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Do You Suffer From Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Although daydreaming is often healthy, it can also create serious problems.

Key points

  • Daydreams can be healthy. They can enhance creativity and problem-solving.
  • Some daydreams can be maladaptive. They may interfere with our ability to live our lives in the real world.
  • Maladaptive daydreaming can be related to underlying emotional difficulties. It can also become a compulsion.
  • The behaviors can be harmful if left untreated. But they can be changed.

“I really like Sam*,” Jenine* told me, “but he’s just not the man of my dreams.”

I asked her to tell me more about the man she dreamed of, and she went into a long and detailed description of what she imagined he would be like.

“It sounds like it would be hard for any man to live up to all of that,” I said.

“I know,” she said, “but it’s hard for me to settle for anything less than what I have in my mind.”

Krish* spent long hours creating a fabulous invention in his imagination. The only problem was that the invention never took form. Daydreams about how his ideas would lead to huge contracts and lots of money superseded practical plans for creating and developing his innovation. The end result was that Krish was unable to move forward in his real-life job because he spent so much time with his imagined career.

Dylan* is hooked on video games. They constantly think about the characters and their next moves or actions to take. They imagine themselves to be specific characters and make up stories about who they are outside the game.

Most adults daydream many times during the day, which is usually healthy and productive. Recently researchers have found good evidence that daydreams can enhance creativity, reduce depression, solve problems, help us deal with boredom, pain, and emotional discomfort, help organize our thoughts, prepare for the future, and organize our memories. As I wrote in a previous post, your daydreams can even improve your relationships.

However, when daydreams interfere with your real life, when you’d rather be involved in your daydream world than the real world and spend more time in your daydream world than the real world, then they have probably become maladaptive. One recent study defines maladaptive daydreaming as “excessively and addictively engaging in vivid, narrative, intensely emotional fantasy activity, at times with the aid of music and/or repetitive movements, causing distress and functional impairment.”

Recent research shows that worldwide levels of anxiety, stress, and depression increased during the pandemic, and studies show a simultaneous increase in maladaptive daydreaming.

Dylan, Krish, and Jenine were all struggling with this problematic side of daydreams. Their mind-wandering activities turned out to be interfering with their ability to live a satisfying life in the real world.

If your daydreams, or those of someone you love, are causing problems, here are some things you can do to change course.

First, try to determine the source of the problem. Research suggests that maladaptive or problematic daydreaming can be tied to other disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder and insomnia. Another recent study shows connections between maladaptive daydreams and specific personality traits. Individuals who suffer from separation anxiety may use daydreams of idealized relationships to deal with the anxieties that make it difficult to have satisfying interactions in real life, and for individuals with grandiose leanings, fantasies of power and domination can fulfill wishes that cannot be taken care of in life.

Treating the underlying disorder can help diminish problematic daydreaming

Some daydreams originate as an attempt to deal with painful life experiences. A child might develop a daydream world to escape a painful life, but if those daydreams become all-encompassing, over time, they could interfere with the child’s ability to develop a healthy relationship with the world.

Daydreams can initiate in the world around us through books, movies, video games, and other online activities; but when they become more stimulating or more gratifying than real life, it is time to take a look at what you might be avoiding and how you might make your life more satisfying.

It can be hard to separate from maladaptive daydreaming activities if they have become a compelling habit you feel powerless to stop. In such a case, it is important to seek help. Speak to a therapist who can work with the compulsive behavior while also looking at the underlying causes. Join a support group that focuses on both the behavior and the diagnosis that triggered it.

Gradually introducing activities that truly engage your mind and attention into your life can help make real life more interesting and rewarding to you. But real life cannot always be arranged as perfectly as a daydream. One of the difficulties that anyone who is immersed in a daydream world will have to deal with is the pain and disappointment of living in a world in which many of those fantasies are unfulfilled.

Jenine, for example, struggled to accept that Sam was not even close to her fantasy love. But as we worked over time to understand some of her wishes, dreams, and longings, it became clear that she was also worried about not living up to Sam’s—or anyone’s—expectations of her. “I never thought of myself as a perfectionist,” she told me one day. “But I have ridiculously unrealistic expectations for myself and for Sam.” She struggled with questions about accepting an inferior performance from herself and “settling” for Sam, but as she started to work on accepting her own flaws, Jenine became more comfortable with herself and with other people in her life—Sam included.

As Krish began to sort through the reasons for his refusal to leave the world of his make-believe inventions, he said, “I realize that I’m having trouble being myself. It’s not like I enjoy the process of inventing these incredible things in my brain. It’s just that I want the recognition, the sense of being better than myself—and being better than everyone else.”

It took time for him to begin to find pleasure in his work, but as he began to pay closer attention to what he was doing and to what he enjoyed doing, he realized that he did not really like his job. “Maybe that was part of the reason for the daydreams,” he said, “but the daydreams made it impossible for me to realize what was wrong.” Eventually, he changed jobs to something more satisfying. “I’m still not 100 percent comfortable with the fact that every day isn’t perfect, that I’m not getting lots of attention and praise for what I do, but I am enjoying my life a lot more now.”

Dylan needed a little extra help to disengage from the world of video games. Joining a support group and finding out more about the compulsive nature of the behavior helped them move forward. They also worked with a therapist to understand the reasons they were rejecting the real world and to explore and work on some underlying anger that was being expressed through participation in some of the more violent games. As they became more comfortable with and found new ways to manage their strong feelings, Dylan gradually left the daydreams behind.

Psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan wrote in his book Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry: “We are all much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.” Accepting our humanness and that of others in the world is one way out of maladaptive daydreams, which keep us in a world of unreality.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy

Copyright F. Diane Barth, 2022

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