What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Being stuck in a perpetual daydream

While it’s natural to drift off or space out every now and then, for some people it happens so often that it can negatively affect their life. This is called maladaptive daydreaming, and although it’s commonly referred to as a daydreaming disorder, it’s not an officially recognized psychiatric disorder. There is, however, a maladaptive daydreaming test that uses a specific scale to measure the extent of a person’s excessive mind wandering.

This article will discuss the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis options for maladaptive daydreaming.

young man staring into the sky daydreaming

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Definition

Maladaptive daydreaming is more than the natural, occasional mind wandering. It involves excessive, vivid fantasies that can get in the way of a person’s ability to function in daily life, and it ultimately causes distress.

At times, these fantasies can become so complex and engrossing for a person that they could spend hours in them, to the point of replacing human contact. In these daydreams, people create fictional characters or idealized versions of themselves.

Though maladaptive daydreaming is not currently recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as an official psychiatric disorder, research suggests that dissociative and obsessive-compulsive factors are at play, indicating a more serious clinical diagnosis.

Other researchers see the time-consuming fantasizing as a form of behavioral addiction.

Symptoms

Some of the common traits and symptoms associated with maladaptive daydreaming include:

  • Extensive, sometimes compulsive, absorption in fantasy for several hours a day
  • Inability to stop daydreaming
  • Having very detailed fantasies, including plot lines and characters
  • Having real-life reactions to fantasies, like facial expressions, body movements, or verbalizations
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on other things
  • Sleep problems (especially falling asleep)
  • Replacing human interaction
  • The urge to continue fantasizing when interrupted

In some cases, maladaptive daydreaming can also be characterized by the need for additional stimulation, which can be expressed through extensive book-reading, watching films, or gaming.

Causes

Research hasn’t yet shown exactly what causes maladaptive daydreaming, but it is thought to be a coping mechanism to address previous trauma or social anxiety.

Children (or individuals of any age) may develop maladaptive daydreaming as a means to escape an abusive or traumatic environment.

Other Possible Causes of Maladaptive Daydreaming

In addition to processing trauma, other causes of maladaptive daydreaming include:

  • Wish fulfillment
  • Entertainment (regulating boredom or isolation)
  • Regulating distress

Diagnosis

Because maladaptive daydreaming isn’t itself a psychiatric disorder, a diagnosis will not come from a healthcare provider or mental health expert. Instead, a 14-item self-reporting test can be used to assess whether a person is suffering from maladaptive daydreaming.

In the 14-part maladaptive daydreaming scale, a person answers questions about the frequency and severity of a range of symptoms associated with the condition. Examples of questions on the test include:

  • What takes place in your daydreams? How vivid and detailed are they?
  • Can you stop yourself from daydreaming? Do you want to?
  • Do your daydreams interfere with your daily life?

The ability to control daydreams, and to perceive the benefits and distress caused by the daydreams, is assessed to help self-diagnose maladaptive daydreaming.

Treatments

Because so much is still unknown or not fully understood about maladaptive daydreaming—and because it’s not officially recognized as a disorder—there are no standard treatments for the condition.

In one case study, researchers found that fluvoxamine, a medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), helped alleviate symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming.

Coping

Though there is no official treatment for maladaptive daydreaming, there are some methods for coping with it. These include:

  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation
  • Keeping a journal, noting the circumstances that cause instances of maladaptive daydreaming, along with associated thoughts and feelings
  • Using coping statements that are convincing and helpful
  • Issuing self-praise when successful in stopping an instance of maladaptive daydreaming

Frequently Asked Questions 

How do you know if you’re a maladaptive daydreamer?

Although a healthcare provider can’t officially diagnose you with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you can take a self-assessment test using a 14-item maladaptive daydreaming scale. This will help you and your healthcare provider determine the severity of your symptoms and identify possible treatment and coping options.

What does maladaptive daydreaming have to do with OCD?

While some research has found that maladaptive daydreaming occurred alongside symptoms of OCD, the relationship between the two is not currently fully understood. One of the main areas that remains unknown is whether maladaptive daydreaming is its own psychiatric disorder or a symptom of another disorder, like dissociation, OCD, or something else entirely.

One study found that while maladaptive daydreaming may resemble a type of obsession or mental compulsion, OCD obsessions are typically related to feelings of anxiety, whereas for some, maladaptive daydreaming tends to be more voluntary and enjoyable.

What improves maladaptive daydreaming?

Although there is no cure for maladaptive daydreaming, some of the treatments and coping mechanisms discussed in this article may be helpful for some people, especially in terms of improving focus. These include:

  • Getting more and/or higher quality sleep
  • Working with a mental health counselor
  • Journaling
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation
  • Engaging in self-praise when maladaptive daydreaming is avoided
  • Using coping statements
  • Identifying specific triggers or stressors

A Word From Verywell

Everyone experiences occasional periods of stress, isolation, and boredom, so if you’ve found yourself lost in highly engrossing, lengthy daydreams as a way to escape, you’re not alone. But if it comes to a point where those fantasies are disrupting your daily life, you should contact your healthcare provider or a mental health expert. Doing so can help you develop and implement strategies to avoid maladaptive daydreaming, including processing any trauma that might be triggering these episodes.

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6 Sources
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