Maladaptive daydreaming is a psychological construct that explains a behavior but it is not an official disorder. There is not a lot that’s known about it, but it’s being researched more so we can better understand the prevalence, the characteristics of it and then how to treat it.
Everyone daydreams to some extent. This is when you think about something that is unrelated to what you’re involved in. This is different from nocturnal dreams when you are asleep and don’t have conscious control over your thoughts.
Daydreaming is a product of the default mode network which I’ve spoken about before. This is network of brain regions that are engaged in mental activity that runs in the background. This network is suppressed when you are purposely thinking about something. But when you let your mind wander from a task or intentional thought, the default mode network takes over.
The usual mind wandering is unintentional and spontaneous. You can slip into it when you’re inactive. But you can also engage in purposeful thinking about something you chose like imaging your next vacation or picturing yourself getting a job promotion. But normally this level of fantasizing doesn’t interfere with your normal activities or cause distress.
Maladaptive daydreaming is a state of deliberate mind wandering on steroids. The fantasies are intentionally generated and are usually complex narratives with multiple characters and multiple storylines. You can become absorbed in them for hours. Unlike a dissociative state where you may not be able to distinguish reality from fantasy, with maladaptive dreaming you are fully aware that you are absorbed in your inner world. Your thoughts keep you occupied, but you don’t get so lost in them that you lose touch with reality.
To maintain focus on the fantasies, people will use gestures like rocking or humming to keep themselves on track with the thoughts. You may even find yourself mouthing the words of the story or whispering to yourself. There’s a compulsive nature to it which has made some consider on the addictive spectrum. It’s like you have to escape into your world and play out your fantasies. Some people can go stretches of time without the dreaming, but then be triggered by a song or a situation that prompts them to escape into the dreaming.
This kind of daydreaming interferes with your social and work functioning because of the time you spend doing it and the need to be isolated. It can also cause a lot of distress when you feel like you don’t have control over the urge to dream or the amount of time you spend doing it.
We don’t have a set treatment protocol. One thing that may help is recognizing triggers and minimizing or eliminating them. Given the compulsive nature of it, exposure therapy may prove helpful. This is a behavior therapy that involves exposing you to a trigger for your dreaming and then helping you respond to the trigger differently without dreaming.
If you have another disorder like depression or anxiety, it may be that improving the symptoms associated with one of these disorders, has the trickle down effect of reducing your dreaming.
Marcusson-Clavertz D, West M, Kjell ONE, Somer E. A daily diary study on maladaptive daydreaming, mind wandering, and sleep disturbances: Examining within-person and between-persons relations. PLoS One. 2019;14(11):e0225529. Published 2019 Nov 27. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0225529
Soffer-Dudek N, Somer E. Trapped in a Daydream: Daily Elevations in Maladaptive Daydreaming Are Associated With Daily Psychopathological Symptoms. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:194. Published 2018 May 15. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00194
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