Daydreaming is a natural thing. We all do it, and often we enjoy it. It's tempting to escape reality and retreat into the hypothetical, or spend time imagining intricate ideal scenarios. When you're stuck in a meeting you don't want to be in or gridlocked in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the prospect of being anywhere else irresistible.
Wandering off is our mind's reactionary response to being in situations that aren't serving or entertaining it. Sometimes, it leads us to creative discoveries — some of the most brilliant creative strategies emerge out of delving into fantasy-land. However, sometimes daydreaming can be avoidant and harmful, leading us to stagnancy and immobility. Be cognizant and aware of when letting your mind wander can turn into a cycle of maladaptive daydreaming, and you can take steps to stop it.
What is daydreaming?
Daydreaming refers to any time your mind wanders away from the task you're doing or the situation you're in. There are lots of ways you can daydream, and identifying the ones your mind tends toward is helpful in figuring out why you daydream. Daydreams can be as simple as spending time staring into space at work thinking about what you're going to have for dinner later that night., but they can also be intricate or far-fetched. You might make up hypothetical scenarios within real-life contexts, with people and things you know and encounter on a daily basis. You may go down a path of imagining an ideal outcome of a possibility you're waiting to hear back from. Or, your daydreams might be more out of the ordinary. Maybe you create whole fantasies or think up stories and characters when your mind wanders.
All of these forms of daydreaming aren't necessarily harmful. They even serve us, to a certain extent. They can fuel our creative work or get us through hard situations. Sometimes, positive daydreaming can act as a visioning exercise; the mind is a powerful thing, and if you're trying to manifest some ideal outcome into existence, imagining your goals and dreams coming true can help you achieve them.
What is maladaptive daydreaming?
When daydreaming becomes your mind's main coping mechanism, leading to hours spent in fantasy parallel universes and idealized scenarios, you might have a problem. Daydreaming is considered maladaptive when it begins to infringe on your ability to live your life in the real world. Often, we revert to this kind of escape to get away from problems in our lives or less than ideal situations. But losing yourself in a fantasy world never fully solves the problems you're running from, so a pattern of maladaptive daydreaming can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of disappointment.
7 steps to stop daydreaming
Maladaptive daydreaming is often involuntary, especially when it becomes a habit; you may not realize you're doing it. If you experience symptoms like loss of sleep, whispering or talking while daydreaming, overwhelming desire to daydream or a loss of focus in everyday tasks, you are probably dealing with maladaptive daydreaming. In order to break the cycle, there are several things you should do.
1. Identify why you daydream.
The first step to stopping something from happening is to understand why it's happening in the first place. You can discern the root cause of your daydreaming by analyzing the content of your daydreams and answering honestly with yourself about how and why you fantasize. Some people daydream to avoid painful thoughts or feelings, others suffer from anxiety or insecurity and get caught up in imagining a perfect world. Think about what you daydream about most frequently, and try to identify what about that situation is causing you to check out. Then, you can work on tackling the problem head-on and taking action to change your situation, rather than escaping it.
2. Know your patterns.
Start to notice when your mind gets the urge to drift off, and what causes that urge. If you can identify your triggers — the actions or events that cause you to daydream — you can better prepare for them. Do you only fantasize when you're bored, or does it happen mostly when you're upset? Once you recognize a pattern in your behavior, you can take action to avoid daydreaming as the response. If you fantasize when you're upset, you can have a plan for the next time you feel that way, with a list of alternative ways to cope with your emotions.
3. Keep your mind busy.
Especially if you fantasize when you're bored, keeping your mind busy can be a productive way to avoid getting your head stuck in the clouds. Consider making a simple to-do list to keep track of the things you need to do, and work your way through the list meticulously, referring back to it when you get the urge to drift off.
Meditation is the ultimate exercise in keeping your mind in check. It's a hard thing to do, but keeping your mind free and your thoughts passive will give you a greater control over your mind's impulses. It will also ground you in the moment and cause you to be more present. Start small, with a couple of minutes a day, and build up from there. If you work best with guidance or a prompt, download a guided meditation app or find a video that works for you.
5. Ground yourself in the present.
You can counteract your tendency to be in your head by grounding yourself in your surroundings. Train yourself to be present more often by using grounding techniques: name and identify some of the objects in the room you're in, or focus on some tangible activity you can do there. You can also focus on your breath and the mechanics of breathing. These actions can help put you back in reality; if you feel yourself drifting off, pause what you're doing for a couple of minutes and try some of these exercises.
6. Turn your daydreaming into visualization.
Again, not all daydreaming is bad; it can be a useful and productive tool if used positively toward a goal. Maladaptive daydreaming and visualization are actually not that far apart from each other, and it only takes a few tweaks to turn your fantasies into positive projections into the future. Visualization is the act of taking a perspective on your life from outside of yourself and motivating yourself toward your ideal reality. In order to practice this form of modified daydreaming, set a clear time, place, and goal for your visualization. The main difference between the two practices is intention. Have awareness about what your intentions are, and how you will achieve them.
7. Take steps toward your goals.
Visualizing an ideal future for yourself is only the first step in getting fully out of your daydreaming pattern. Again, we daydream to escape reality, because reality is often difficult, tedious and labor-intensive. But in order to get where you want to be – in the fantasy on the other side of your daydreams — you need to take concrete steps to change your reality. Using visualization as a tool, turn your dreams into tangible goals, and begin to make a plan to work toward them.
Relatively little is known and studied about maladaptive daydreaming conclusively. As a condition, it is widely under-researched, but there are common symptoms, triggers, and implications concluded from the research there is on the topic.
1. What triggers maladaptive daydreaming?
The triggers of daydreaming are plentiful and varied. Basically, it depends on who you are. If you think you are prone to maladaptive daydreaming, it's helpful to keep an eye out for your own triggers so you can learn to anticipate them. Some common ones are boredom, traumatic events, a task you want to procrastinate on, or a life path that is disappointing or dull. Overall, the underlying trigger is an overwhelming desire to escape the current reality.
2. Is daydreaming a sign of mental illness?
Maladaptive daydreaming is not included in DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), so it is not recognized by scientists or doctors as a disorder. While not necessarily a sign of mental illness, though, there are instances when maladaptive daydreaming can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression. Just because you are prone to daydreaming does not inherently mean that you have one of these disorders, but if you suspect you may suffer from depression or OCD, it might be something to consider when figuring out your maladaptive daydreaming patterns and causes.
Everyone fantasizes and drifts off every once in a while, but if you're experiencing a chronic inability to keep your thoughts in the present, you might be experiencing maladaptive daydreaming. No matter why you check out mentally, identifying the root causes for your daydreams and working toward solutions to control your thoughts will help you ground yourself in the presence and turn your pipe dreams into goals to work toward.