All of our minds wander once in a while. In fact, it’s estimated anywhere from a quarter to half of our waking hours are spent daydreaming, as our awareness drifts away from whatever we are currently doing or experiencing to focus on another topic entirely.
Research shows we’re more likely to daydream about pleasant things than unpleasant or neutral ones, and suggests this habit may positively impact our creativity, moods, and productivity. But there are people who experience much more intense mind wandering, at much a higher frequency, and for a longer duration than is considered “normal” — a pattern known as maladaptive daydreaming.
What is maladaptive daydreaming?
Maladaptive daydreaming, as the name suggests, is a form of mind wandering that is intense, distracting, and disruptive to our functioning. There are a handful of symptoms common in those who experience maladaptive daydreams:
Vivid, detailed experiences with characters and storylines
Triggered by real-life experiences and stimuli
Movement or speech that is part of the daydream action
Long duration (minutes to hours)
A desire to remain in the experience
Difficulty in daily tasks, including trouble focusing and sleeping
Even though there are specific symptoms associated with this experience, maladaptive daydreaming is not an official diagnosis, and it is not included in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In fact, the majority of the studies published about it come from researchers with an Israel-based group called The International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming Research (ICMDR).
What causes maladaptive daydreaming?
The impetus and mechanism for maladaptive daydreams isn’t known, but it may be related in some cases to people’s experience of trauma and the associated development of a coping mechanism.
“Maladaptive daydreaming is a form of escape usually for people who experienced loneliness, trauma, and abuse — they create an elaborate inner world where they can go whenever they are in distress,” says Sam Nabil, a licensed professional counselor with Naya Clinics. “Thus, they resort to daydreaming excessively, as they prefer their fantasies to their real life.”
These intense daydreams often have themes of violence, power and control, captivity, sex, rescue and escape. One study shows people with maladaptive daydreams also experience dissociation (disconnection from self), obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and negative emotions alongside anxiety and depression.
So why is it an issue?
So-called maladaptive daydreaming may actually feel pleasant and therapeutic in some cases, but it can become troubling when it gets in the way of school, work, relationships, and other day-to-day functioning. This is true of any official diagnosis — functional impairment is a key factor. That is to say, if it feels like a problem to you, it may be worth seeking support.
If you believe you are experiencing maladaptive daydreams, consider seeking out a therapist who can help you navigate your symptoms (much easier said than done, we know) . Since maladaptive daydreaming is a relatively new concept with no “official” treatment, you may not readily find someone who specialises in it. But clinicians who have experience with cognitive behavioural therapy and/or mindfulness or who work with behavioural or obsessive-compulsive symptoms may be a good fit.