day of the week, even weekends
Expose yourself to natural sunlight throughout the day, especially in the morning. Consider consuming caffeine for an extra boost, but avoid having more than 400 milligrams per day and schedule your last cup of coffee at least 6 hours before bed.
Use a small notepad or the notes app on your phone to record what you were doing before you had a maladaptive daydream. Once you know what your triggers are, you can take steps to avoid them or understand why they’re triggering you.
Explain your symptoms to people you trust, like family members and friends. This will help prevent your daydreams from straining the relationship while also enabling these people to help you by interrupting you when they notice symptoms occurring.
A therapist can help you process any underlying trauma and perhaps identify what’s triggering your maladaptive daydreaming. They can also recommend specific strategies for managing your symptoms. For example, grounding techniques can be helpful. Some therapists may also recommend changing your daydream’s plot endings from good to bad to make the daydream less rewarding.
If you feel addicted to daydreaming, or like your daydreams interfere with your daily life, talk to your doctor. They can provide recommendations for controlling your tendency to daydream and provide tips for better focus and better sleep.