What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

While most of us occasionally get our heads stuck in the clouds, maybe even creating fun scenarios in our mind's eye to get through a boring meeting, for some, daydreaming can be a method of escapism that actually distracts from real life. This almost unceasing habit of getting lost in made-up stories may not sound like too big of a problem. Who is it really harming? But when the details, characters, and plot of a daydream are so specific and captivating that we have a hard time completing a task or start opting out of social situations to daydream, it can become an issue -– and the habit even shares traits with addiction (via Cleveland Clinic).


"Maladaptation develops simply because the person prefers engaging in the fantasized inner world rather than the external reality," said study author Eli Somer of the University of Haifa in Israel in an interview with Forbes. "Distress often comes with the realization of the time wasted and the unaccomplished goals in life. Ironically, individuals with maladaptive daydreaming often regulate this distress with more daydreaming, a pattern often seen among people who struggle with addictions."

And while it still isn't considered a true disorder or diagnosis, the term was coined in 2002 (via Cleveland Clinic) and tends to co-exist with OCD, ADHD, depression, and anxiety.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.


Signs of maladaptive daydreaming

So, how do you know if your tendency to zone out and disassociate is actually maladaptive daydreaming? According to Healthline, maladaptive daydreaming is marked by the challenge of completing daily tasks due to daydreaming, making facial expressions, and whispering to yourself as though you are living out the daydream, insomnia, and an overpowering urge to continue the daydream. Maladaptive daydreaming is also intentional, read: you set up the scenario, characters, etc ... Simply getting lost in thought tends to be more spontaneous.


One study asked those who experience maladaptive daydreaming what exactly they typically daydream about. The answers ranged from scenarios of falling in love and being a hero (or a victim) to escaping, being rescued, or becoming powerful (via Forbes). The study also noted that maladaptive daydreaming was, for some, a way to have needs met in an imaginary realm when they can't be met in reality. If you're experiencing what sounds like maladaptive daydreaming, don't panic. With the right support, it can be controlled. 

Treatment for maladaptive daydreaming

If maladaptive daydreaming is preventing you from living a full life and reaching your goals, rest assured –- it can be managed with the proper mental health resources. Talking with your healthcare provider or therapist is an important first step. Even developing a mindfulness practice, like catching yourself in a maladaptive daydream and stepping out of it, might help you gain a sense of control. Maladaptive daydreaming isn't widely understood currently, but finding a therapist who has experience in addiction treatment will likely be helpful –- as will engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy (via Cleveland Clinic).


Since many maladaptive daydreamers also have a related condition, like ADHD, treating underlying mental health issues should ease the coping mechanisms like maladaptive daydreaming. You may also find support groups online or in person as awareness around maladaptive daydreaming is growing. Many are sharing their experiences on social media sites, like TikTok –- and this sense of community could be just the thing you need to know you aren't alone.