Daydreaming vs. Reality: When Does It Become Dangerous?

Everyone daydreams at least a little bit. We tend to zone out and play out made-up scenarios in our heads, whether because of boredom or as a form of relaxation. However, maladaptive daydreaming goes beyond normal imagination. It involves extensive fantasy, replacing human interaction, and potentially disrupting everyday life.

Should you be concerned about your daydreaming?

It is estimated that up to 96% of all Americans daydream, and a single individual can have more than a hundred daydreaming episodes per day. Some literature even suggests that daydreaming comprises almost half of all human thought, which should not be confused with spending half of your waking day daydreaming. In reality, this means that for our active, cognitively directed thoughts, we have almost as many daydreams.

While maladaptive daydreaming is recognized as a form of daydreaming, it is not quite the same. Maladaptive dreaming is a phenomenon that involves creating elaborate fantasy worlds with imaginative scenarios, surroundings, and relationships.

In the case of maladaptive daydreaming, this form of daydreaming interferes with individuals' real-life responsibilities, affecting all areas, from school or work to social or romantic relationships. People who are diagnosed with maladaptive daydreaming tend to spend hours creating fantasy scenarios in their heads, which replace reality.

Signs that daydreaming is dangerous

Maladaptive daydreaming is described as a behavior that has two separate dimensions: the 'dreams' themselves and how the individual feels about them. Individuals who engage in maladaptive daydreaming often describe the following concerns:

Signs that daydreaming is dangerous

Given that maladaptive daydreaming is something that is happening inside someone else's head, it can be difficult to notice any external symptoms.

Individuals with this condition may purposefully choose to engage in such experiences instead of real-life activities. They might feel the need to daydream and may feel irritable, angry, or anxious if they do not get to do it. At the same time, people with maladaptive dreaming report that they try to disengage from dreaming and feel guilty afterward.

Who is at risk?

Maladaptive dreaming frequently overlaps with mental health disorders, such as dissociative disorder, some types of depression, attention deficit disorders, anxiety disorders, and some forms of OCD. It has also been suggested that people who have experienced trauma or abuse — especially during the early years — are more likely to have maladaptive daydreaming as a coping mechanism.

While very little research is available on the matter, maladaptive dreaming is relatively common and is usually diagnosed during childhood and teenage years. Nonetheless, individuals of all ages can be affected by this condition.

Tips on how to cope with maladaptive daydreaming

While there is no standard treatment for maladaptive daydreaming, there are some options that have been shown to be helpful.

  1. Focus on improving your sleep quality by maintaining strict sleep hygiene.
  2. Start a 'daydream' diary to note triggers for maladaptive daydreaming.
  3. Talk to your loved ones for support and educate them about maladaptive daydreaming.
  4. If you notice that daydreaming interferes with your life, seek professional help.

Since maladaptive daydreaming often accompanies other mental health disorders, personalized treatments may be necessary. Current approaches include medication, adjusted to alleviate maladaptive dreaming alongside coexisting conditions, and therapy, which addresses behaviors and provides coping mechanisms.

Psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are recommended options for managing maladaptive daydreaming. However, it is important to note that as of now, maladaptive dreaming is not recognized as a separate mental health disorder.

Tips for parents

If you are a parent who suffers from maladaptive daydreaming or suspect that your child might engage in maladaptive dreaming, the most important step is contacting a healthcare professional. They may provide direct help or refer you to someone who specializes in maladaptive daydreaming.

Seeking help and finding the right way might take time and be difficult; however be patient and remember that during treatment, there can be ups and downs. If this is your loved one who is potentially struggling with daydreaming, be understanding and provide support where necessary.

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