Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
5 min read
Last Modified 20 December 2022 First Added 24 November 2021
It’s perfectly normal to get lost in your thoughts and fantasies. In fact, experts estimate we spend 47% of our time daydreaming. However, for some, their daydreams can be so intense that they get in the way of normal life.
Maladaptive daydreaming refers to a daydreaming disorder, which causes someone to have intense and distracting daydreams. These daydreams are often vivid and richly detailed, sometimes a fantasised version of the daydreamer’s own life or self, or a completely fictional world. Although not officially in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), maladaptive daydreaming was first defined in 2002 and is becoming more recognised by clinical psychologists and therapists.
Everyone daydreams, it’s natural. The difference between normal daydreaming and distraction, and maladaptive daydreaming is the extended length and intensity of maladaptive daydreams. People who have maladaptive daydreams may find themselves lost for hours at a time in their fantasy world. Interestingly, many sufferers report daydreaming about the same characters for years to decades at a time.
[Maladaptive daydreaming] has also been purported to be a maladaptive strategy to cope with distress, but often leads to uncontrollable absorption in [a] fantasy world, social withdrawal and neglected aspects of everyday life.
– A case report of maladaptive daydreaming, Prerna Sharma, Ananya Mahapatra
We don’t know what causes maladaptive daydreaming but a few studies have tried to shine some light on why people might experience it.
It’s also been observed that many neurodivergent people experience maladaptive daydreaming, particularly women with ADHD and autism, as well as people who suffer from OCD.
Daydreaming is a universal experience and almost everyone will have moments of fantasising or getting lost in their own thoughts. In fact, scientists discovered it’s actually part of complex cognitive function:
The findings suggest that daydreaming – which can occupy as much as one-third of our waking lives – is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.
Maladaptive daydreaming refers to all-consuming daydreaming that gets in the way of everyday functions.
It’s unknown how prevalent maladaptive daydreaming is, but more people are coming forward about their experiences on social media and forming a community with those who relate.
Professor Eliezer Somer of the University of Haifa in Israel has created a maladaptive daydreaming scale. This is a 14-part scale that rates the 5 key characteristics of MD:
Many people worry that maladaptive daydreaming means something is seriously wrong, but there’s no evidence that this is the case. As it isn’t yet well researched or understood, there’s a lot of misinformation around the phenomena. Maladaptive daydreaming is considered to be a disorder because of the extent to which it interferes with someone’s reality and everyday functions. If you have trouble completing tasks, maintaining relationships, or sleeping then it is best to seek professional support.
For some, maladaptive daydreaming can be seen as a talent – daydreaming is often linked with creativity, and having a strong imagination is important for authors, artists, and other creators.
Due to the nature of maladaptive daydreaming, lots of people confuse it with hallucinations, but they are not the same. Auditory and visual hallucinations are uncontrollable and indistinguishable from reality, which is what makes them so distressing and, sometimes, dangerous for the person experiencing them. Conversely, those who daydream, even maladaptively, know that they are separate from reality and can control them.
If you feel that your daydreams are out of your control, or you can’t tell if they are real or not, seek help from your GP or a mental health professional as soon as possible.
There’s no definitive cure or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming, but traditional therapies for other mental disorders have been seen to help. One study found that maladaptive daydreaming responded well to fluvoxamine, which is used to treat OCD.
Talking therapy has also had good results for people suffering from severe maladaptive daydreaming as it can help with behavioural restructuring and processing other issues such as anxiety, low mood, and poor sleep quality.
Therapy is very useful for good mental health in general, even if you don’t think you have a “good” reason to go. For many people, simply having someone to talk to can help resolve underlying worries and promote a better sense of self.