Maladaptive Daydreams: How To Stop Getting Lost In The World of Imagination
‘Zoning out’ and getting lost in fantasy is a recognized psychological impairment. Understand more about daydream disorder, and how to overcome it.
There’s a stigma around zoning out. Whether missing parts of a conversation or not paying attention at school, drifting off into the land of daydreams isn’t socially acceptable. In recent years, the focus on mindfulness, and paying attention to the moment, reinforces this point: daydreaming is a distraction, undesirable, a way to disconnect from the present moment.
But not all daydreaming is bad. Mind wandering has been linked with all sorts of positive benefits, from high creativity and intelligence. Zoning out from your immediate environment might zone you in on a powerful insight or problem-solving mindset. Creative geniuses from all fields, from philosophers to scientists, often land upon their biggest breakthroughs through daydreaming. Clearly, these are adaptive processes.
The American Psychological Association defines its opposite, maladaptation, as “detrimental, counterproductive, or otherwise interfering with optimal functioning in various domains.” Maladaptive daydreaming describes daydreaming that has a negative impact on life. There’s growing recognition that many people, especially those with co-existing mental health conditions, experience maladaptive daydreams.
Whether you’ve had an official diagnosis or you’d simply like to stop being carried away by your inner dreamworld at inconvenient times, this overview will guide you through the causes of maladaptive daydreams, and practical steps to stop.
What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
Maladaptive daydreaming, or daydreaming disorder, is a “compulsive fantasy activity characterized by immersive imagination and shifting of attention toward a rich inner world while neglecting social, occupational, and academic activities.” Research has linked maladaptive daydreaming with various mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and ADHD.
Despite gaining attention in the field of psychology, it’s not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But that doesn’t make it any less impactful. People who experience maladaptive daydreams often completely zone out, entering rich and complex fantasy worlds. They can be immersed in these worlds for hours at a time.
Some experts explain maladaptive daydreaming as a coping mechanism linked to childhood trauma, as a form of disassociation, or detachment from reality. When a child’s environment feels unsafe or threatening, they may start to escape into their imagination, and continue this behavior into adulthood.
Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t the same as straightforward mind wandering. In fact, a 2022 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology called for maladaptive daydreaming to be recognized as a distinct disorder. Unlike the type of mind wandering that comes with ADHD, which can be creative or skillful, maladaptive daydreaming involves conscious absorption in rich fantasies.
The Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming
Professor Eli Somer, Ph.D, a trauma expert and one of the world’s leading researchers of maladaptive daydreaming, has proposed diagnostic criteria for maladaptive daydreams. Within the proposal, he outlines eight of the common symptoms:
- While daydreaming, experiences an intense sense of absorption/immersion that includes visual, auditory, or affective properties.
- Daydreaming is triggered, maintained, or enhanced with exposure to music.
- Daydreaming is triggered, maintained, or enhanced with exposure to stereotypical movement (e.g., pacing, rocking, hand movements).
- Often daydreams when feels distressed, or bored.
- Daydreaming intensity and length intensify in the absence of others (e.g., daydreams more when alone).
- Is annoyed when unable to daydream or when daydreaming is interrupted or curbed.
- Would rather daydream than engage in daily chores, social, academic, or professional activities.
- Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop daydreaming.
To meet the criteria, someone has to have experienced two or more of these symptoms within a six-month period, including number one — immersion and absorption. Maladaptive daydreams create a sense of distress or impairment in daily living and are not caused by physiological changes (such as drug taking) or a mental health disorder that better explain the experience.
Immersive daydreaming shares many of the traits of maladaptive daydreaming but doesn’t impair a person’s functioning. This is where the fine details become tricky — great works of literature or art require their creators to enter states of complete absorption, in order to bring forward imaginary ideas. The main quality of maladaptive daydreaming is how well a person can function.
What Do Maladaptive Daydreamers Fantasize About?
Many maladaptive dreamers develop an emotional attachment to the characters and events existing within their mind’s eye, which creates a feedback loop and keeps the cycle going. Somer’s research includes qualitative information on the nature of maladaptive dreamers. He categorizes five key themes of fantasy life:
- Violence: Tarantino-esque bloodshed and aggression.
- Idealized self: imagining scenarios where the maladaptive daydreamer is an “improved” or “ideal” version.
- Power and control: including dominating other people, or being in positions of authority.
- Captivity, rescue, and escape: involving either being imprisoned or rescuing others from abusers.
- Sexual arousal: far from normal fantasy, maladaptive daydreamers can spend hours and hours building complex scenarios or the ideal partner.
Many of the cases cited in Somer’s work were dealing with complex trauma or historical abuse; that can’t be understated. However, the second theme, the idealized self, is of particular relevance to self-development. The image that comes to mind is a movie scene, where the high school “geek” fantasizes about having it all, being the alpha, or carrying out revenge, before snapping back to reality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you put these themes together (spare sexual arousal) and you have the elements of a superhero narrative, the pinnacle of collective fantasy. In another respect, the character Tyler Durden, from Fight Club, has all of these hallmarks — which makes sense, as the Narrator in Chuck Palaniuk’s story was experiencing regular dissociation and maladaptive daydreams.
How to Stop Maladaptive Daydreaming
First, we have to remember the golden rule of psychology — what we resist, persists. Trying to force maladaptive daydreams to stop can have the reverse effect, only serving to fuel their intensity. This is an additional risk because of their link to behavioral addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The initial starting point is firstly to acknowledge daydreaming has become a problem and that you would like to change.
Next, if excessive daydreaming is having a negative influence on your life, consider therapy to get professional support or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. The disorder isn’t common knowledge, however, so you may have to point your therapist in the direction of some material, in order to share your experience.
With these points in mind, what are other practical steps that you can take to stop maladaptive daydreaming? At the risk of poor comparison, maladaptive daydreaming is, to some extent, similar to an eating disorder. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s possible to go cold turkey, to give up completely. But if your issue is food, you have to find a better balance, because you need food to survive. It becomes about changing your relationship, not removing the trigger.
The same applies to maladaptive daydreaming. You don’t want to switch off your imagination — the chances are, your imagination contains many gifts! Instead, you want to focus on channeling the vivid mental imagery into healthy outlets, whilst tackling the core motivation for the mechanism to escape daily life.
1. Start With Your Physiology
That involves getting proper sleep so you’re rested during the day, eating well so that you’re providing your body with healthy fuel, managing stress, working on relaxation, and exercising. You may also consider visiting a doctor to have a bodily MOT — checking for any deficiencies, or hormonal imbalances, in order to rule out biological problems that may be contributing to your experience.
2. Inquire Into Underlying Defense Mechanisms
If you want to stop maladaptive daydreaming, you have to understand what motivates you to start. The origin of the habit may be linked to childhood trauma; this is something that can’t be approached lightly and may need additional support. However, in the present moment, the here and now, you will be able to notice patterns and tendencies, common to all addictive behavior.
When are you more likely to enter fantasy? Is it when you’re bored? When you’re stressed? When do you experience low self-esteem? If you gently enquire about the times when you’re more likely to engage, you may detect underlying mechanisms. Once you discover your “triggers,” you can better understand the mechanics of the experience.
For example, if you experience low self-esteem, perhaps you imagine your idealized self who is able to do all the things you perceive yourself to be incapable of. If you feel exploited or powerless, you may fantasize about being a superhero, there to save the day. If you suppress anger or rage, you may experience violent imagery as a type of mental retribution. Get familiar with this, as this is the core issue that needs addressing.
3. Explore Your Fantasies With Curiosity
Do you create the fantasy, or does the fantasy choose you? Apologies for the philosophical take, but this is a rich area of exploration. Your imagination, like dreams, doesn’t happen by chance or randomness. The fantasies you engage with are encoded with deeper meaning, a way to guide you to psychological mechanisms that remain unseen or unhealed.
Carl Jung, a pioneer of depth psychology, saw daydreams as an extension of the unconscious mind. For Jung, there were lessons contained within the contents. In Man and his Symbols, Jung writes: “Daydreams arise just because they connect a man with his complexes; at the same time they threaten the concentration and continuity of his consciousness.”
In Jungian terms, a complex is “an unconscious organized set of memories, associations, fantasies, expectations, and behavior patterns or tendencies around a core element which is accompanied by strong emotions.” That means that the fantasies you engage in also show you where complexes lie.
Part of this understanding requires some knowledge of symbolism and archetypes. Most of us are able to do this intuitively — explore your fantasies as you would deconstruct or analyze a piece of art, or a movie. What do the characters tell you? What did the director, or author, have in mind when it comes to the fantasy’s message?
4. Integrate The Dreamworld
Remember, you can’t have a zero-tolerance policy to your imagination, but you can integrate it in a healthy way. Start to work with your inner life as a conscious component of your development and self-understanding. Start a regular journal practice, where you actively explore the fantasies existing within. Maladaptive daydreams aren’t a waste of time; they’re supportive of your psychological and emotional evolution.
Part of integration is to discern when daydreams are unhealthy, and when they’re healthy. Are they solving problems, offering a creative exploration? Or are they being used as a form of escape? Equally, integration requires a level of mindfulness in order to practice keeping attention to the present moment.
Think of this as a type of Jedi mind skill. Your mission is to get your daydreams under control, so you utilize them as a gift, and aren’t at their mercy, whilst channeling energy and attention into “the real world.” Find a balance between imagination and rational, pragmatic thinking. Find a sense of grounding in your daily life, and allow yourself to dream without completely floating away.
5. Find a Creative Outlet
Again, channeling is better than attempting to stop completely. So many things in life are a matter of perspective. Without minimizing the seriousness of maladaptive daydreams, your ability to create rich fantasy worlds, and the lucidity of your mental imagery, can be used in creative ways. Great creative work often comes from a sense of immersion in these worlds.
That doesn’t mean you have to literally write stories, although that’s one potential outlet. You may paint, create music, take up improv, or do anything that allows you to bridge your inner world with the outer world. Don’t judge what contents exist within, but don’t mistake them for who you are, either.
Through this process, as you slowly integrate, as you heal and put the daydreams into the appropriate context, you will arrive at a place of greater self-acceptance and connection to the world around you. The allure of daydreams will decrease, as will the desire to escape. And if the allure or desire is there, you’ll be able to find a healthy outlet for it.