Everyone’s mind wanders sometimes. An unexpected thought suddenly jumps into your mind, and the next thing you know, your body is present, but your attention is elsewhere. Maybe you’re replaying an earlier conversation, thinking about everything you could and should have said in the moment, or you imagine sandy beaches and the crash of ocean waves, mentally planning your next vacation.
“While we know little about maladaptive daydreaming, our knowledge of dreaming at night has advanced significantly,” says Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “In particular, our understanding of dreams has been enriched by research on lucid dreaming, the intriguing state with a fluid boundary between wakefulness and sleep.”
“Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques have allowed researchers to relate various phenomenological dream features to well-known patterns of brain activation. We now know that certain brain areas are consistently active during dreams, irrespective of sleep stage. Whether the same brain areas are involved in daydreaming is still an open question.”
You might even have drifted off in the middle of that paragraph. Actually, the odds of that having occurred are good; recent research suggests that nearly half of our waking time every day is spent thinking about something other than what we’re doing.
Despite how often they happen, these mental wanderings are usually brief and easily controlled. When needed, we can quickly return to the present moment and the reality around us. Our daydreams are little more than a blip in our day, a momentary and often forgettable distraction.
However, for some people, the mind wanders deeper into intense daydreams that form an important part of their day and pull them away from reality. Called maladaptive daydreaming, this experience goes far beyond just a lack of focus; it involves intricate daydreams that instead become the focus and can lead to more significant problems.
This article explores what maladaptive daydreaming is, its symptoms, and a few ways to manage these intense daydreaming episodes.
The Benefits of Daydreams
Occasional, even regular, mental excursions are completely natural. Even better, thereto these wanderings. When we let our minds roam freely, it allows our brains to take a momentary mental break, supports creativity and thinking about the future, helps us pass the time during mundane tasks, and can even contribute to a sense of meaning and purpose.
Of course, our ability to fully enjoy those benefits depends on whether we’re daydreaming at the right times and in the right ways. For that reason, many scientists have pointed to the pitfalls of the wandering mind. Some studies have linked a wandering mind to unhappiness.
Daydreaming is especially problematic in certain situations–for example, while sitting in an important meeting or engaging in dangerous or technical activities requiring focus–and when the time spent absorbed in daydreams becomes excessive.
What Makes Maladaptive Daydreaming Unique from Regular Daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming is, in a simplified sense, extreme daydreaming. These daydreamers spend too much time–often several hours a day–completely lost in thought, often neglecting their personal, professional, or social commitments along the way.
But what makes daydreaming maladaptive isn’t just a higher-than-usual rate of woolgathering. Maladaptive daydreams often also differ from regular daydreams in their intention and structure.
For most people, the mind wanders spontaneously. Maladaptive daydreaming, however, tends to happen on purpose. These daydreamers often intentionally lose themselves in the fantasy of their minds for long periods of time.
Moreover, their daydreams are rarely organic. Maladaptive daydreams are not a free-wheeling mental moment; instead, they are structured, complex, and creative, with sophisticated plots and characters and a rich overarching narrative. At the same time, the individual may disassociate from real life, preferring to engage with the world that they’ve created in their mind.
It’s important to note that while these fantasies may be robust and compelling, the line between the daydream and reality remains clear. This keeps maladaptive daydreaming distinct from disorders likewhich typically leads to a breakdown in the division of what’s real and what isn’t.
Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming
Here are some of the signs of maladaptive daydreaming:
- Vivid, intricate daydreams featuring dynamic characters, settings, plots, and other features
- Episodes of daydreaming triggered by events occurring in real life
- Long, drawn-out daydreams, even lasting several hours
- A strong urge to continue the daydream
- Neglect of everyday tasks, responsibilities, and relationships
- Distress resulting from daydreams or their impact on daily life
- Visible or audible engagement with the fantasy: facial expressions, other motions and gestures, speaking, or whispering
In addition, maladaptive daydreaming shareswith other behavioral addictions. In one study, researchers identified four themes in one man’s maladaptive daydreaming experience:
- Fear of social rejection;
- Seeking distraction and the release of tension;
- A strong imaginative component; and
- A sense of regret over what is sacrificed in pursuit of the addiction.
How Maladaptive Daydreaming Affects Sleep
When researchers explored the connection between a wandering mind, maladaptive daydreaming, and sleep, the results indicated that mind wandering and maladaptive daydreams were linked. Mind wandering and poor sleep were also linked. However, the data was not conclusive enough to determine the exact relationships between the three.
Surprisingly, the researchers suggested that poor sleep may actually deter a maladaptive daydreamer from engaging in their usual fantasies, given the amount of cognitive power needed to engage with these elaborate daydreams.
Even so, the study did indicate that a good night’s sleep may be helpful in staying focused the next day, keeping the mind from roaming in general.have linked a bad night’s sleep to poor cognitive performance, further underlining the importance of quality rest.
What Causes Maladaptive Daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming is generally considered an under-researched disorder, and, as such, experts don’t yet know exactly what causes it. However, some studies indicate that it may be a coping mechanism or escape from an uncomfortable or traumatic reality.
Researchers have also found that maladaptive daydreaming often occurs alongside other mental disorders. These include attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD), anxiety, and depression. However, the relationship between these disorders and maladaptive daydreaming, including any causal link, is unclear.(OCD),
Diagnosing Maladaptive Daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming was first identified as a condition in 2002, making it a fairly recent discovery in the medical world. This is why there are still so many questions about the condition, though knowledge about it continues to grow. It’s also why maladaptive daydreaming doesn’t yet have its own category or diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders.
Some researchers have explored the limitations created by this lack of categorization and suggested criteria for a diagnosis, such as using movement or music to intentionally trigger or enhance the daydream. Another tool that may be used to diagnose maladaptive daydreaming in patients is the (MDS).
The MDS was developed by the researcher who first identified maladaptive daydreaming as a condition. The test, which measures self-reported responses, includes 14 questions. These questions explore what triggers the daydreams, any physical experiences that accompany each episode, how it feels to daydream, the impacts that are experienced by engaging in fantasies, and the impact of not being able to daydream.
Treatments for Maladaptive Daydreaming
Just as there is no authoritative method for diagnosing maladaptive daydreams, there are no officially-defined treatments for the condition. That said, experts have suggested a few techniques that may help manage the disorder. These include the following.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Even though the relationship between maladaptive daydreaming and sleep is murky, improving your sleep is always a good idea. It is essential to support good overall physical and mental health for sleep.
A few ways to improve your sleep hygiene and help you get the best sleep possible are:
- Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule
- Creating a cozy bedroom environment with a supportive mattress and good pillows
- Engaging in soothing bedtime routines and rituals
Regular exercise for better sleep and engaging in light stretching before bed also help to ensure a good night’s rest.
Track and Understand Your Symptoms
When working to manage maladaptive daydreaming symptoms, it can be helpful to keep a journal of what triggers your daydreams. Over time, you may discover the patterns in your behaviors and episodes of daydreaming.
Are there certain songs, experiences, or places that consistently send you deep into your imagination? Do particular themes play through your daydreams? Identifying those patterns may point to the root cause of your maladaptive daydreams, allowing you to better understand and address them.
Because maladaptive daydreaming is often correlated with childhood trauma and several other mental health conditions, seeking the support of a mental health expert may be helpful for some people in learning to manage the condition and their symptoms.
A trained counselor or psychologist may help patients identify and work through the experiences and symptoms contributing to maladaptive daydreaming. Many times, they can also recommend more productive ways to address those concerns, offering an alternative to maladaptive daydreaming as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is maladaptive daydreaming caused by?
Maladaptive daydreaming, like other forms of maladaptive behavior, may have its roots in childhood or adult trauma, a developmental disorder, anxiety, or autism, among other potential causes. Loneliness is often a driving force behind maladaptive daydreaming, as patients may create a complex imaginary world to replace the social connections they feel they lack.
Daydreaming in response to a stressful situation can be healthy, but it becomes a problem when patients spend hours imagining situations and neglecting daily tasks.
What are some examples of maladaptive behavior?
Maladaptive behavior is behavior that prevents an individual from living their life fully and limits their ability to adjust to situations. Examples of maladaptive behavior include over-the-top avoidance of problems, withdrawing from social situations, passive-aggressiveness, angry outbursts, and acts of self-harm.
Its opposite counterpart, adaptive behavior, involves a person choosing to solve a problem head-on or minimize the chances of unwanted harm. This may include a person taking actions they don’t enjoy but acknowledge are necessary to resolve the issue.
How do I get rid of maladaptive daydreaming?
Speaking with a professional can give a patient insight into how they can get their maladaptive daydreaming under their control. Potential specialists that can help with maladaptive daydreaming include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and other counselors, and social workers.
There is no specific treatment for maladaptive daydreaming since it is rarely diagnosed as a standalone condition. Prescription medications for OCD and cognitive-behavioral therapy have proved effective for some patients. There is also acalled exposure and response prevention, where patients are asked to imagine unpleasant endings to their fantasies to deter daydreaming.
Is maladaptive daydreaming a symptom of autism?
At present, there is no consensus on the exact causes or underlying factors of maladaptive daydreaming. There is currently limited research specifically exploring the relationship between maladaptive daydreaming and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some individuals with autism may engage in extensive daydreaming or have rich imaginative worlds as part of their autistic traits or coping mechanisms.
However, it is important to note that it’s not the only potential underlying condition. Maladaptive daydreaming has also been linked to depression, anxiety, dissociation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Is maladaptive daydreaming harmful?
By its nature, maladaptive daydreaming keeps a person from living their life to the fullest. It is not the same thing as occasionally daydreaming or the mind simply wandering when bored. Instead, it is essentially an addiction that distracts a person from life tasks.
While maladaptive daydreaming will not directly cause physical harm, it can lead to mental distress. A patient may become increasingly isolated due to maladaptive daydreaming or they may find themselves unable to meet the demands of their job.
Is maladaptive daydreaming the same as a fever dream?
Maladaptive daydreaming and fever dreams are different experiences. Maladaptive daydreaming refers to excessive and immersive daydreaming that interferes with daily life. Meanwhile, a fever dream is a vivid dream that occurs during a fever.
Everyone gets lost in thought every once in a while, but few people experience such a robust and intense imaginative life as those with maladaptive daydreaming. But while this condition can be fascinating and comforting, it can also draw people too far from their reality, leading them to neglect their personal, professional, and social obligations.
Improving sleep hygiene, understanding daydream symptoms and triggers, and seeking professional mental health support may help these daydreamers find their way back to a normal everyday life.