Maladaptive Daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming is like a neurological video game: It causes you to live inside your head and to lose track of reality. (Illustration by Rachel Glucksman, Rhode Island School of Design)
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Maladaptive Daydreaming

There’s daydreaming, and then there’s abandoning reality.

Everyone daydreams. You could be on a long car ride listening to music and pretending you’re in a music video or bored in class wishing you were with the squad on a beach. Usually these kinds of daydreams aren’t a problem, but what if they start interfering with daily life? What if you prefer to stay in your daydreams more often than you participate in reality? That’s where maladaptive daydreaming comes in.

Maladaptive daydreaming is a psychiatric condition that causes intense daydreaming and distracts those who have it from their real life. The daydreams stemming from this condition are often vivid and can last for hours or even days. There is no universal method for diagnosing maladaptive daydreaming and the condition is not listed in the DSM-5. Despite not being officially included in the list of mental disorders, maladaptive daydreaming is still very real and can have destructive effects. These are just four.

1. Difficulty Sleeping 

One way that maladaptive daydreaming interferes with daily life is that it takes over your every thought so you can’t shut your brain down to sleep. Daydreams a lot of times have their own characters, plot, setting and other detailed, storylike features. A person’s ability to control their compulsion to daydream will determine how much the daydream interferes with essential functions, like sleeping, but maladaptive daydreamers have a hard time stopping themselves.

Maladaptive daydreamers can get so deep into a daydream they don’t realize they’ve wasted a whole day, and then by the time night falls, it’s not like they can just shut the dreaming off. Even if the people who are afflicted try to sleep, it’s almost too easy to put off a good night’s rest in exchange for continuing an ongoing daydream or coming up with a new one. It’s one scenario if you imagine situations you’d like to happen before you go to sleep, but entirely another if you physically cannot fall asleep because your daydreams are all-encompassing.

It’s a little ironic maladaptive daydreamers trade actual dreams that come from an REM sleep cycle for daydreams, but the desire for this swap makes more sense when you consider that daydreams can be controlled while regular dreams can’t. One of the reasons maladaptive daydreaming is quite addictive is that you can daydream about anything you want and control whatever happens. Living inside your own head seems appealing when you essentially create an entire world of your choosing.

Maladaptive daydreaming was once thought to be a form of schizophrenia or psychosis, but maladaptive daydreamers know what they’re imagining isn’t reality, so the condition isn’t consistent with psychosis. The condition is still damaging, however, because people with maladaptive daydreaming lose out on important activities, like sleeping, that we need to function properly.

2. Low Productivity Levels 

People who have maladaptive daydreaming will spend hours and even days inside their daydreams, which makes for an unproductive lifestyle. They’ll readily abandon their real life responsibilities and activities to daydream. It’s easier than one might think to get caught up in a daydream and lose hours to days without realizing how much time is really going by.

In pretty much every work situation, whether it’s college or a day job, deadlines are a big part of life, and maladaptive daydreamers have a hard time meeting them. In order to meet deadlines, you need to be productive and to work every day or you’ll fall behind. Maladaptive daydreaming makes it extremely difficult to be productive in an ongoing way, so people with this condition will struggle in deadline-driven environments.

In extreme cases, they could lose their job or fall exponentially behind in school because of their inability to stop daydreaming. Maladaptive daydreaming is an escape from reality that feels incredible during the moment, but as soon as you return to reality all your responsibilities hit like a freight train.

Maladaptive daydreaming can be a vicious cycle; someone daydreams excessively to escape reality and the obligations that come with it, they spend days daydreaming, then they inevitably return to reality and find they’ve accomplished nothing in days. Dirty laundry piles up, deadlines aren’t met, etc. Being unproductive once in a while is no big deal, but if you’re constantly not handling your responsibilities and ignoring them to daydream, then there’s a problem.

3. Neglecting Interpersonal Relationships

Daydreaming doesn’t really work if anyone is directly interacting with you, so maladaptive daydreamers often prefer to be alone so they can daydream uninterrupted. There’s nothing wrong with needing some alone time, but with maladaptive daydreamers, being in solitude becomes all they want to do, and they isolate themselves a lot to do it.

Many make hand movements and facial expressions and might even whisper or talk during their daydreams, which gives them all the more reason to daydream alone. When daydreaming becomes the only activity you want to do, however, it can end up damaging interpersonal relationships with real people. People won’t understand why a maladaptive daydreamer always wants to be alone or why they seem uninterested in interacting.

Because maladaptive daydreamers often make up characters or use individuals they already know in their daydreams, it can replace face to face interaction and sever ties with real people. They can feel like they don’t need to see their friends or family in real life because they exist in their daydreams and those are more fulfilling anyway.

Being able to control interactions in their head might appeal to maladaptive daydreamers more than dealing with people in real life. The problem is that then they spend more time daydreaming than having conversations with anyone in reality and lose interpersonal connections as a result.

4. Neglecting Health

Not only will maladaptive daydreamers neglect sleep, their responsibilities and interpersonal relationships, but they also neglect their health. When all you’re doing is daydreaming all the time, it’s easy to forget to eat or move in a way that’s not just pacing around your room. I personally have maladaptive daydreaming, and there are plenty of days where I’ve completely forgotten to eat, only to end up binging at night when I finally stop daydreaming.

Sometimes it seems like pacing is all the exercise you need when daydreaming, but spending days on end in a daydream without any exercise is really unhealthy. Spending all your time inside your head makes you forget that you actually have a physical body.

Maladaptive daydreamers put almost every ounce of their energy and time into daydreaming, so taking care of their physical health is an afterthought. It’s also not mentally healthy to only think about fantasies instead of trying to strategize or make plans for your real life.

What To Do 

It’s unclear what exactly causes maladaptive daydreaming, but it could be a result of comorbid mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, OCD and ADHD. Maladaptive daydreaming relieves anxiety caused by reality at least temporarily, so it makes sense that people with the condition may have anxiety as well.

As far as treatment goes, even though maladaptive daydreaming isn’t recognized as an official mental condition in the DSM-5, you can still get treatment for it if you talk to a psychiatrist. Most psychiatrists have most likely heard of the condition and can recommend medication or types of therapy to limit it.

It’s unlikely maladaptive daydreamers can get rid of their daydreams altogether because they are probably a deeply embedded coping mechanism, but by limiting maladaptive daydreaming, you can lead a much more productive and healthier lifestyle. I’ve learned to be more aware of when I daydream. I think of maladaptive daydreaming as a blessing and a curse because, while it means I have a vivid and especially creative imagination, it also interferes with real life. Looking at it this way has caused my condition to be much less destructive.

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