Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Do you ever find yourself gazing out the window and daydreaming while sitting at your desk at work or in the classroom? Maybe you’ve imagined landing the perfect job, marrying your sweetheart, dining with a celebrity, taking a tropical vacation, winning the lottery … Or maybe you imagine yourself confronting a difficult boss or taking revenge on an ex who did you wrong.

Daydreaming is a natural behavior. But some people’s daydreams are so vivid and frequent that it’s easier for them to live in their imagination than in the real world. That’s known as maladaptive daydreaming. And it’s more common among young adults who struggle with mental health conditions.

Key Takeaways

  • Maladaptive daydreaming is an excessive form of daydreaming in which people lose themselves in an imaginary world so completely that they can find it hard to function in daily life.
  • Maladaptive daydreamers tend to make unconscious facial expressions, vocalizations, and movements while daydreaming.
  • Maladaptive daydreamers often escape into their daydreams to cope with underlying mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or ADHD.
  • Recording your daydreams, getting adequate rest, and mental health therapy can help to manage maladaptive daydreaming.

Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Daydreaming Disorder

What is maladaptive daydreaming? It is a mental health issue in which people engage in excessive daydreaming that interferes with their personal and professional lives. They may lose themselves for hours in a technicolor imaginary world complete with detailed characters and intricate storylines.

Moreover, they sometimes act out the behavior of people in their daydreams or speak their dialogue. In many daydreams, they transform into an idealized version of themselves. This kind of compulsive daydreaming occurs voluntarily or involuntarily. But most people are able to start and stop it at will.


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History of Maladaptive Daydreaming

While people have likely experienced maladaptive daydreaming for ages, the term wasn’t coined until 2002. Dr. Eli Somer, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, was treating adults who’d suffered sexual abuse as children. Somer noticed that several of the abuse survivors routinely escaped into imaginary worlds so they could enjoy personal traits and experiences missing in their real lives.

Furthermore, he observed how these individuals would routinely pace or rock and back and forth while daydreaming. Professor Somer coined a term to describe the phenomenon—maladaptive daydreaming. He described it as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.”

Know the Facts

People with maladaptive daydreaming can spend almost 60 percent of their waking hours absorbed in their self-created fantasies.

Who Is Vulnerable to Maladaptive Daydreaming?

What makes daydreaming maladaptive? This type of daydreaming is often an unhealthy way to cope with an underlying mental health condition. Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t a diagnosable mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5). However, people who engage in maladaptive daydreaming often have other mental health conditions, such as:

Some research suggests maladaptive daydreaming is more common in young adults and teenagers. It’s also more prevalent in people with a history of abuse or childhood trauma, as it offers a temporary escape from inner conflicts, stressful circumstances, and intolerable feelings. Maladaptive daydreamers may immerse themselves in their imagination because it feels safer than reality.

How Common Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

It’s not clear how common maladaptive daydreaming is because research is limited. One survey, however, of more than 1,000 Israelis found that 2.5 percent of the population met the criteria for maladaptive daydreaming. That’s 1 in 40 people.

In young adults, rates were somewhat higher, between 5.5 percent and 8.5 percent. Some experts have linked the disorder to ADHD. Research shows that about 20 percent of people with ADHD engage in maladaptive daydreaming. These findings suggest that maladaptive daydreaming involves a unique form of inattention, making it related to but distinct from ADHD.

Know the Facts

A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 1 in 5 people with ADHD suffered from maladaptive daydreaming.

What’s the Difference Between Healthy Daydreaming and Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Normal daydreaming is usually a pleasant experience. It occurs in the imagination and has little effect on daily life. But maladaptive daydreaming is an immersive experience that often includes repetitive movements, facial expressions, and/or verbalizations.

Moreover, maladaptive daydreamers feel a strong need to imagine themselves in structured, complex, and fantastical narratives. They often assume positions of power in their daydreams, and imagine themselves being idolized and adored. Some maladaptive daydreaming is similar to playing a starring role in a long-running TV show.

There are three main factors that differentiate normal daydreaming from maladaptive daydreaming:

  • How compelled you are to daydream
  • The intensity of the engrossing and kinesthetic quality of your daydreams
  • The extent to which your daydreams interfere with daily life

Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms

Maladaptive daydreaming symptoms tend to fall into two categories: daydreaming behavior and the effects of the daydreaming.

Daydreaming Behavior Symptoms

Maladaptive daydreaming often involves the following:

  • Triggers: Seeing a picture, watching a movie, reading a news story, or experiencing sensory stimuli or a specific event can trigger daydreaming.
  • Intention: People often start daydreaming on purpose rather than falling into it.
  • Intensity: Daydreams of this type are much more vivid and emotionally potent than regular daydreams.
  • Complexity: Maladaptive daydreams often include detailed plots with intricate settings and specific characters.
  • Unconscious acting out of dreams: Daydreamers talk out loud, whisper, make facial expressions, and move in repetitive ways without awareness.
  • Duration: People can daydream this way for hours at a time.
  • Disconnection: The daydreams are so strong that individuals disconnect from the world around them. This can be a way to cope with depression, anxiety, or a history of abuse or trauma.
  • Desire: Daydreamers yearn to enter their daydreams and become part of their imagined worlds.
  • Awareness: People who engage in this kind of daydreaming are aware that their daydreams are different from day-to-day reality.

Effects of Maladaptive Daydreaming

People who experience maladaptive daydreaming struggle with negative consequences, including:

  • Disrupting work, school, or hobbies: Because their daydreams consume a lot of time and make focusing difficult, maladaptive daydreamers can experience problems on the job, at school, or with hobbies. They may have trouble studying, completing projects, or setting and achieving goals.
  • Relationship problems: People who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming often prefer to daydream than spend time with others. They may neglect their relationships, leading to interpersonal conflicts.
  • Compulsion: Daydreamers may feel upset if they miss the opportunity to daydream. They may try to daydream less or stop it altogether. Their need to daydream may be akin to a behavioral addiction
  • Shame and guilt. People who engage in maladaptive daydreaming often feel significant distress about daydreaming, especially when it interferes with other aspects of their life.
  • Trouble sleeping: People who daydream in this way tend to sleep more poorly at night.

What Triggers Maladaptive Daydreaming?

There’s no single reason why people experience maladaptive daydreaming. Some experts have traced the disorder to childhood trauma. Some children may feel the need to escape into a vibrant imaginary world as a way of dealing with trauma. And they may continue this pattern as they mature.

In adults, maladaptive daydreaming occurs most often as a response to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. A small study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that 3 out of 4 participants who met the criteria for maladaptive daydreaming also met the criteria more than three additional disorders. And 40 percent met criteria for more than four mental health disorders. 

Some adults engage in maladaptive daydreaming to cope with difficult feelings like shame. They relish experiencing other aspects of themselves in their daydreams, which become a substitute for reality. They may daydream to feel a sense of self-worth, validation, or emotional connection. Other adults daydream maladaptively to cope with boredom, lessen loneliness and depression, avoid difficult issues, escape from problems, or fulfill a wish they can’t realize in real life.

Know the Facts

75% of people who engage in maladaptive daydreaming struggle with mental health disorders.

How Do I Know If I’m a Maladaptive Daydreamer?

If you want to know whether you’re a maladaptive daydreamer, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I experience such intense pleasure from my daydreams that I want to spend time daydreaming above everything else?
  2. During my daydreams, do I make repetitive movements, facial expressions, and verbalizations to immerse myself in the experience?
  3. Does my daydreaming cause me emotional distress?
  4. Do my daydreams keep me from focusing on my work, relationships, and other things I have to do?

It’s not possible to formally diagnose maladaptive daydreaming because it isn’t a recognized condition. If you’re unsure whether you suffer from it, you can take a maladaptive daydreaming test based on the maladaptive daydreaming scale (MDS). The original MDS daydreaming scale includes 14 questions. There is also an MDS-16, which includes two additional questions.

Coping with Maladaptive Daydreams

Some people try to manage maladaptive daydreaming. Others may want to know how to stop maladaptive daydreaming altogether. Either way, the approaches for coping include the following.

Know Your Daydreaming Triggers

Start a daydreaming journal and record what you were doing just before you had a maladaptive daydream. Do you begin daydreaming when you feel rejected? Lonely? Once you know what brings your daydreams on, you’ll begin to understand your triggers and how to avoid or manage them.

Reduce Your Fatigue

The more tired you are, the more apt you are to daydream. To reduce fatigue, expose yourself to natural sunlight throughout the day, especially in the morning. Consuming caffeine can be helpful. But avoid having more than four cups of coffee a day. And make sure to drink your last cup at least six hours before bed.

Improve Your Sleep

Poor sleep quality or not enough sleep leads to more frequent daydreaming. Adopting better sleep habits can have a positive effect on maladaptive daydreaming. Go to bed and rise at the same time each day. Create a calming bedtime routine. Ensure you get at least seven hours a night.

Share What You’re Experiencing

Talk about your symptoms with people you trust, like friends and family members. Doing so will serve two purposes. For one, it can prevent your daydreams from straining your relationships. Also, maladaptive daydreaming usually happens when you’re alone. So make sure to spend time engaging in social activities. You’ll be less apt to slip into daydreaming when there are people around you.

Maladaptive Daydreaming Treatment

Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t considered an official diagnosis. Hence, there is no standard form of treatment. Improved sleep and symptom management can help, but mental health therapy is the main approach. A trained therapist can work with maladaptive daydreamers to process underlying trauma and identify daydreaming triggers. Interestingly, some therapists recommend changing the endings of daydreams from good to bad to make daydreams less satisfying.

Working with a mental health professional who can identify and treat underlying mental health conditions is important for maladaptive daydreamers. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of therapy for conditions like OCD, depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. The CBT approach can help maladaptive daydreamers understand why they daydream and how to manage their daydreams most effectively. Mindfulness training can also be helpful because it encourages maladaptive daydreamers to focus on the here and now instead of escaping into daydreams.

Young Adult Mental Health Treatment at Newport Institute

At Newport Institute, our philosophy of care is informed by research and based in compassion and authentic connection. Our team of experts includes psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, family therapists, counselors, music therapists, art therapists, adventure therapists, equine therapists, registered dieticians, and more. They utilize a wide array of clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities to address childhood trauma and mental health conditions.

Young adults in our residential and outpatient treatment programs learn heathy coping strategies to replace negative behaviors like maladaptive daydreaming, substance abuse, or disordered eating. Our approach supports them to build life skills and strengthen communication and relationship skills. We are dedicated to transforming the lives of young people and their families. Contact us today to learn more about our specialized programs for young adults ages 18–35.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an example of maladaptive daydreaming?
  • What are maladaptive daydreaming symptoms?
  • What triggers maladaptive daydreaming?
  • Is maladaptive daydreaming a mental illness?
  • Is maladaptive daydreaming a form of ADHD?

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Co-Occurring Disorders / May 22, 2023