Maladaptive Daydreaming: Scale, Symptoms, and Treatments

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Maladaptive daydreaming is when a person experiences intense and distracting daydreams. These daydreams can end up interfering with everyday tasks and responsibilities. Experts say this form of daydreaming may be a way of coping with trauma, abuse, or loneliness. These daydreams create a positive fantasy world the person can escape to from their real-life environment. Different events and stimuli can trigger maladaptive daydreams, such as conversations, movies, news stories, noises, and smells.

Maladaptive daydreaming can impact an individual’s personal and professional life. The person may begin to tune out from personal interactions, studying, and work. Other symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming include difficulty sleeping at night, talking or making facial expressions while daydreaming, and daydreaming for long periods. A test can help determine whether a person has this condition or is experiencing normal daydreams. Treating maladaptive daydreaming can include good sleep hygiene, tackling daytime fatigue, being aware of your symptoms, and professional therapy.

What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming is a condition in which individuals have vivid daydreams that can distract them from their everyday lives. These daydreams can interfere with important tasks and responsibilities, both personally and professionally. According to experts, maladaptive daydreaming could be a coping mechanism for trauma, abuse, or loneliness. The daydreams provide an alternate, more positive reality from the individual’s real-life circumstances. Certain events and stimuli can provoke maladaptive daydreams, such as conversations, movies, news stories, noises, and smells.

Maladaptive daydreaming is important to assess and treat because it can negatively influence someone’s personal and professional life. They may dissociate from friends and family or put off school or work responsibilities to focus on daydreaming. Maladaptive daydreaming is also problematic because most people with this condition experience trouble sleeping at night. Poor sleep quality and duration can result in diminished cognitive function, a weakened immune system, less physical energy, and negative emotions.

What Causes Maladaptive Daydreaming?

There is no specific cause of maladaptive daydreaming, but experts say it may be a way to cope with past trauma or loneliness. The daydreams provide a fantasy environment that’s an escape from the person’s real life. The individual is aware that their daydreams are not real, though. Particular events or stimuli can trigger maladaptive daydreams, such as discussing topics, movies, stories, smells, and sounds. These events and stimuli may stir up negative emotions and thoughts that cause the person to resort to intense daydreams to disassociate. The British Psychological Society says this condition is considered a neural biochemical imbalance rather than a form of addiction.

What is the Relationship between ADHD and Maladaptive Daydreaming?

People who experience maladaptive daydreaming are more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a common mental health disorder usually diagnosed in childhood and extends through adulthood. People with ADHD often have a limited attention span and are hyperactive. Usually, people with ADHD have sleep problems. According to the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, 3 out of 4 young people and 4 out of 5 adults with ADHD have a sleep disorder. The most common sleep disorder associated with ADHD is insomnia, which is when a person has trouble falling or staying asleep.

What are the Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming?

The symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming are listed below.

  1. Complex, vivid daydreams: People who are maladaptive daydreamers will have highly built-up fantasies with specific characters, plots, and locations.
  2. Experiencing daydreams from real-life situations and stimuli: Certain events or stimuli like movies and sounds may trigger these daydreams.
  3. Trouble completing daily tasks and focusing: The individual may struggle to focus, resulting in difficulty completing daily responsibilities.
  4. Not sleeping well at night: People who engage in this form of daydreaming have an increased risk of worse nighttime rest.
  5. Wanting to continue daydreaming: The individual exhibits a strong desire to continue the daydreaming.
  6. Talking, whispering, making facial expressions, or executing repetitive movements while daydreaming: People who maladaptive daydream may exhibit physical and vocal symptoms correlating to the storyline.
  7. Daydreaming for long periods of time: The daydreams can last up to hours at a time.
  8. Knowing the daydreams are not real: The individual will be aware that the daydream is a separate reality.

Is maladaptive daydreaming bad? The answer is yes because it can negatively influence your personal life, professional or academic performance, and sleep quality. Maladaptive daydreaming creates a scenario in which the person will dissociate from reality. They may be less inclined to interact with family and friends, have difficulty focusing on work or school, and many people with this condition experience worse sleep at night.

illustration of a contrast between high and low moods

What are the Complications of Maladaptive Daydreaming?

The complications of maladaptive daydreaming are listed below:

  1. Strained personal relationships: Maladaptive daydreaming can strain personal relationships when the individual prefers to be in the alternate world they create rather than their real life.
  2. Worse academic or work performance: Maladaptive daydreaming can worsen academic or career performance because the individual can have difficulty concentrating and finishing assignments.
  3. Poor sleep quality: People who experience maladaptive daydreaming usually sleep worse, resulting in diminished mental and physical health.

How to Test Maladaptive Daydreaming

To test for maladaptive daydreaming, an individual can take a 14-point maladaptive daydreaming scale. The test was developed by researchers and is a self-assessment consisting of 14 questions. The test can help give insight into whether the person is experiencing maladaptive daydreaming. The person will answer questions about their dreams based on a scale of severity. Questions can include what triggers their daydreams, what occurs during them, and how they affect daily life. A 2015 study involving the use of the scale titled Development and validation of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS) suggests it could be an “excellent measure” for future examination of this condition.

Who can Diagnose Maladaptive Daydreaming?

There is no formal diagnosis for maladaptive daydreaming, but a doctor may use a scale test to better understand if you have this condition. If a doctor believes that you are maladaptive daydreaming, they may suggest ways to help you focus better or recommend you to a therapist.

What is the Difference Between Daydreaming and Maladaptive Daydreaming?

The difference between daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming is in their intensity and how they impact everyday life. Daydreaming is when your mind wanders for a brief period, usually to pleasant or hopeful thoughts. Maladaptive daydreams are more vivid and elaborate scenarios that can become almost obsessive and interfere with daily life. These two types of daydreaming are similar in that they may involve pleasant subject matter, but their intensities are vastly different from one another.

What are the Treatments for Maladaptive Daydreaming?

The treatments for maladaptive daydreaming are listed below.

  1. Enhance the Quality of Your Sleep
  2. Reducing Daytime Fatigue
  3. Understand Your Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms
  4. Consider Using Therapy
Illustration of a Girl Sleeing in a Bean Bag

1. Enhance the Quality of Your Sleep

Improving your sleep quality should boost your emotional health and, therefore, may help manage maladaptive daydreaming. Sleep quality is a measure of how well you rest and is vital for a healthy mind and body. You can enhance your sleep quality by practicing good sleep habits, such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding electronics right before bed, managing stress, cutting back smoking and drinking, regularly exercising, and avoiding big meals late at night.

2. Reducing Daytime Fatigue

Reducing daytime fatigue should help you focus better, which could reduce your chance of experiencing maladaptive daydreams. Improving your sleep quality can help curb daytime fatigue. Other ways to alleviate daytime fatigue include exercising, getting sunlight exposure, listening to upbeat music, getting up to take a walk, and taking a short nap.

3. Understand Your Maladaptive Daydreaming Symptoms

To help treat maladaptive daydreaming, you must first be aware of the symptoms. If you feel that your daydreams are worrisome, look for other signs, such as whether they affect your work and relationships, if you have a strong desire to continue them, and if they are extremely vivid and elaborate. Maladaptive daydreamers may also notice their sleep is getting worse.

4. Consider Using Therapy

Maladaptive daydreaming is not a formally diagnosed mental health condition, but experts say it could stem from trauma and negative emotions like loneliness. Seeking treatment from a therapist could help navigate underlying negative emotions and trauma, which could, in turn, treat maladaptive daydreaming. Seeking professional help is especially important if these daydreams impact your personal and professional livelihood.

Editor

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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