Daydreaming and mindfulness as ways to regulate our thoughts

Maladaptive daydreaming often starts as a way to escape an unpleasant reality. But for those immersive daydreamers who are lucky enough never to have become addicted to their daydreams, and for maladaptive daydreamers who struggle to break the addiction even when they no longer need to escape real life, it may be worth looking at how our thoughts in the present moment influence our desire to daydream.

I’ve noticed that my daydreams serve to regulate the pace of my thoughts, or, perhaps more accurately, the level of mental stimulation they are providing.

Daydreams as a way to speed things up

My mind craves novelty and interest. I can’t tolerate boredom even for a few minutes. But there are times when the real world just isn’t very interesting – a long car or train journey, or standing in a queue, or doing housework. At those times, when the outside world isn’t providing the excitement that I’m constantly craving, my mind will provide it in the form of daydreams. Daydreams make a tedious chore or a long wait pass more quickly.

Daydreams as a way to slow things down

At the other end of the scale, when I’m under stress I often find I have more thoughts rushing around in my head than I can handle. Daydreaming is a great antidote to worrying or over-thinking things. When the thoughts just won’t stop buzzing, my mind jumps automatically into daydream mode as a way of short-circuiting the frenzy. It gives me one thing to focus on, that is totally under my control, and that can feel very restful when the outside world has gone crazy. Daydreaming is my mind’s way of protecting itself from overstimulation.

In both these cases, daydreaming serves a purpose by optimising the level of activity in my mind. It helps pass the time when I’m bored and helps calm me down when I’m stressed. I have a whole range of strategies that I use to maintain my mental health, and, thankfully, that means I’m not bored or stressed too often, so using daydreaming to regulate my thoughts at those times doesn’t cause too many problems. But if you’re looking to cut down the amount of time you spend daydreaming, it would be worth having some strategies to combat both boredom and over-thinking so that they don’t become daydream triggers. An alternative to daydreaming that works well for me in both situations is mindfulness.

I’ve mentioned mindfulness before as a potential tool to help you gain control over your daydreaming. It’s also useful when you have too many thoughts racing around in your head. Making a conscious effort to mentally step back and just notice your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them can be very calming. Daydreaming allows me to escape from racing thoughts, and the break is sometimes all I need to calm down. But mindfulness goes a step further and helps me to see the thoughts behind the thoughts, to examine why I’m reacting the way I am and what problem it is that I’m really trying to solve.

And at the other end of the scale, those times when my mind isn’t occupied, when I’m craving novelty and interest, are good opportunities to practice being mindful. Mindfulness is all about present-moment awareness, and what better time to practice than when the present moment doesn’t appear to be offering very much? At those times, it’s helpful to notice the value in focusing on the detail and subtleties that are so easy to miss in busier moments.

Mindfulness is a hard skill for daydreamers to master. Our minds are so used to leaping away from reality that it’s hard to get into the habit of staying grounded. But regardless of whether or not you are actively trying to cut down on your daydreaming, mindfulness brings so many benefits to so many aspects of life that it’s well worth giving it a go.

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