The human mind is always active. We have approximately seventy thousand unique thoughts every single day.
This probably comes as no surprise to the overthinkers out there who may be asking themselves “do I have that many thoughts per day? Does this thought count? Am I going over my ‘normal person thought quota’ by thinking about how many thoughts I am having? Will I always be this hyperaware of my internal monologue? What have I done?”
But when thoughts aren’t creating problems that didn’t even exist in the first place, they can often be quite pleasant. We can see something and spontaneously be reminded of a good friend, an enjoyable activity or a funny interaction. Intentional daydreaming is a convenient antidote to persistent, irritating rumination. It’s an adaptive coping technique—until it isn’t.
What is maladaptive daydreaming?
Maladaptive daydreaming occurs when someone intentionally and consistently engages in internal fantasies to avoid a reality that seems intolerable due to trauma, loneliness or general life dissatisfaction. It functions as a coping mechanism to people who are suffering by offering escape and freedom from the pain of their real life.
To put in simply, the difference between daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming looks like this:
- Daydreaming: briefly engaging in pleasant thoughts about the past or future
- Maladaptive daydreaming: spending hours immersed in an imaginary world and fantasizing about happy, fulfilling interactions to avoid a more discouraging reality.
Maladaptive daydreaming is problematic because it interferes with healthy daily functioning. Individuals become so emotionally attached to the relationships in their imaginary world that it can take priority over focusing on work, school, socializing and personal self-care.
If maladaptive daydreaming sounds like a foreign concept to you, just think about the popularity of games like Animal Crossing, which because enormously popular during the height of the COVID pandemic. During a chaotic and unpredictable time, Animal Crossing essentially offered a safe, non-triggering world that was made up of uncomplicated friendships and community. People admitted that they would often spend hours building their dream island, establishing a community and becoming emotionally attached to the characters that they converse with. Doing this every day naturally prevented them from fully immersing themselves from the more unpleasant reality of work-from home responsibilities, job searching or reading the news.
All this to say, seeking refuge in a comforting world is an entirely relatable human experience. However, maladaptive daydreaming is like an extreme form of this type of temporary distraction and there are many long-lasting negative symptoms and complications that can result.
Symptoms & complications of maladaptive daydreaming:
Perpetually engaging in fantasy to avoid responsibilities makes the suffering worse when an individual eventually have to face reality, thus reinforcing the urge to continue to daydreaming. Prolonged engaged in this cycle of maladaptive daydreaming can have far-reaching effect:
Symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming may include:
- daydreaming soon after waking up
- spending an average of 4 hours a day engaged in daydreams
- an almost uncontrolled urge to keep daydreaming
- feeling an emotional attachment to the characters/storyline present in the daydreams
- emotional and physical fatigue
- extreme difficulty focusing on/completing important tasks
- sleep deprivation
- impaired ability to form or maintain meaningful connections in real life
- worsening anxiety or depression
If you suspect you may be suffering from maladaptive daydreaming, you find it helpful to take the “Maladaptive Daydreaming Test”, developed by a person who goes by the name “Alex” on their website maladtivedaydreaming.com
Maladaptive Daydreaming Treatment
Maladaptive daydreamers often fly under the radar since “daydreaming” is not taken seriously as a legitimate cause for treatment. However, is often linked with other mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and benefits from receiving the same approach to treatment.
A combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and mindfulness techniques can help people foster of acceptance and distress tolerate that necessary to overcome maladaptive daydreaming. Using these therapeutic methods under the guidance of a specialist can help someone with OCD reduce and manage their anxiety and compulsive need to seek escape.
Here are alternative ways to cope with in the moment distress when you feel an urge to daydream:
Go back to basics
Nobody can be productive if their basic needs are not being met. This includes things like sleep, nutrition, exercise and hygiene. Focus on small actions that can trigger bigger habits. For instance, drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning will prevent dehydration and make it more likely that will continue making healthier choices. Committing to walking for 10 minutes outside each morning can get you into the habit of physical activity, which can lead to more energy to increase the amount of time you spend exercising.
Focusing on transgressions from the past or fears about the future is a surefire way to increase anxiety. The fact the you cannot change the past or predict the future can add to the overwhelming feeling of being powerless and “stuck.” This is why it is helpful to make contact with the present moment—where you are living now. You can ground yourself by simply paying attention to your emotions and the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that are occurring in the current moment. Observe your thoughts; when you notice that they are beginning to turn to the past or present, bring your attention back to what is going on around you.
Journaling is a great way to reflect upon the countless interactions, thoughts and feelings we experience on a daily basis.
Whether we realize it or not, we often go throughout the day acting or reacting based an infinite amount of situational triggers. Our brains are so accustomed to processing this stimuli that we move from one thing to the next on autopilot. When we let these experiences continue to build up without proper reflection, the complex thoughts and emotions behind them can take over and cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
Thought record journal
- A thought record journal, or a thought log, looks like this. It is a structured way to reflect upon a situation that triggered unpleasant emotions that ultimately triggered maladaptive daydreaming behaviors. You can refer to this cognitive distortion worksheet for help in determining what type of irrational thoughts you might have been unintentionally engaging in (hint: most irrational thoughts involving ourselves are generated by cognitive distortions to some extent).
- Reflect upon the common triggers for your maladaptive daydreams and look for themes in anxious thoughts and emotions (i.e. feeling rejected, inadequate, socially awkward). This can be a really useful tool to gaining more insight, understanding and power over daydreams that feel entirely out of your control.
Take a time out
It may sound like an obvious concept but setting aside time for yourself can easily get swept away by daily, weekly and monthly routines. Identify one activity you want to get back into or want to try for the first time. Then, make it a priority. Mark it on the calendar and hold yourself accountable by not making the plans contingent upon whether other people will be able to join you. Trying a new activity is a a way to meet like-minded individuals and work toward creating a more fulfilling reality.
Seeking Mental Health Support
Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step in identifying what you have been avoiding and the impact of this avoidance of your well-being. Meet our team to learn more!