Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms and Diagnosis │ Sleep Foundation (2023)

It’s common to get lost in your thoughts every once in a while. Experts estimate we spend about 47% of our waking hours in a daydream, momentarily distracted from the world around us as we let our mind wander. If your daydreams are so intense that they interfere with your daily life, however, you may be a maladaptive daydreamer.

What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Sometimes known as daydreaming disorder, maladaptive daydreaming describes a condition where a person regularly experiences daydreams that are intense and highly distracting — so distracting, in fact, that the person may stop engaging with the task or people in front of them. These daydreams may be triggered by real-life events or stimuli, such as a noise, smell, conversation topic, or movie.

Maladaptive dreamers may dissociate from reality to absorb themselves completely in their daydream and may unknowingly act out the behavior or speak dialogue for the characters in their daydream. The content of the daydreams is richly detailed and fantastical. Some have been described as a soap opera, while others feature an idealized version of the daydreamer.

Maladaptive daydreaming may develop as a coping strategy in response to trauma. The inner world may feel safer than the experience happening outside. For example, people with maladaptive daydreaming found themselves engaging in the behavior more frequently during the COVID-19 lockdown. They felt less able to control their urge to daydream, and the vividness of their daydreams intensified.

Maladaptive daydreaming was first defined in 2002 and is not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The prevalence of maladaptive daydreaming is unknown, but the condition appears to be more common among people with anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Over half of maladaptive daydreamers have a mental health disorder.

Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms and Diagnosis │ Sleep Foundation (1)
Symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming may include:

(Video) 5 Signs It's Maladaptive Daydreaming, NOT Just Daydreaming

  • Intense, vivid daydreams that present as a story, with characters, settings, and plotlines
  • Daydreams that are triggered by real-world events or sensory stimuli
  • Unconscious facial expressions, repetitive body movements, or talking or whispering that accompany daydreams
  • Daydreams that last for several minutes to hours
  • A strong or addictive desire to keep daydreaming
  • Trouble focusing and completing daily tasks due to daydreams
  • Trouble sleeping

A person can exhibit one or more of these symptoms.

Complications of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreams can be so immersive and lengthy that the person dissociates from the world around them, negatively impacting their relationships, work or school performance, sleep, and daily life. Studies of medical students have found that those who engaged in maladaptive daydreaming reported a significant decline in their GPA.

Maladaptive daydreamers may spend 4.5 hours of their day distracted by their daydreams. They may become so absorbed with their inner world that it becomes harder to ground themselves in reality. Due to the all-consuming, immersive nature of their daydreams, people may end up neglecting their relationships and responsibilities in the real world, causing them emotional distress. Unfortunately, despite the strong desire to daydream, people generally feel worse emotionally after doing so.

Maladaptive daydreamers may spend 4.5 hours of their day distracted by their daydreams. They may become so absorbed with their inner world that it becomes harder to ground themselves in reality.

In general, people who daydream — maladaptively or not — are more likely to have troubled sleep. Poor sleep can cause sleep deprivation, which impairs one’s ability to focus, concentrate, and pay attention — all symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming. This may explain why a night of disturbed sleep tends to be followed by a day of maladaptive daydreaming.

Dissociation, another symptom of maladaptive daydreaming, is also associated with sleep disorders. Finally, some of the mental health conditions linked to maladaptive daydreaming, such as anxiety and depression, are associated with poor sleep.

(Video) 5 Signs of Maladaptive Daydreaming

What’s the Difference Between Daydreaming and Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Daydreams are a normal part of existence. They’re typically pleasant, though they can sometimes be annoying. While they can distract us from the task at hand, they offer several benefits, such as the ability to plan future events, relieve ourselves from boredom, find meaning in our life’s story, and boost our creativity.

While maladaptive daydreams can be pleasant as well, they are more likely to involve themes of violence, power, control, sex, captivity, or rescue and escape scenarios. Unlike traditional daydreams, maladaptive daydreams commonly enter the realm of fantasy.

Finally, normal daydreaming occurs entirely in the mind, while maladaptive daydreaming is an immersive experience that is often accompanied by repetitive movements, facial expressions, or verbalizations.

Maladaptive Daydreaming Diagnosis

Experts still do not know what causes maladaptive daydreaming, and there’s no official method of diagnosis. While it has been linked to social anxiety or previous trauma, people may develop maladaptive daydreaming without any prior trauma. There is also some evidence that maladaptive daydreamers tended to have active imaginations as children.

Early researchers developed a test known as the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS) to further study and define the characteristics of MD. This 14-part self-assessment can help doctors determine whether a person is suffering from maladaptive daydreaming. A person rates the severity and frequency of their symptoms, answering questions like:

  • 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?

There is more than one proposed MDS reported in the literature. Depending on the scale used, different cutoff scores have been suggested to delineate those with clinically significant maladaptive daydreaming.

(Video) Maladaptive Daydreaming

Due to the nature of the symptoms, maladaptive daydreaming can be confused with schizophrenia; however, these conditions are very different. Most notably, individuals who experience maladaptive daydreaming know that their daydreams are not real, while those with disorders like schizophrenia have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.

There is some overlap between maladaptive daydreaming and other conditions, however. Individuals with maladaptive daydreaming exhibit more symptoms of depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, and dissociation. They are also more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression.

Treatment for Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive Daydreaming: Symptoms and Diagnosis │ Sleep Foundation (2)

There is no official course of treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. Fluvoxamine, a drug commonly prescribed to treat OCD, was found effective in a case study of one patient. Typically, treatment focuses on reducing the likelihood of experiencing a maladaptive daydream through better sleep and symptom management.

Improve the Quality of Your Sleep

Adopting better sleep habits can improve your sleep quality and potentially have an impact on maladaptive daydreaming.

Set and follow a regular sleep schedule every day of the week, even weekends

(Video) I spent a day with MALADAPTIVE DAYDREAMERS

  • Provide yourself with enough time to enjoy at least seven hours of sleep
  • Establish a calming bedtime routine to help you relax into sleep
  • Exercise daily and eat well

Reduce Fatigue During the Day

Expose yourself to natural sunlight throughout the day, especially in the morning. Consider consuming caffeine for an extra boost, but avoid having more than 400 milligrams per day and schedule your last cup of coffee at least 6 hours before bed.

Understand Your Symptoms

Use a small notepad or the notes app on your phone to record what you were doing before you had a maladaptive daydream. Once you know what your triggers are, you can take steps to avoid them or understand why they’re triggering you.

Get Support

Explain your symptoms to people you trust, like family members and friends. This will help prevent your daydreams from straining the relationship while also enabling these people to help you by interrupting you when they notice symptoms occurring.

Consider Therapy

A therapist can help you process any underlying trauma and perhaps identify what’s triggering your maladaptive daydreaming. They can also recommend specific strategies for managing your symptoms. For example, grounding techniques can be helpful. Some therapists may also recommend changing your daydream’s plot endings from good to bad to make the daydream less rewarding.

If you feel addicted to daydreaming, or like your daydreams interfere with your daily life, talk to your doctor. They can provide recommendations for controlling your tendency to daydream and provide tips for better focus and better sleep.

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FAQs

How do you diagnose maladaptive daydreaming disorder? ›

It is not currently possible to formally diagnose maladaptive daydreaming. Experts did develop a 14-point Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale to help people determine whether or not they are experiencing symptoms of it. However, people should only use the scale as an indication.

Do you need a diagnosis for maladaptive daydreaming? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming does not currently have a separate diagnosis. It does not have a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and there is no specific treatment. However, it can affect your daily life, and some experts are calling for it to be a specific diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming? ›

Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming

Unconscious facial expressions, repetitive body movements, or talking or whispering that accompany daydreams. Daydreams that last for several minutes to hours. A strong or addictive desire to keep daydreaming. Trouble focusing and completing daily tasks due to daydreams.

What do maladaptive daydreamers get diagnosed with? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming is most common in people with conditions that affect their mental health or certain types of brain functions. The conditions that are common with maladaptive daydreaming are: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Anxiety disorders.

What causes maladaptive daydreaming disorder? ›

What causes maladaptive daydreaming? Experts believe that MD is, generally, a coping mechanism in response to trauma, abuse or loneliness that leads the maladaptive daydreamer to conjure a complex imaginary world for them to escape into in times of distress, or loneliness, or maybe, even helplessness in real life.

Is maladaptive daydreaming part of ADHD? ›

“Maladaptive daydreaming is an independent mental phenomenon, which often creates a deficit in attention as a side-effect, causing MDers in some cases to meet criteria for ADHD, but not necessarily vice versa.”

Is maladaptive daydreaming psychosis? ›

The defining difference between maladaptive daydreaming and psychosis is the fact that the individual knows that their daydreams are not real. With no medical recognition, the disorder is treated as a neural biochemical imbalance instead of an addictive symptom stemming from a void in the individual's life.

Is maladaptive daydreaming serious? ›

Many people who experience maladaptive daydreaming have another psychological condition, including anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with a dissociative disorder – a psychological condition where you feel detached from yourself – are at especially high risk.

Is daydreaming too much a disorder? ›

While some amount of daydreaming is normal, excessive daydreaming can affect your daily life and make your day-to-day activities difficult. This is a recently identified disorder and researchers are still learning more about the condition.

How is maladaptive daydreaming treated? ›

What improves maladaptive daydreaming?
  1. Getting more and/or higher quality sleep.
  2. Working with a mental health counselor.
  3. Journaling.
  4. Practicing mindfulness meditation.
  5. Engaging in self-praise when maladaptive daydreaming is avoided.
  6. Using coping statements.
  7. Identifying specific triggers or stressors.
9 Aug 2021

What age does maladaptive daydreaming start? ›

The vast majority of those who engage in maladaptive daydreaming are relatively young (normally ranging between 15 and 30 years old). For many, their maladaptive daydreams will end naturally over time, but it's not a given.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a personality disorder? ›

Online support. While maladaptive daydreaming is not a recognized psychiatric disorder, it has spawned online support groups since Somer first reported the proposed disorder in 2002.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a trauma response? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming was first identified by the psychologist, Dr. Eli Somer, of the University of Haifa. Most commonly seen in people who have experienced trauma, it's thought to be a dissociative disorder and is best treated through behavioral strategies, similar to how addiction is treated.

How common is maladaptive daydreaming? ›

With research revealing that as many as one in 40 people may experience these problems, it seems increasingly likely that “maladaptive daydreaming” will soon be formally recognised as a psychiatric disorder.

Does daydreaming cause memory loss? ›

If you leave the place where a memory was made -- its context -- it will be harder for you to recall the memory. Previous studies had also found that thinking about something else -- daydreaming or mind-wandering -- blocks access to memories of the recent past.

What are some maladaptive behaviors? ›

Avoidance, withdrawal, and passive aggression are examples of maladaptive behaviors. Once you recognize this pattern in your life, you can work toward finding alternative behaviors and start putting them into practice.

Can music trigger maladaptive daydreaming? ›

Usually the maladaptive daydreamer recognises the excessiveness of their compulsion to daydream. In many cases, although not all, the maladaptive daydreamer does their daydreaming while listening to music, that is, they are addicted to a combination of daydreaming and music.

Why can't I stop daydreaming? ›

“Daydreaming can be an indication that someone is suffering from concentration difficulty, which is seen in many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says Lauren Cook, a therapist and author based in San Diego.

Do intelligent people daydream? ›

Daydreaming may indicate intelligence and creativity, according to new research. “People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering,” says Eric Schumacher, an associate psychology professor from Georgia Tech and coauthor of a new study.

What are the different types of daydreaming? ›

The American psychologist Jerome Singer identified three main types of daydreaming: Positive-Constructive Daydreaming, Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming, and Poor Attentional Control.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a hallucination? ›

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.

What's the difference between daydreaming and dissociation? ›

On one end Daydreaming is the more garden variety form of it whereas, someone with a dissociative disorder actually loses consciousness of where they are and of what they have done for long periods of time. Dissociation is something that we all use at times to avoid being with uncomfortable feelings in the body.

Is maladaptive daydreaming inherited? ›

Despite some anecdotal evidence that maladaptive daydreaming appears to run in families, there's currently no evidence to suggest a genetic component in its development.

What is daydreaming in psychology? ›

Daydreaming is defined as “spontaneous, subjective experiences in a no-task, no stimulus, no-response situation… [and] includes unintended thoughts that intrude inadvertently into the execution of intended mental tasks… and undirected ideas in thought sampling during wakefulness” (1).

Does daydreaming release dopamine? ›

This link with video gaming and gambling also suggests that obsessive daydreaming can become addictive, where reliance on the habit releases dopamine in the brain, the chemical that produces euphoric reward effects in the body.

How do I stop maladaptive daydreaming while studying? ›

Whenever you're studying and recognize that you've slipped into some daydream, immediately take out a pen and begin writing down your daydream (alternatively, you can open up a blank document on your computer and begin typing it out instead).

What do most people daydream about? ›

While most people daydream about fantasies and other desirable events, others might be daydreaming about doing something harmful to themselves or others. There have been many cases of suicidal people driving along the road and daydreaming about crashing into a tree.

Can emotional neglect cause maladaptive daydreaming? ›

A history of childhood physical and emotional neglect as well as emotional abuse was associated with daydreaming aimed to regulate emotional pain. Childhood exposure to physical and emotional abuse was associated with an increased likelihood of daydreaming about an idealized version of their original families.

Is maladaptive daydreaming narcissistic? ›

They found this to be the case. Specifically, individuals with maladaptive daydreaming who exhibited narcissistic grandiosity were more likely to daydream about themes such as wish-fulfillment, power, dominance, and violence.

Can you lose the ability to daydream? ›

Associate Professor Muireann Irish finds people living with frontotemporal dementia - an early onset form of dementia - lose their capacity for daydreaming and have no inner monologue.

Is maladaptive daydreaming the same as dissociation? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming is a previously under‐recognized aspect of complex dissociative disorders and requires further attention in both research and clinical practice.

Can daydreaming lead to Alzheimer's? ›

The parts of the brain that young, healthy people use when daydreaming are the same areas that fail in people who have Alzheimer's disease, researchers have reported. The study, published in the Aug.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a dissociative disorder? ›

Maladaptive daydreaming is a previously under-recognized aspect of complex dissociative disorders and requires further attention in both research and clinical practice.

What age does maladaptive daydreaming start? ›

The vast majority of those who engage in maladaptive daydreaming are relatively young (normally ranging between 15 and 30 years old). For many, their maladaptive daydreams will end naturally over time, but it's not a given.

Is maladaptive daydreaming psychosis? ›

The defining difference between maladaptive daydreaming and psychosis is the fact that the individual knows that their daydreams are not real. With no medical recognition, the disorder is treated as a neural biochemical imbalance instead of an addictive symptom stemming from a void in the individual's life.

How common is maladaptive daydreaming? ›

With research revealing that as many as one in 40 people may experience these problems, it seems increasingly likely that “maladaptive daydreaming” will soon be formally recognised as a psychiatric disorder.

What trauma causes maladaptive daydreaming? ›

A history of childhood physical and emotional neglect as well as emotional abuse was associated with daydreaming aimed to regulate emotional pain. Childhood exposure to physical and emotional abuse was associated with an increased likelihood of daydreaming about an idealized version of their original families.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a symptom of autism? ›

Conclusions: Results support the hypothesis that ASD traits and maladaptive daydreaming symptoms are associated, and further suggest that the ability to imagine detailed fantasy scenarios is not limited by ASD traits.

Is maladaptive daydreaming inherited? ›

Despite some anecdotal evidence that maladaptive daydreaming appears to run in families, there's currently no evidence to suggest a genetic component in its development.

Is daydreaming a mental illness? ›

While some amount of daydreaming is normal, excessive daydreaming can affect your daily life and make your day-to-day activities difficult. This is a recently identified disorder and researchers are still learning more about the condition.

How do I stop maladaptive daydreaming while studying? ›

Whenever you're studying and recognize that you've slipped into some daydream, immediately take out a pen and begin writing down your daydream (alternatively, you can open up a blank document on your computer and begin typing it out instead).

What are some maladaptive behaviors? ›

Avoidance, withdrawal, and passive aggression are examples of maladaptive behaviors. Once you recognize this pattern in your life, you can work toward finding alternative behaviors and start putting them into practice.

Are daydreamers more intelligent? ›

A recent study suggests that daydreaming may not deserve the stigma that it sometimes gets; people whose minds tend to wander may, in fact, be smarter and more creative.

Does daydreaming cause memory loss? ›

If you leave the place where a memory was made -- its context -- it will be harder for you to recall the memory. Previous studies had also found that thinking about something else -- daydreaming or mind-wandering -- blocks access to memories of the recent past.

Why can't I stop daydreaming? ›

“Daydreaming can be an indication that someone is suffering from concentration difficulty, which is seen in many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says Lauren Cook, a therapist and author based in San Diego.

What is the difference between dissociation and daydreaming? ›

On one end Daydreaming is the more garden variety form of it whereas, someone with a dissociative disorder actually loses consciousness of where they are and of what they have done for long periods of time. Dissociation is something that we all use at times to avoid being with uncomfortable feelings in the body.

Is maladaptive daydreaming a coping mechanism? ›

Interestingly, maladaptive daydreaming has been considered a behavioral addiction developed as a coping mechanism to a number of other mental disorders; anxiety, depression, PTSD, and autism, and addictive disorders, and the addictiveness of constantly daydreaming stems from a release of serotonin (the fun brain ...

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