Many of us have daydreamed before. One minute you’re in class or a meeting and your mind goes somewhere else. Next thing you know, you missed 10 minutes of it because you “spaced out”. That is to say, excessive Daydreaming is a normal part of life. Sometimes we lose ourselves in fantasies or random thoughts in the day. Then, we go back to what we were doing as if nothing happened. It’s so common that almost half of our thoughts are daydreams. An average person usually has a hundred episodes per day. So when does it become a problem?
What is Excessive Daydreaming?
Based on the name, it means daydreaming to the point it becomes too much. But when is it too much? After all, it happens to almost everyone every day. Excessive or maladaptive daydreaming (MD) is when you become so focused on your daydreaming that it gets in the way of your daily activities. This includes your studies, social life, or work. It’s not just getting lost in your thoughts. It can also be people who read, watch videos, or play video games too much can also have it.
So what if you just enjoy books, movies, or games? These can be normal hobbies. But playing them for hours on hours can get in the way of daily activities. Certainly, you may be focused on your tasks at first. But when you start daydreaming, and you get lost in these thoughts for minutes to hours. You might even find yourself wanting to continue daydreaming. Then it becomes more than a habit. Not being able to daydream suddenly gives you a feeling of anxiety. At that point, you will instinctively start doing it to get rid of that tension. After that, what happens to the work you had to finish? Will you be able to reach your deadlines? Are people telling you that you’ve been “spacing out”? If you spend too much time in your fantasies, you’re at risk of losing grasp of reality.
Signs & Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming
However, maladaptive daydreaming isn’t recognized as a mental disorder yet. So there are no set of symptoms for it. But that doesn’t mean people don’t experience it. It can still be seen as problematic behaviour. Common symptoms may be, but are not limited to:
- Very detailed daydreams with plots and other story features
- Daydreams triggered by events like video games, movies, books, etc.
- Daydreams become so invasive, that daily tasks are hard to accomplish
- Trouble sleeping due to excessive daydreaming
- Daydreams that last a long time
- Daydreams that are hard to stop
- Excessive desire to continue daydreaming
- Irritation when daydreaming is interrupted
- Repetitive movements while daydreaming such as fidgeting or twitching
- Talking or murmuring while daydreaming
- Daydreaming with facial expressions
One of the most distinctive features is the excessive daydreaming that gets in the way of their daily activities. Sometimes people can become aware they have excessive dreaming and want to get better. But anxiety can set in if they don’t daydream. On the other hand, if they don’t, they feel a sense of guilt over lost time and their fixation with their thoughts. If you or someone you care about is showing these symptoms, it may be time to seek help.
Why do people have excessive daydreams?
It isn’t considered an official mental disorder. So the studies for it are few and limited to small group researches and case studies. Experts can’t really pinpoint the causes for MD. It’s possible their thoughts can vary person-to-person. Many studies about people with MD even have other mental disorders present. It is unknown if these disorders caused excessive daydreams or vice versa. So we should look into the cognitive, social, and biological factors behind this phenomenon.
One main reason for it may be escapism. Escapism is when people look for distractions from unpleasant events. For example, when at an awkward party, you feel the need to check your phone or just leave. In this case, daydreams are used to escape situations they find harmful or boring. But this kind of escapism usually comes from people with histories of trauma and abuse. For them, daydreaming becomes a coping mechanism to escape reality. It becomes easier to live in a fantasy world rather than accept painful experiences. In here, they can be their ideal self. The stories they make for themselves are commonly about companionship, love, power, and escape. These are some of the many things they may want out of life.
A big source of distress for people with MD is that it’s hard to stop because it feels satisfying. But they also know it’s problematic because they can’t focus on their tasks properly. Similar to addictive behaviours, even if we know they’re bad for us, we still keep doing them.
Another factor is how their parents raised them. Children who grow up in abusive homes or treated badly by their parents are likely to develop MD as adults. This is because kids have wilder imaginations than adults do. So when they experience something painful, they escape into a fantasy world. To them, these are safe places. Then it becomes a habit and eventually, a coping method. Some people even condition themselves with repetitive movements to induce their daydreaming.
It can be hard to find help about daydreaming as a symptom because many people don’t see it as a problem. MD hasn’t been recognized as a mental disorder. They may have been reassured by other people– may be even therapists– that daydreaming is normal. After having their problems waved off as such, they end up sticking to their problematic and coping behaviours.
From a biological point of view, there’s a path in the brain called “the default mode network”. Normally, this part of the brain is active when a person is resting. This means that when you are focusing on something, this part of the brain becomes inactive. When you start daydreaming, it becomes active. This means that daydreaming happens when you’re in a relaxed state of mind.
Relationship with other disorders
Schizophrenia is a disorder that involves hallucinations and delusions. Some people mistake it for excessive daydreaming. Both disorders involve having moments where they feel like they are in their own world. They also have movements that come with their symptoms. The difference is that excessive daydreamers know that their fantasy world is not real. People with schizophrenia, on the other hand, believe that their delusions are real even when presented with solid evidence that they are not.
Behavioural Addiction disorders
Behavioural Addiction Disorders includes too much video gaming, shopping, eating, gambling and other enjoyable activities. People who are excessive daydreamers compared to those who have addictions to video gaming, book reading, and show/movie binging have similar compulsive behaviours. Both mental disorders are about withdrawing into a fantasy to cope with problems. People with behavioural addictions develop ideal versions of themselves in places like video games as a form of escapism. This is why some believe that MD is a form of behavioural addiction disorder.
Dissociative Identity disorder
It is possible to have dissociative identity disorder (DID) and MD at the same time. They both involve having internalized characters. Where people with DID believe these characters are real, people with excessive daydreaming know they are not. Episodes in both disorders are time-consuming and hard to control, which causes a lot of distress for people suffering from either of them. They also involve withdrawing in themselves internally to cope with hard situations. The difference between the two is that excessive daydreamers tend to remember what they were thinking about and they know their thoughts are fantasies.
People with ADHD are impulsive and inattentive. Both disorders involve inattention. They find themselves unable to focus on their tasks. But excessive daydreamers retreat into a fantasy world when they can’t pay attention. These disorders can actually be present with the other. If you had ADHD with MD, it would be harder to snap yourself out of it compared to only having one. People with ADHD have problems with controlling their behaviour so episodes of daydreaming can be more intense. In fact, you might end up hyper-focusing while daydreaming. This refers to being very fixated on daydreaming to the point that you would get mad when interrupted. So people would need more effort to get your attention.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People with OCD feel the need to do certain things even if it’s irrational to do so. These actions can be washing, checking, hoarding, and other obsessive activities. If they aren’t able to do these things, they feel an intense sense of anxiety. Some people with OCD can have excessive daydreaming. The two are so closely related that OCD medications have the potential to treat excessive daydreaming. Daydreaming is thought to be a compulsion because it preoccupies the thoughts of people with MD. The same way that obsessive behaviours in OCD cause them anxiety, people with MD also feel anxiety if they can’t daydream. Especially during stressful situations because both activities are their ways of coping with problems.
How is Maladaptive Daydreaming diagnosed?
There are no lab tests that can find the cause of MD. Even diagnosing it formally with set criteria is not possible because it’s not on the DSM-5. But there are questionnaires that have been studied and validated such as the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale. This questionnaire involves measuring the content, control, distress, and benefits of daydreaming. While it cannot be used for a formal diagnosis alone, it can identify if the excessive daydreaming being experienced needs intervention.
Treatment for Maladaptive Daydreaming
Currently, there are no official medical treatments for excessive daydreaming. One study showed that fluvoxamine, a drug for OCD, was effective in helping control urges to daydream. But it needs to be studied more before it can be used for cases of excessive daydreaming. There are other things you can do to help you:
The first step is being aware of the symptoms of excessive daydreaming. If someone you know may have this problem, it may be worth looking into. But if you think you have it, lessening your stressors can help. You can keep a diary and write when an episode occurs. This is to help find out what activities and events cause episodes to happen. Does it happen only while working? Is it more often during stressful periods of your life? Self-awareness of your problems and their causes is key to treating your problem. Another technique includes reducing your tiredness. Excessive daydreaming is related to having relaxed feelings. So the tendency to daydream becomes stronger when you’re tired. Therefore reducing your fatigue can help avoid episodes. You can do this by getting better sleep in the evening or trying stimulants like coffee during the day.
Lastly, therapy can help uncover the reasons for excessive daydreaming and its triggers. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), from its name, can help you understand your thoughts and actions. Since excessive daydreaming can a form of coping, therapy can replace it with more useful coping strategies. Another therapy that can be used is mindfulness training. It has been useful for people with OCD, but a study suggests it can be used for MD.
Since there is no formal diagnosis for excessive daydreaming, there are no standards to help research it. This makes treatments for it hard to find. It also makes it harder to recognize if there’s a problem. So even if you do ask for help, it’s easy for people to shrug off daydreaming as normal behaviour. It has to disrupt your life enough for people to see it as a problem. Early signs of excessive daydreaming become hard to catch and treat until there are severe consequences.
However, there are groups online where you can find people with the same experiences. You can meet people who can share their stories and you can share yours. Maybe you’ll find a coping strategy that works for you. The groups might even teach you how to cope better. With a good support system, finding help is not impossible.
How can a mental health professional help with Excessive Daydreaming?
Therapy isn’t just for people with mental disorders. If your excessive daydreaming is causing problems in your life, it’s a good time to see a therapist. They can give a therapy that might work for you and plan it so that it fits your problems better. Therapy is an effort for both the therapist and the client because you set and reach goals together. Additionally, therapists can create an environment for growth, where both of you can figure out where your MD stems from. These causes can then be addressed in therapy sessions. They teach clients how to create healthier coping methods so that they no longer resort to daydreaming. Therapy can also help you find your support systems to help you recover. Supportive family and friends can go a long way in getting better.