How To Recognize and Stop Maladaptive Daydreaming
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There’s nothing inherently wrong with daydreaming. Many people find it helps them. Typical daydreaming can foster creativity and assist with goal development and relaxation. However, it can become maladaptive when it’s excessive and negatively impacts your life.
What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
Maladaptive daydreaming (MD) involves immersing yourself in vivid and complex imaginary worlds for long periods. There’s a compulsion to continue daydreaming even when it affects your daily life. It’s often done to escape stress, uncomfortable emotions or triggers of trauma.
In contrast, typical daydreaming has a short duration and often occurs as your mind simply wanders away from the present task. Since you’re usually unaware that you’re daydreaming, you don’t feel a compulsion to enter or remain in the imaginary world.
Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming
While it’s not a diagnosable disorder, there is an agreed group of symptoms for maladaptive daydreaming, including:
- Immersion in intense and detailed daydreams
- Impaired daily functioning; daydreaming instead of completing tasks
- Excessive time spent daydreaming
- Daydreaming triggered by daily activities or stimuli
- Sleep disruptions
- Repetitive movements (e.g., chewing, moving fingers)
- Compulsory daydreaming
The Impact of Excessive Daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming causes emotional distress even when used to escape discomfort. When an individual feels compelled to daydream for hours, they have trouble fulfilling personal and professional obligations. They may neglect their job, school or loved ones while engaging in an imaginary world, leading to additional stress. When a person uses daydreaming as an escape, it can be anxiety-provoking to exit the imaginary world.
Causes of Excessive Daydreaming
There is no known specific cause of harmful daydreaming. It’s most commonly viewed as a coping strategy for those with mental health conditions or a history of trauma. For example, an individual dealing with anxiety may attempt to cope through excessive daydreaming. Children may begin MD as a way to survive abuse.
Is Maladaptive Daydreaming Considered a Mental Health Disorder?
Maladaptive daydreaming is not a diagnosable mental health disorder within the DSM-5. However, it is associated with certain conditions:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Dissociative disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Individuals experiencing one of these mental health conditions are at an increased risk of developing MD. This may be due to aspects of the specific disorder and/or using it as a coping mechanism to deal with symptoms of the mental health condition.
Maladaptive Daydreaming and ADHD
Many individuals with MD may also meet the criteria for ADHD, but they are two distinct conditions. Mind-wandering within ADHD happens due to difficulties with attention and focus, whereas people with MD are consciously choosing to continue daydreaming.
The similarities between MD and ADHD include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Large reactions to interruptions
- Easily distracted
- Unaware of surroundings
Effective treatment depends on clinicians correctly distinguishing between the two conditions.
Diagnosing Maladaptive Daydreaming
In recent years, criteria were established to identify maladaptive daydreaming. Subsequent tools were then created for clinicians to assess individuals for MD.
The 16-Item Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale
Clinicians use the 16-item maladaptive daydreaming scale to assess for MD. Each question is scored from zero to 100%. The scale measures the frequency or intensity of symptoms the person experienced within the past month. This assessment includes questions about:
- Compulsion to daydream
- How the person feels about daydreaming
- How interruptions affect daydreaming
- Listening to music while daydreaming
- Impact on daily functioning
- Level of distress if they’re unable to daydream
The Structured Clinical Interview for Maladaptive Daydreaming (SCIMD)
SCIMD is used by clinicians to identify symptoms and diagnose maladaptive daydreaming. This structured interview is divided into four sections and has 14 questions. The individual’s score will also determine the severity of the MD.
Below are some examples of the questions from the interview:
- “Is your daydreaming triggered, maintained or enhanced with exposure to repetitive movement (e.g., pacing, rocking, hand movements)?”
- “Do you often daydream when feeling distressed or bored?”
- “Does the length or intensity of your daydreaming increase in the absence of others?”
Treatment for Maladaptive Daydreaming
There is no standard treatment for MD since it’s not considered a mental health disorder in the DSM-5.
However, psychotherapy or talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are the most common forms of treatment for MD. Therapy can be a safe place to develop and practice coping skills, such as grounding exercises. These can help a person deal with the distress they try to avoid with daydreaming.
It’s also important for those with a mental health condition to receive specific treatment for the disorder. When left unaddressed, these may exacerbate maladaptive daydreaming.
Is maladaptive daydreaming impacting your life? Seek support through the Nobu app. You’ll find free guided video lessons, mindfulness activities and more! You can also connect virtually with a licensed therapist for an additional fee. Download the app today for support in overcoming maladaptive daydreaming.
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- Cleveland Clinic. “Maladaptive Daydreaming: What It Is, Symptoms & Treatment.” Last reviewed June 1, 2022. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- Soffer-Dudek, Nirit & Eli Somer. “Trapped in a Daydream: Daily Elevations in Maladaptive Daydreaming Are Associated with Daily Psychopathological Symptoms.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, May 15, 2018. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- Somer, Eli. “Maladaptive Daydreaming: Proposed Diagnostic Criteria and Their Assessment With a Structured Clinical Interview.” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2017. Accessed October 12, 2022.
- Somer, Eli, et al. “The 16-Item Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS-16).” Accessed October 12, 2022.