Getting lost in your thoughts occasionally is extremely common for everyone. An average person spends 47% of their waking hours in these daydreams, which momentarily distracts them from the world surrounding them.  However, for some, these daydreams become so intense that they start interfering with their daily life. Known as maladaptive daydreaming, this disorder can significantly affect anyone’s quality of life.
What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
Often known as daydreaming disorder, maladaptive daydreaming includes a condition where a person experiences regular daydreams that can be highly distracting and intense. The distraction these dreams lead to can be so intense that it may make a person stop engaging with other people or tasks in front of them. In most cases, maladaptive daydreaming is triggered by real-life stimuli or events, for example, smell, noise, a movie, or a conversation topic.
A maladaptive daydreamer often dissociates themselves from reality to fully absorb themselves into the content of their daydream. This content can have rich details and is often fantastical or may be an idealized version of the person daydreaming it. Many people start practicing maladaptive daydreaming as a coping mechanism in response to trauma, as it allows them to feel safer than what’s happening outside. For instance, people reportedly found themselves daydreaming more maladaptively after the COVID-19 lockdown.
The maladaptive daydreaming disorder was first defined in 2002; however, it has yet to be established as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The prevalence of this issue remains unknown, but it appears to be more common in people with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is suggested that more than half of the people with maladaptive daydreaming have an underlying mental health disorder.
Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms
A person with maladaptive daydreaming may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:
- Trouble sleeping
- A strong or addictive desire to continue daydreaming
- Experiencing vivid or intense daydreams, often presenting as a story with proper settings, characters, and plotlines
- Experiencing daydreams lasting a few minutes to hours
- Unconscious facial expressions along with repetitive body movements or talking that accompanies a daydream
- Daydreaming triggered by real-world sensory stimuli or events
- Problems with focus and task completion due to frequent daydreams
What Causes Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder?
Experts are unsure why some people develop maladaptive daydreaming; however, they have established its link with other conditions. Many people who engage in maladaptive daydreaming have similar features as those engaging in behavioral addictions, for example, internet gaming. For instance:
- You may feel the need to get away from real-life difficulties, such as childhood trauma and social anxiety.
- You may feel distressed about not being able to control daydreaming.
- Use maladaptive daydreaming to escape problems or overcome issues that seem impossible in real life.
- You may develop dissociative tendencies, such as a mistrust of the senses or excessive emphasis on internal thoughts.
- You may believe daydreaming to be so rewarding that stopping it becomes difficult.
Many people who experience maladaptive daydreaming describe feelings of fear or shame and an inability to ask for what they need or want. They felt a sense of trauma surrounding these emotions without having any symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. These people were also found to:
- Have a history of bullying at school
- Feel neglected at home
- Feel excessive stress with a lack of emotional support that discouraged interaction with others and asking them for what they needed
Very little research looks into why maladaptive daydreaming happens, and experts continue to explore its link with past experiences and other issues. Some also believe it to be classified as a proper disorder.
Diagnosing Maladaptive Daydreaming
Experts are not sure what triggers maladaptive daydreaming; hence, no official methods exist to diagnose it. While the problem has been associated with previous trauma or social anxiety, some people may develop it without any significant history of any of these issues. Some evidence also suggests that a maladaptive daydreamer has an active childhood imagination.
Early researchers looking into maladaptive daydreaming treatment developed a test called the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale or MDS to define its characteristics and study it further. This self-assessment has 14 parts and can help doctors check whether a person is suffering from it. Following are some questions that a person answers to assess the frequency and severity of symptoms:
- Do your daydreaming habits interfere with everyday life?
- Can you stop yourself from daydreaming?
- Do you feel like stopping yourself from daydreaming?
- What happens in your daydreams, or how vivid are they?
Due to the nature of maladaptive daydreaming symptoms, some people may confuse it with schizophrenia. Both conditions are very different, particularly in the sense that those with maladaptive daydreaming know their dreams are not real. At the same time, people with schizophrenia cannot differentiate reality from fantasy. Other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may also commonly co-occur in such people. 
How to Stop Maladaptive Daydreaming?
So far, there is no official maladaptive daydreaming treatment or cure. Fluvoxamine, a drug used to manage the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, is effective in some case studies. In general, treatment focuses on reducing the risk of experiencing a maladaptive daydream by symptom management and better sleep. The following tips must be kept in mind in this regard:
Improve your sleep quality.
Adopt better sleep habits to improve the overall quality of sleep and reduce the likelihood of experiencing maladaptive daydreaming. Set a regular sleep schedule and stick to it on both weekdays and weekends. Some other tips to follow are mentioned below:
- Try to get seven hours of sleep every night
- Exercise regularly and eat healthily
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine so that the body can easily slip into sleep
Minimize fatigue during the day.
Ensure you get enough natural sunlight during the day, especially in the morning. While using caffeine to boost energy levels is not discouraged, limit the intake to 400 milligrams per day and try not to drink it within the six hours before bedtime.
Understand your symptoms.
Make notes on a notepad or phone to note what you were doing before experiencing a maladaptive daydream. Make multiple entries and go through them to find any patterns or pick up any triggers. Once you have picked something, start working on managing it or avoiding it.
Get close to people you trust and explain your symptoms to them. This may include family members and close friends who can understand what you are going through without judgment. Doing so will prevent daydreams from straining close relationships while allowing these loved ones to help you.
A therapist can help people with maladaptive daydreaming processes, any underlying trauma, or other triggers potentiating or exacerbating this problem. They may also suggest strategies for better symptom management, such as grounding techniques. Others may recommend changing the plot endings in maladaptive daydreams from good to bad to make them feel less rewarding so that they can be stopped. This technique can work best for a person addicted to maladaptive daydreaming to the extent that it interferes with their daily life.
How is maladaptive daydreaming different from daydreaming?
Daydreams are quite common to experience and are mostly pleasant, though sometimes they may get annoying. While these daydreaming habits can distract a person from their task, they also offer many benefits, such as the ability to relieve boredom, plan future events, boost creativity, and find meaning in their life story. Maladaptive daydreams are also generally pleasant, but they most likely involve themes of power control, violence, captivity, sex, escape and rescue scenarios, and more. Contrary to traditional daydreams, these maladaptive daydreams often involve an element of fantasy. Experts also believe normal daydreaming occurs completely in a person’s mind, whereas maladaptive daydreaming involves an immersive experience that may include facial expressions, repetitive body movements, and verbalizations.
Can maladaptive daydreaming lead to schizophrenia?
Due to the nature of maladaptive daydreaming symptoms, some people may confuse it with schizophrenia. However, remember that both conditions are extremely different and have no shared link. So far, no evidence suggests daydreaming as a cause of schizophrenia.
What is the general outlook for maladaptive daydreaming?
Maladaptive daydreaming can commonly interfere with a person’s life, making it imperative for them to seek help. Joining a support group to seek help from others with the same problem can make its management easier. Many online forums are available for people looking for a maladaptive daydreaming cure.
Is there a relationship between maladaptive daydreaming and ADHD?
Experts have found associations between maladaptive daydreaming and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies looking at people with maladaptive daydreaming found that up to 77 percent of them also have underlying ADHD. Many experts have stressed the need to visualize ADHD as a behavioral issue while focusing on how it affects an individual’s internal life. One of its internal presentations in such people’s lives is maladaptive daydreaming, which can directly impact their motivation and productivity at work or school. Research believes this effect to be more common in females than males. Sleep disturbances also remain a common issue in both maladaptive daydreaming and ADHD.
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