Home » What is Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Are your daydreams so intense you often lose track of time? Do you like to put on music and create imaginative scenarios in your head? Are you performing a repetitive motion (rocking back and forth, pacing, etc) when you’re daydreaming?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you might be a maladaptive daydreamer. Keep reading to find out for sure.

When I was a kid, I loved to create stories. I’d write, come up with scripts, even act them out.

Most of the time, I liked to just… imagine them in my head. I’d lie down, put on music and visualize different characters, settings, plotlines, and whatnot. Oftentimes, it got so intense, my heart rate increased and I had profound emotional responses.

I eventually grew out of it and I always felt that it was something weird I did as a little kid. Now I realize it’s something that many people are doing. Even as adults!

I encountered the term maladaptive daydreaming 5 years ago. It perfectly explained a lot of these personal experiences and anecdotes I’ve heard from others.

“Maladaptive daydreaming, also called excessive daydreaming, is a proposed diagnosis of a disordered form of dissociative absorption associated with excessive fantasy that is not recognized by any major medical or psychological criteria. It can result in distress, can replace human interaction and may interfere with normal functioning such as social life or work.”

Various threads online and early research described this phenomenon, often citing that it can cause great distress, even dissociative episodes.

But how can daydreaming be bad for you? What’s the line between imagination and maladaptive daydreaming?

After all, we often use visualization to express archetypes and our personal mythology

In this blog post, I’ll explore the cause of maladaptive daydreaming, the symptoms, and how to stop them.

What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

As I mentioned, maladaptive daydreaming is essentially an overactive imagination resulting in an excess of daydream. 

Given how new this daydreaming disorder is, we’re still investigating the nuances. The term was coined by Eli Somer of the University of Haifa but research is limited beyond his.

Having said that, if you dive deep into the anecdotal experiences, you’ll find that there’s a common undercurrent, a cluster of symptoms that appears every time:

  • Losing track of time 
  • Daydreaming more than 1 hour at a time
  • Complex characters and plot lines
  • Emotionally invested in these characters
  • Compulsive, repeated movement throughout the episode (rocking back and forth, moving your hands or your legs, pacing, etc.)
  • Increased heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Extremely vivid visuals that trigger emotional responses
  • Involuntary movement or speaking, acting out the daydream

In 2020, there was an explosion of reports regarding intense daydreaming, perhaps a coping mechanism for our lack of control over our lives. 

It’s not uncommon to use escapism when we’re dealing with a particularly stressful situation. It can be healthy to blow off steam. It becomes problematic when it interferes with our daily lives.

5 Signs you are a maladaptive daydreamer 

When I first started reading about maladaptive daydreaming, I just couldn’t understand why it’s bad for you. 

But reading people’s accounts made me realize that it can cause issues.

1. Spending Too Much Time Daydreaming

I don’t want to throttle anyone’s imagination but there is such a thing as too much thinking. If you find yourself spending 2, 3, 4 hours per day visualizing imaginary scenarios in your head, then you might be a maladaptive daydreamer.

2. Daydreaming Interferes with Real Life

Some people report that they prefer to sit at home and daydream instead of socializing or even working.

This can be a major red flag. When daydreaming becomes a compulsion, it’s a sign of maladaptive daydreaming.

3. Unconsciously switching from Reality to Fantasy

Everyone spaces out occassionally. I can’t even remember how many times people have commented that I look distracted.

But if it’s happening constantly, for more than a few minutes, to the point that you completely shut off reality then it’s an issue. Especially when you have trouble focusing on the task at hand.

4. Strong Desire/Addiction to Daydream

Throughout the day, people who are maladaptive daydreamers feel a strong urge to go back home and daydream. If they don’t, they experience negative emotions and withdrawal symptoms.

Moreso, reality can trigger them; positive or negative events can intensify their desire to daydream and replay them in their head.

5. Unconscious facial expressions or repeated movements

I’ve already mentioned that maladaptive daydreaming is usually accompanied by compulsive movements. But talking or moving as if you were the character of your daydreams isn’t uncommon.

Many maladaptive daydreamers report that they aren’t always aware they’re doing it until they see themselves on camera.

6. Ritual and Feeling of satisfaction

Daydreaming can be very gratifying. The immersive experience triggers powerful emotional responses that leave you completely satisfied and content.

The issue is that eventually, you come down from this inflated high, tired and anxious. The ritualistic aspect of maladaptive daydreaming usually includes emotional music and the dramatization of your past or future, often resulting in a diminished motivation to live your life that can never match your idealistic versions.

Maladaptive vs Normal Daydreaming 

Obviously, there are some key differences between normal daydreams and this disorder. But what sets them apart is the very content of the daydream.

Usually, normal daydreams involve a reorganization of your memories, while imagining a positive, future outcome.

For example, you get promoted in your job and you start visualizing a new car or house.

On the other hand, maladaptive daydreaming involves fantasy and unrealistic visualization. Excessive behaviors like violence, sexual acts or outright impossible scenarios.

You’ll find yourself responding to external stimuli by self-indulging in daydreams where you’re the protagonist and the world can bend to your will…

Maladaptive Daydreaming and the Jungian Shadow

This brings us to the “why are you a maladaptive daydreamer?” question.

The content of these daydreams confesses that there are some repressed emotions behind them. To use Jung’s term, when we don’t integrate our shadow into our conscious life, it ends up spilling over in various ways.

“A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour”

What if maladaptive daydreaming is a symptom of this dark side of your subconscious?

And instead of projecting it onto others, we’re coping by using maladaptive daydreaming. It makes sense because the daydreaming disorder often manifests characteristics that we lack in real life.

Brute but powerful, the character of your daydreams possesses that which is suppressed. 

Active Imagination and Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming can be an opportunity to explore the psychological underpinnings of your personality and potentially mend wounds and traumas.

It requires a shift in your perspective when daydreaming, allowing you to observe as an outsider and break down the characters and events that are unfolding, analytically. Jung’s active imagination techniques come to mind.

“Active imagination requires a state of reverie, half-way between sleep and waking. Without this playing with fantasy, no creative work has ever yet come to birth”

The key here is to consciously let a daydream emerge and pay attention to the themes and characters that emerge.

Then, apply it to your life, essentially determining why and in what way they’re manifested.

For example, if you’re imagining yourself being the hero by saving the world from an alien invasion, consider that you might not be getting the recognition you desire in real life. So, the daydream is a safe space where you can unabashedly get all the attention you need.

It won’t always be a pleasant experience. It requires radical honesty and self-acceptance of your negative personality traits.

(Writing down your REAL dreams can also be helpful)

How to treat Maladaptive Daydreaming?

If your daydreams take over your life and you feel addicted to them, you might want to consider taking some steps to reduce their frequency.

(While the daydream disorder isn’t officially recognized as a mental health disorder, there’s some evidence to suggest that it can accompany more serious issues like OCD and generalized anxiety. It’s wise to talk to your physician about this)

1. Set up a predetermined block of time to daydream

Instead of giving in to the urges every time they come up, try to limit daydreaming into predetermined bursts. 

  • Set up a timer for 30 minutes
  • Consciously think that you’re about to daydream
  • When it ends, consciously think that you’re coming out of the daydream
  • Start with x3 times per day and slowly decrease it

When you know that you’ll be able to indulge in daydreaming, it’ll be easier to focus on reality.

2. Identify your triggers

Like most addictions, certain triggers can increase your desire to daydream. Movies, music, certain real-life situations.

Simply being aware of your predisposition can diminish their effect on you. 

If you want to take things one step further, temporarily removing these triggers from your life can be very beneficial.

3. Therapy

In the previous section, I talked about using active imagination to shift the context of daydreams. With the help of a therapist, you can identify the root of the problem much quicker.

Understanding why you’re a maladaptive daydreamer, on a deeper level, can offer instant release.

4. Dreams

Many people don’t realize that dreaming during our sleep is similar to dreaming during the day. Oftentimes, there’s consistency between them, highlighting the same patterns.

Learning how to sleep and dream deeper could remove the need to overcompensate when you’re awake.

5. Write!

Maladaptive daydreamers are said to be very creative individuals. Directors, novelists, musicians that are using their talents only in their head.

Why don’t you try to pen down a few of your intense daydreams? Write a story, a script. Use this habit to CREATE!

6. Stop burying your head in the sand

I’m certain this will bother some of you but I believe it’s important to mention this.

Practically all humans tend to avoid their problems, one way or another. It’s a survival mechanism.

There’s a possibility that maladaptive daydreaming might be a habit you have acquired because you feel unsatisfied with your life.

“George, everyone does this…”

Yes, but the key difference is that maladaptive daydream can numb you to the perfectly natural responses of disappointment, regret, and fear. Negative emotions can jolt you into action.

Learning to accept reality as is and taking actionable steps towards improving your situation is the way to go.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The movie was released in 2013 but it’s based on a short story written in 1939 by James Thurber.

Even though the term maladaptive daydreaming wasn’t relevant back then, it seems that the cluster of symptoms was well documented. 

Described as an inconsequential dreamer, the character of the story is the representation of dreamers who fantasizes heroic adventures — in contrast with their tame, quiet lives.

In the movie, we see that a protagonist is a man who keeps letting life pass him by. He’s the quintessential underachiever; very talented but his achievements are left unrecognized because of his own passivity.

For Walter Mitty, daily life is a movie. He doesn’t get to participate, he can only watch.

Eventually, he realizes that there are so many opportunities out there. All he has to do is reach out and grab one.

The daydreams slowly fade away as he fills life with adventures and new experiences.

P.S – Do you think maladaptive daydreaming is a real disorder or daydreaming is always normal?


2 thoughts on “What is Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment”

  1. My daughter suffers from this. From as young as 4. It took me until she was about 11 years old to figure out she was doing this. She had characters, scenarios, and could actually seem to interact with them in her mind. She would write these intense and elaborate stories. I would urge her to write them down and share. Little did I know it was her dealing with anxiety. As a mother I felt unable to help. I didn’t see the anxiety but it was there. She just began her freshman year of college this year, and it’s still hard for her to finish things. Her anxiety is still there but medicated by her doctor. I realize this is a problem she must deal with. Still I feel helpless and like I’ve failed in a way, but I definitely believe this is a vine off of the mental illness tree. It needs to be considered with care. Not overlooked. She’s suffered from it and it’s impaired a lot of her life. To other moms my advice is take notice. Help your child as much as YOU can.

    • Thank you for sharing this. I think more children are “suffering” from this than we realize. It’s a powerful coping mechanism. I hope she manages to channel her creativity the right way. And I don’t think you’ve failed. Even the medical establishment didn’t recognize maladaptive daydreaming until very recently.


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