Daydreaming is like a memory in present tense

I’ve sometimes been asked what it feels like to immersively daydream. And although, to me, it comes as naturally as breathing, it’s surprisingly hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. I see, hear, and feel every detail, but I’m not hallucinating. I know my daydreams aren’t real, and yet they’re real to me. I know what my characters look like, even though I’ve never seen them through my eyes. The description that fits it best is that it’s a memory in present tense.

To understand what I mean, try this: recall a conversation you had with someone yesterday. Replay that conversation in your mind. I’m willing to bet that, even if you’re a normative daydreamer, you don’t remember just the words of the conversation, as though you’re reading a transcript. You remember the other person’s tone of voice and facial expressions. You remember how what they said made you feel. You remember where you were when the conversation took place and who else was present. You might even remember some of the thoughts and distractions that were running through your mind during the conversation. And yet, while you’re remembering the conversation, you know you’re not actually experiencing it over again. You can hear and see all the details, but those details aren’t coming in through your senses; they exist only as images in your imagination.

Daydreaming is exactly the same, except that instead of remembering something that happened in the past, you’re creating a scene in your head in the present. But that doesn’t stop all the details being there. I think that’s something that sets immersive and maladaptive daydreamers apart from normative daydreamers. I can decide to daydream a scene that takes place in a made-up location I’ve never used before, and it’s instantly as vivid as a memory. I don’t have to decide on all the details, they’re just there. It’s the same with characters. When my plot requires a new character, they stroll in fully formed – I know what they look like, what their backstory is, what type of person they are. I don’t have to decide those things; the character just arrives as a complete person.

But if your daydreams are closely tied to your real life, especially if they’re often set in real places and your characters are based on real people, this memory analogy can help explain why you might occasionally mix up fantasy and reality. Because it does happen. We like to think that one of the trademarks of immersive and maladaptive daydreaming is that we always know what is real and what isn’t. Our daydreams are not hallucinations. We know while we’re daydreaming that it isn’t really happening. And yet we’ve all had moments when we’re not entirely sure if a conversation with a friend really happened or whether it was something we daydreamed.

If you’ve ever mixed up reality and daydreaming after the event, don’t panic; you’re not going crazy. Once you’ve daydreamed a particular scene or conversation, that daydream becomes a memory, just like the memories of things that really happened. While something is actually happening, you know whether it’s coming in through your senses or whether it’s a mental image in your imagination. But afterwards, when you recall it, it’s a mental image in your imagination, regardless of whether it was originally real or not. If your daydreams take place in a fictional universe, or in a real place you’ve never really been to, then the scene will clue you into whether you’re remembering a real event or a daydream. But when your daydreams take place in real places, with characters based on people who are actually part of your real life, you don’t always have those clues. And that’s why it’s completely normal that you might not always know whether a particular memory is a memory of a real event or a memory of a daydream.

This memory analogy has helped me explain to people what it’s like inside my head. But trying to explain my daydreaming to normative daydreamers has made me very aware just how much effort it takes to understand any perspective other than our own. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m recalling a memory, anticipating a future event or imagining a scene from my daydream. All are equally detailed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a mind that doesn’t automatically fill in the blanks. Normative daydreamers struggle to understand what it’s like for me having stories bouncing around inside my head all the time. I struggle to understand how they live without them.

Should I be concerned about my child’s daydreaming?

My earliest memories of daydreaming are from when I was four years old, but I think I’ve always been a daydreamer. I believe that all immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are born immersive daydreamers. In the beginning, our daydreaming isn’t harmful. But my daydreaming first became maladaptive when I was eight years old, so it’s definitely possible for children to struggle with maladaptive daydreaming disorder. So, as a parent, how do you know if your child is indulging in harmless imaginative play or whether there’s something more serious going on?

Thinking back to my own childhood, the most obvious sign of my preoccupation with my daydreams was my willingness, even eagerness, to spend time alone. I never wanted or needed to be around other children. And when I was alone, I would often narrate my daydreams out loud, or at least mouth the words. I also used to pace, even at an early age. It was never quite the typical pacing that many adult maladaptive daydreamers report, but it was a repetitive movement that served the same purpose. I would roller-skate up and down the drive, or I would bounce a tennis ball off the back wall of the house. The same movement, over and over again – and I could do it for hours at a time.

I learned early on that talking to yourself isn’t socially acceptable, and that made me secretive about my daydreaming. But if anyone had asked, I’d have said I liked making up stories in my head. That’s what it was to me – a fun way to spend my time. All my time. As a child, you don’t think that spending a lot of time doing something you enjoy could ever be a problem.

So, as a parent, when should you be concerned? If your child is happy playing alone for several hours at a time, particularly if they seem to be talking to themselves, or they do some kind of repetitive movement over and over and over, that could indicate that they’re a daydreamer. They may or may not be comfortable talking to you about their daydreams, depending on whether they’ve already realised that most people don’t talk to themselves or have stories playing in their heads. But even so, the only way you’ll know for sure whether or not your child is a daydreamer is if they tell you.

Remember, immersive daydreaming is not maladaptive daydreaming. Your child may well be a daydreamer, but if their daydreaming doesn’t get in the way of going to school, spending time with friends and family and having a few real-life hobbies, then it’s probably immersive daydreaming rather than maladaptive daydreaming. Immersive daydreaming isn’t a problem. An immersive daydreamer can control when they daydream and for how long, and they prioritise real life over daydreaming.

But what if you feel your child’s daydreaming is getting out of control? It is possible for maladaptive daydreaming disorder to start in childhood. If your child has very few friends, actively avoids spending time with other people, has trouble concentrating at school, or is daydreaming for several hours after going to bed, then their daydreaming might be doing more harm than good. But even then, you need to be careful about suggesting your child should stop daydreaming. It’s rarely that simple.

Maladaptive daydreaming often begins as an escape. Something in real life is too overwhelming to handle, and so we escape from it by immersing ourselves in fantasy. That can be the case even for children. Their daydreaming is a way to avoid a problem. Expecting them to stop daydreaming if you haven’t solved that problem is just going to make things worse.

My daydreaming first became maladaptive when I was eight years old. The problem was that I didn’t have any friends – so I made them up. And then, of course, I was happy with my imaginary friends so I felt no need to make real ones. And so my daydreaming remained maladaptive throughout most of my teenage years. Eventually I made some real-life friends whose company I enjoyed more than daydreaming, and then my daydreaming gradually faded into the background. If my parents had tried to stop me daydreaming without understanding and helping me with the loneliness I was escaping from, I’d have ended up resenting them for trying to take away the only friends I had.

As a parent, you might be able to see that your child’s daydreaming is preventing them from making the most of real-life opportunities. But unless your child can see that too and unless your child wants to stop daydreaming, making their daydreaming into something “bad” is unlikely to help. Somehow you need to figure out what it is that your child is escaping from, and help them fix that. If you can do that, there’s a good chance their daydreaming will subside on its own.

How being an immersive daydreamer saved my life

SONY DSC

10 September is World Suicide Prevention Day. That’s something that’s very close to my heart now. Less than a year ago, I made the decision to end my life. But my daydreaming saved me. And I finally feel ready to write about how that happened.

It was October 2021, and I was heading for burnout. I’d been under too much stress for too long, every day was a battle, every day I told myself that self-care would just have to wait. I was putting my needs at the bottom of my to-do list, and I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. I also knew I had no choice. There was a battle raging inside my head. On one side was my self-compassion, telling me that the stress I was under was tearing me apart and I needed to change course before something went badly wrong. On the other side was my rational mind, which had considered all the ways I could reduce the stress and concluded that none of them were viable. The only choice seemed to be to keep fighting, one day at a time, and hope that things got easier.

But of course they didn’t get easier. When pressure keeps building inside a container, if it isn’t released, the container will eventually break. My head was no different. The first crack appeared on a Tuesday morning. I’d logged off work the previous evening with every intention of coming back the next day. But that morning I couldn’t log on. It just felt too overwhelming. I called my doctor, and she signed me off work and made an urgent referral for mental health support.

At the time, I thought that was the low point. Being signed off work had removed one source of stress, surely now I could start to address the others? But no. It turned out that initial crack hadn’t been enough to release the pressure.

The explosion came six days later. I was standing at the bottom of the stairs and tears just started flooding out of me. I was sobbing uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop. I don’t remember how I got to the sofa, but I stayed there for the next two days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t stop crying.

I think some people become suicidal because they’re in unbearable emotional pain and they reach a point where they’re so desperate they will do literally anything to make the pain stop. That wasn’t me. I didn’t want to hurt my family. I didn’t even really want to die. I just couldn’t see any way I could go on living. I didn’t have what it took. I saw an alternative, and it was compelling. I had a choice. I could say no. I could choose to put a boundary in place. I could accept that life was asking more of me than I was capable of giving. Ending my life would be the ultimate act of self-compassion.

And that’s where my daydreaming saved me. Without it, I think I’d be dead. Because nothing outside of me could have helped. I knew that my children loved me. I knew that my husband loved me. I loved them. I didn’t want to leave them. But I had no choice. I believed I simply wasn’t strong enough to do what life was asking of me, and I don’t think anything outside of me could have shaken that belief.

But it was a belief that wasn’t shared by my Companion and my Guide. Before they became my imaginary friends, they were characters in my daydream. They met my daydream self first, before they met the real-world me. And that affected how they saw me. I think they knew, back then, what I’ve discovered since – my daydream self is the real me. And my daydream self can cope with anything. When I believed I wasn’t strong enough to go on living, they knew that I was. They gave me the choice I so desperately needed: stick to my belief that I wasn’t strong enough, or trust that they knew me better than I knew myself. I made a leap of faith; I put my trust in them. And they did not leave my side.

I spent a month in hospital, 100 miles from my family. The therapists there were amazing. I got the professional support I needed to begin my transformation. I don’t like the word recovery – it implies you’re getting back something you’d lost, and I was becoming something new. The old me was gone; all the aspects of my personality that had never really been mine had fallen away, and I wasn’t sure what was left. While my therapists helped me figure out how to function in the real world again, my Companion and my Guide had the harder task of helping me figure out who I was becoming. Sometimes it felt overwhelming, but they encouraged me to take it one step at a time. My Guide assured me that each step would be revealed to me as I was ready to take it, and that’s proved to be the case.

Ten months on from my crisis, I’m back home with my family. I’m prioritising self-care – meditation, time in nature, and regular check-ins with my Companion and my Guide. And I’m happy – the deep, enduring kind of happy that comes from finally living in alignment with my authentic self. The stress hasn’t disappeared – some parts of my life are still, quite frankly, a mess – but I can handle it now. When you have the solid foundation of knowing and loving your authentic self, life doesn’t get to push you around any more.

I’m lucky – throughout my crisis and the subsequent transformation, I’ve had the support I needed both from my daydream characters and in real life. Too many people struggling with mental ill health don’t have either. If you’re lucky enough to have characters in your daydream who love you unconditionally, please don’t ever tell yourself that the love you feel from them isn’t real just because the characters aren’t real. The love is real. It comes from somewhere deep inside of you. And it has the potential to change your life in ways you never expected.

Don’t fight the wrong battle

As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.

Bessel A. van der Kolk

Bessel van der Kolk’s words are particularly relevant to daydreamers. For all the harm that maladaptive daydreaming can do, it’s important to remember that all maladaptive daydreamers were born immersive daydreamers. Our daydreaming is the lens through which we see the world. But it’s a lens that many maladaptive (and some immersive) daydreamers are deeply ashamed of. So we keep our daydreaming secret. And we try to suppress something that’s a fundamental part of who we are. And doing so feels very much as if we’re at war with ourselves, at war with our own minds.

But there’s nothing to be gained by going to war with yourself. Trying to eradicate your daydreaming completely from your mind and from your life is an attempt to destroy part of who you are. And if you repress or destroy a part of yourself, you can never be whole. I repressed aspects of my true self for over 40 years, and I’m now able to see that many of my struggles in life came from that repression, from feeling that, for whatever reason, there were aspects of myself that I needed to keep hidden.

When you try to suppress your daydreaming, you’re not really getting rid of it. You’re pushing it down somewhere deep where you refuse to acknowledge it. But it wants to resurface. Every part of who we are longs to see the light. The harder you push it down, the more intensely it pushes back up. Keeping it down there takes effort. You have to keep fighting the war.

But your daydreaming isn’t, and has never been, the enemy. You’re fighting the wrong battle. The problem isn’t your daydreaming, but how you’re using it and the relationship you have with it. Compare the maladaptive daydreamer who uses their daydreaming as a way to escape from real life and avoid facing their problems, with the immersive daydreamer who uses their daydreaming as a window into their subconscious and a way to creatively solve life’s problems. These two daydreamers could be daydreaming about exactly the same things, but their levels of success and happiness will be very different. The content of your daydreams has little or nothing to do with how your daydreaming affects you. The difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming lies in what your daydreaming is doing, or not doing, for you.

Maladaptive daydreaming has two components: the first part is immersive daydreaming, the second part is an addiction to that daydreaming, or the overuse of it as an unhealthy coping mechanism. You can’t control the first part. You were born an immersive daydreamer. You can control the second part. Addictions can be overcome. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can be replaced with healthy ones. The pain you’re running from can be addressed. It’s not easy – if it was, you’d never have fallen into maladaptive daydreaming in the first place. You probably can’t do it alone. You might need the help and support of a therapist. You will almost certainly need the help and support of the people who love you. And that means you’ll need the courage to ask for help.

Maladaptive daydreamers use their daydreaming to avoid facing their real-life problems. And blaming your daydreaming for those real-life problems is another example of exactly that. If we think that the daydreaming is the enemy, we can put all our resources into fighting that war against ourselves, and ignore everything that’s going on outside of us. But when we realise that that’s what we’re doing, we take the first step towards cultivating a healthier relationship with our daydreaming. We’re able to accept our daydreaming as part of who we are, to nurture it, understand it, work with it, and, ultimately, make peace with it. And when we make peace with our daydreaming, it tends to make peace with us. It was after I accepted my identity as a daydreamer that I was able to see more clearly how my limiting beliefs and unhealthy coping mechanisms had been holding me back. I was able to focus my efforts on the real problems – my fear of conflict, my lack of motivation, my discomfort with myself. These are all things that my daydreaming is helping me to address. It’s a work in progress. Maybe, in a sense, I’m still fighting a war, but now my authentic self and my daydreaming are on the same side.

Is it safe to just stop daydreaming?

If maladaptive daydreaming is stopping you from living your real life, you might be thinking that the solution is to stop daydreaming. But it’s very rarely that simple. For a start, you can’t change the way your brain’s wired just by wishing it to be different. If you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you were born an immersive daydreamer. Quitting daydreaming won’t change that. You’ll still be a daydreamer; you’ll just be a daydreamer who doesn’t daydream. If your daydreaming really is out of control, that may be your only option. You may need to stop completely, either permanently or while you recover. But before you try, please think about whether it’s safe for you to stop daydreaming, especially if…

You haven’t addressed an underlying trauma

Many maladaptive daydreamers use daydreaming to escape from a real-life situation that’s too overwhelming to face. If that’s the case for you, you won’t be able to safely stop daydreaming until you deal with the thing you’re running away from. And if that thing is traumatic enough to have pushed you into maladaptive daydreaming, there’s a good chance it’s not something you can deal with on your own. You need to find a therapist to help you process the trauma before you can stop daydreaming. Until then, your daydreaming is a necessary coping mechanism – an unhealthy one, perhaps, but still necessary. If you try to quit daydreaming without addressing the underlying trauma, you will likely just swap one unhealthy coping mechanism for another. And as bad as maladaptive daydreaming can be, there are worse coping mechanisms. Daydreaming can steal years of our lives, but it doesn’t leave us with long-term physical health problems, it doesn’t drive us into debt and it doesn’t risk leaving us with a criminal record. I’m sure you can think of many addictive coping mechanisms where that’s not the case.

You have nothing positive in real life

But what if you haven’t experienced trauma? What if real life just seems empty and pointless, and you daydream to escape from feelings of boredom or loneliness? Well, if you daydream to escape boredom, and you quit daydreaming without having something to replace it with, you’re going to be bored for however many hours a day you’re currently daydreaming. And if you can’t tolerate that boredom, the urge to go back to daydreaming is going to be massive. If you’re daydreaming to escape from boredom or loneliness, you need to bring some positive activities and connections into real life before you try to stop daydreaming. You won’t be able to stop daydreaming until real life is worth coming back to.

Your daydreaming is meeting a need

Daydreaming is rarely unequivocally good or unequivocally bad. Usually, it helps us in some ways and harms us in others. If you give up daydreaming, you will be giving up the good as well as the bad. So ask yourself what benefits you’re getting from your daydreaming and then figure out how you’re going to get those benefits another way. If you’re lonely, and your daydream world is the only place you experience feelings of love and connection, then giving up daydreaming is going to leave you with an essential human need that’s not being met. That’s not going to make your life better.

You’re making an impulsive decision

We’ve all had days when we suddenly realise just how much time our daydreaming has stolen from us, and we tell ourselves enough is enough and this has to stop, right now! But trying to stop daydreaming without thinking through why you daydream in the first place, what you’re going to do with the time you save, and how you’re going to replace the benefits of daydreaming, just means you’re that much less likely to succeed. Getting your daydreaming back under control isn’t ever going to be easy, and by leaping into it impulsively you make it that much harder for yourself, so it’s more likely you’ll relapse. And each time you try to quit daydreaming and relapse, you’re reinforcing the idea that you don’t have what it takes to quit, which just makes you feel bad about yourself. The truth is that it’s entirely possible to retake control of your daydreaming but it takes careful planning and thoughtful self-reflection. It’s not something you can just decide to do and expect to succeed straightaway.

Personally, I’m not trying to completely quit daydreaming, because the benefits I get from it are too important to me. Not all fantastical daydreaming is maladaptive. For me, overcoming maladaptive daydreaming means getting control over my daydreaming and becoming an immersive daydreamer. But part of being an immersive daydreamer is knowing where your personal boundary is between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming, what is a safe level of daydreaming for you. And maybe for some daydreamers that safe level is zero. If that’s you, and you believe the only way you can stay mentally healthy is to stop daydreaming completely, then I wish you all the best. I hope you’ll take the time you need and get the support you deserve to overcome maladaptive daydreaming in a way that’s safe and sustainable.  

The connection between daydreaming and music

This is a speculative post. I want to say that up front, because I’m unusual among daydreamers: music isn’t, and never has been, part of my daydreaming experience. In fact, I’ve often used music to pull me out of a daydream. When I need to stop daydreaming and focus on real life, listening to music for a few minutes helps to reset my mind. For me, focussing on music – really listening to it – is grounding rather than dissociating.

But for most daydreamers, music is a critical part of the daydreaming experience. Music is needed to set the scene, create the right mood, and add an extra dimension to the daydream. In fact, music is so commonly associated with daydreaming that it features in two questions in the MDS-16, the scale used to assess maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The MDS-16 distinguishes between using music to initiate a daydream (“To what extent does music activate your daydreaming?”) and using music during the daydream (“To what extent is your daydreaming dependent on continued listening to music?”).

The second question highlights the importance of music during the daydream. When used in this way, music fulfils a similar function to pacing – it’s something we do while we’re daydreaming to enhance the immersive state and maintain our disconnection from reality. But what about the first question, which asks whether music activates your daydreaming? That makes it sound like a trigger, something that pushes us into a daydream in a similar way to boredom or loneliness.

But most daydreaming triggers are things we want to escape from, and music doesn’t fit that category. So what do we mean when we say music is a trigger? Given how common it is for daydreamers to listen to music while daydreaming, I wonder whether the act of putting in the earbuds, selecting the song, turning up the volume, is all part of the ritual that initiates the daydream.

If, over many years, you’ve consistently used music to enhance your daydreaming, your brain has come to associate music with daydreaming. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog experiment, in which dogs began to salivate on hearing a sound that they’d come to associate with food. It’s called classical conditioning. Your brain has associated listening to music with daydreaming, so now when you hear music, particularly if it’s one of your daydreaming tracks, you automatically start daydreaming.

For most of us, daydreaming is an intensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Even if you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder and are frustrated by the amount of time daydreaming steals from you, or you’re intensely self-critical for not being able to control your daydreaming, there’s a good chance that the daydreaming itself gives you a rush of positive emotions while you’re doing it. And those positive emotions serve as a reward which reinforces the behaviour: as soon as you hear the music, your brain anticipates the reward and you experience that anticipation in the form of an urge to daydream.

This association between stimulus (music) and reward (daydreaming) could work for just about anything. Although music isn’t a trigger for me, I’ve always daydreamed last thing at night before I go to sleep. The act of turning out the light and snuggling down under the duvet now acts as a trigger for me. I start daydreaming without even consciously thinking about it.

But if any stimulus can become associated with daydreaming, why is music such a common trigger that it merits two mentions in the MDS-16? I doubt anyone knows for sure, but I wonder if it has something to do with music’s capacity to generate emotion. Both music and daydreaming can be used to change our emotional state. One of the main reasons we daydream is to escape from negative emotions. Music can be used in the same way. So it seems logical that music can enhance daydreaming, and daydreaming can enhance the experience of listening to music. And it’s therefore easy to see how the two could go together.

As I’ve said, my daydreaming isn’t activated or maintained by music, so if you use music to daydream, I’d love to know whether you agree with what I’ve written here. Let me know in the comments section how you see the connection between music and daydreaming. And if you don’t daydream to music, let me know that too – I’d like to know I’m not alone!  

Nine other reasons to get your maladaptive daydreaming under control

Reservoir Lake and campground in Dillon Ranger District of Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Montana, September 11, 2019. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

If you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you already know how much time your daydreaming is stealing from you. It’s not unusual for maladaptive daydreamers to spend upwards of four hours a day lost in fantasy. That’s more than a whole day every week, or two months out of every year. If you’re a maladaptive daydreamer, you know what that lost time represents. You know how much more you could achieve if you could just reduce your daydreaming to a manageable level.

But it’s not just time that maladaptive daydreaming steals from us. In addition to having more time for real life, there are many other benefits to reducing the amount of time you spend daydreaming.

1. You could study for your exams, or complete your work on time

Excessive daydreaming interferes with your professional life. Many daydreamers struggle with tasks that require mental effort. The more focus and concentration a task demands, the more likely we are to be distracted by our daydream worlds. If you had control over your daydreaming, you’d be better able to concentrate on advancing your career.

2. You’d get more sleep

What if you didn’t stay up late to daydream for ‘just a few more minutes’? And what if once you turned out the light, you could actually fall asleep instead of daydreaming for half the night? If you could do that, you could go to bed at a sensible time and wake up rested because you’d actually be getting enough sleep.

3. You wouldn’t be so tired all the time

It’s not just lack of sleep that tires out maladaptive daydreamers. If you pace or do any other repetitive movement, that takes energy. If you know how many steps you clock up while pacing, try converting that into distance walked and then you’ll understand why you’re always tired. And on top of that, daydreaming itself uses up mental energy and can be exhausting even if you don’t need to move while doing it.

4. You’d be able to put the past behind you

Not all daydreamers hang onto the past through their daydreams, but many do. Whether you’re still mentally dating an ex-partner long after the relationship has ended, or you keep daydreaming a past failure or disappointment and imagining a better ending, if you keep reliving the past in your daydreams, you’re not moving on from it. When you have more control over your daydreaming, you can direct the plot more intentionally instead of helplessly and unhelpfully replaying the past.

5. You could increase your motivation to pursue real-life goals

Excessive daydreaming extinguishes our motivation. It’s hard to summon up the energy and commitment necessary to pursue a goal in real-life, knowing that there is the possibility of failure. It’s far easier to daydream about achieving the goal, because we can be certain of the outcome and we can skip all the hard work necessary to get there. But when you have control over your daydreaming, you can use positive visualisation to make your goals feel achievable, and your daydreaming actually becomes a tool that helps you get what you want in real life.

6. You could improve your social skills

Those of us who started maladaptively daydreaming in childhood didn’t master social skills at the same time as our peers, because we were busy playing with our imaginary friends. And many maladaptive daydreamers continue to prefer the safe and predictable interactions we have with our characters. Acquiring the social skills necessary to build satisfying friendships in the real world takes practice, and you can’t get that practice if you don’t venture out of your daydream world.

7. You could enter into a romantic relationship without unrealistic expectations

Have you ever been on a first date with someone you really like, and immediately made them your daydream partner? Before you get to the second date you’ve already daydreamed a whole life together. And you’ve filled in all the details you don’t yet know about this person. You’ve made them perfect in your head before you’ve given yourself a chance to get to know them in real life. And when the real-life version doesn’t live up to your daydream expectations, the relationship fails before you’ve even given it a chance.

8. You wouldn’t have to hide your daydreaming from family and friends

Most of us don’t want the people closest to us to know how much time we spend daydreaming, so we make up excuses for why we can’t go out, or why we didn’t get something done. And then we feel bad about lying. But if you were in control of your daydreaming, you wouldn’t have to lie. You’d put your friends and family first. Your daydreaming would then just be something you do in your spare time rather than a shameful secret you have to hide.

9. You’d feel proud of yourself

None of us should feel bad about daydreaming; it’s just the way our minds work. If you’re a maladaptive daydreamer, there’s a reason your daydreaming got out of control: you needed to escape from a painful reality and you didn’t have any better options. But it’s not until you try to stop or cut down on your daydreaming that you realise just how addictive it can be. And when you find you can’t stop, that can itself provoke a lot of shame. We tell ourselves that we should be able to control it. If you’ve tried and failed, you know it’s not that simple. But what if you tried to control your daydreaming and you succeeded? The shame you feel about not being able to stop would be gone, and you could be proud of your achievement.

Do some of these possibilities resonate with you? Are you feeling more motivated about overcoming your maladaptive daydreaming? If your daydreaming is consuming many hours of your day, every day, I hope you can see that cutting down on the amount of time you spend daydreaming would positively affect many aspects of your life. But I’m not suggesting you stop daydreaming completely. All of the above benefits can be realised if you reduce your daydreaming to a manageable level. What’s manageable depends on you and on what else you have to fit into your life. There’s no specific time limit. The important thing is that you reduce your daydreaming to a level where you’re in control, where you can daydream and still live your best life in the real world. If can do that, you’re well on the way to being able to use your daydreaming productively to make your real life better than you ever imagined it could be.

Is immersive daydreaming a form of self-hypnosis?

When I was a child, my favourite place to daydream was in the garden at the back of our house. I used to bounce a ball off the back wall of the house over and over again. Throw, bounce, catch, throw, bounce, catch. I could go on like that for hours; it helped me to focus on the daydreams.

Many daydreamers use some kind of repetitive movement to help them daydream, whether it’s pacing, swinging or fidgeting with an object. It’s not known why we do this, but thinking back to my own experience, I wonder whether it might have something to do with evoking a trance state. And that led me to consider whether daydreaming might be a form of hypnosis.

There’s no universally accepted definition of hypnosis, but most hypnotists would agree that it involves a state of deep relaxation. In this state, your conscious mind takes a step back, you become less aware of your surroundings, and your subconscious mind comes to the surface. You become receptive to the suggestions of the hypnotist, in part because those suggestions go straight into your subconscious without giving your conscious mind a chance to question them or argue with them.

It’s also possible to hypnotise yourself, and there are many resources available online that teach you to use self-hypnosis to break bad habits such as smoking or excessive drinking. I used a self-hypnosis recording throughout my second pregnancy, and I believe it was part of the reason I was able to give birth to my son at home without needing pain relief.

So, when we pace, or swing, or fidget, or use any other repetitive movement to activate our daydreaming, are we really hypnotising ourselves? It certainly feels like it; both daydreaming and hypnosis involve a disconnection from the world around us and a turning inward of our attention.

But while hypnosis is always deeply relaxing, daydreaming doesn’t have to be. We feel very real emotions while daydreaming, and they can range from peace and relaxation to excitement or even anger. Daydreaming can be energising as well as relaxing.

Also, the suggestibility aspect of hypnosis is typically absent in daydreaming. People choose to be hypnotised because they want to achieve something in real life; they want to reprogram their brains to eliminate a bad habit or set them up for success. So although hypnosis temporarily disconnects you from real life, in the long term the aim is usually to improve real life in some way. This is quite different from daydreaming, which is often something we do to escape from real life.

So despite the similarities in how they feel, I’m left thinking that hypnosis and daydreaming are probably distinct states. That’s not to say that we can’t use our daydreaming to enhance the results of hypnosis. We probably can. Using self-hypnosis to break a bad habit often involves visualising the desired outcome and embedding that image in our subconscious so that it will guide our choices in the future. That’s something that we daydreamers are very good at. When we visualise something, it feels real. We can experience our imagined future as if it’s happening right now, and so when we make choices later on that are designed to bring us closer to realising that future, it feels more natural to us. We take away any fear of the unknown, because we’ve already lived it. We know exactly how good it’s going to feel to achieve our goal, and that can motivate us to do the work to make it a reality.

I would love to know whether immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are, on average, more easily hypnotised than normative daydreamers. And it would also be fascinating to see whether daydreaming and hypnosis activate similar areas of the brain. But the research hasn’t been done. Until it is, we’ll have to rely on our subjective experiences of hypnosis and daydreaming to draw our own conclusions about how similar they might be and how we can use daydreaming in conjunction with hypnosis to bring about positive changes in our lives.

Why daydreamers find it hard to step out of their comfort zone, and why we need to

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

Neale Donald Walsch

Our biggest successes and most worthwhile achievements come from taking on challenges that stretch us or that, at least to begin with, make us uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with spending much of your time in your comfort zone, but if you never push outside it, you never learn what you’re capable of and you never fulfil your highest potential.

In real life, we can never be certain what the future holds. This is especially true when we’re trying something new. We can’t be sure quite how it’s going to work out. It could be a huge success, or a spectacular failure. And it’s that uncertainty, that fear of the unknown, that tells us we’re pushing outside our comfort zone. There’s a little voice inside of us saying ‘no, don’t do that; it might all go wrong; stick to what you know’. That little voice is trying to keep us safe, but that safety comes at a price. When we stay permanently in our comfort zone, we miss out on opportunities to learn, to grow, to expand our skill set, to connect with new people.

And there are a couple of reasons why being a daydreamer makes it more difficult for us to venture outside our comfort zone. The first is that we’ve never learned how to tolerate stress. Because we’ve never had to. All our lives we’ve had this magical escape mechanism that instantly transports us to another world as soon as the real one is more than we can handle. For many of us, daydreaming is how we cope with stress. But what makes it an unhealthy coping mechanism is that it doesn’t help us to cope better next time. When we escape stress through daydreaming, we’re reinforcing the idea that stress is bad and to be avoided at all costs. We never give ourselves a chance to get curious about it, to see how much stress we can tolerate, and to learn how good it feels to overcome the stress by successfully solving the problem that was creating it. Stepping out of our comfort zone, by definition, requires us to act despite feeling stressed, and that’s not something we’ve given ourselves much opportunity to practice.

But there’s another, more dangerous, reason why being a daydreamer makes it hard to get out of our comfort zone. In our daydreams, we never do it. We might think that we’re doing all kinds of difficult and dangerous things in our daydreams, but there’s never any real risk. The future is never uncertain, because we know it’s under our total control. We can attempt the most outrageous things – becoming president of the world, winning a Nobel prize, singing on stage to an audience of millions – and there’s nothing to fear. Because we can’t fail. We’ve written the successful outcome into the plot before the daydream even began. And that’s why achieving things in our daydreams is never as satisfying as achieving them in real life. Success is only rewarding if there was a possibility of failure. There’s no real risk when the outcome is 100% under your control. And that’s why, no matter what crazy plot twist you think up, it’s impossible to push yourself out of your comfort zone in a daydream.

That’s not to say that our daydreams can’t be a valuable tool in our personal development. I believe that our alter egos can be windows to our authentic selves. I’ve learned a lot about who I am by paying attention to who I become in my daydreams. But although daydreaming can help you to see your potential, it can’t help you realise that potential. Becoming the best version of yourself in real life has to be done in real life. Because it has to be done outside your comfort zone. Becoming the person you were meant to be is a process of growth, and growth only happens when we challenge ourselves, when we take the risk, when we push through the fear.

As daydreamers, it’s vital that we make the effort to step out of our comfort zone once in a while. Because when we do, we find that taking risks isn’t as scary as we thought and the better life we seek isn’t completely out of reach. Real life can be even better than our daydreams, but we have to make it so.

So you’ve just found out there’s a name for this: now what?

Coming across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder for the first time can be a light-bulb moment. Suddenly everything falls into place. You have a name for this thing you’ve been doing all your life, and, more importantly, you now know that other people do it too. But as the initial excitement subsides, you’re likely to be left with a lot of questions. And most significant among them might be – what do I do next?

1. Understand the difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming

The first thing you should do when you come across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder is consider whether you really have it. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder is much better known than its non-pathological form, immersive daydreaming, and this can lead people to the mistaken belief that having vivid, fanciful daydreams is automatically a bad thing. It’s not. If you have enduring, vivid daydreams involving a complex plot and a cast of characters, that’s a sign that you have immersive daydreaming. It’s only if you’re so addicted to your fantasy world that it interferes with your daily life that you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

I’ve written here and here about the distinction between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming disorder. But, in short, the style of daydreaming (vivid, fantastical, complex plots lasting more than a few minutes) is exactly the same in immersive daydreaming and in maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The content of your daydreams can’t help you distinguish between the two. What matters is the relationship you have with your daydreaming. If it’s a positive thing – helping you relieve boredom and stress, allowing you to work through difficult problems and emotions, and bringing some excitement and creativity into your life – then you’re an immersive daydreamer. If your daydreaming is getting in the way of you living your best life – if it’s making it difficult to work or study, or you’re missing out on experiences and relationships in the real world – then you may have maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

It’s important to be clear in your own mind whether you’re an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive daydreamer, because immersive daydreaming is NOT a mental health problem. If you’re an immersive daydreamer, it’s important that you don’t allow all the negative messaging about maladaptive daydreaming to trick you into thinking there’s something wrong with you.

2. Accept your daydreaming for what it is

Regardless of whether you’re an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive daydreamer, the next thing you should do is accept that your daydreaming is simply a function of the way your brain is wired. Everyone has their own way of solving their problems, managing their emotions and generally making sense of the world. Daydreaming is the way we do it. You’re always going to talk to characters in your head. You’re always going to have experiences that happen only in your imagination. It might not be the way everyone else thinks, but this is normal for you. And it’s OK.

Even if you’ve concluded that you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, the important thing to remember is that it isn’t the daydreaming that’s the problem; it’s the way you’re using it. If daydreaming has become your coping mechanism, if you’re using daydreaming to avoid real life, if it’s become so important to you that you’re having trouble functioning in the real world, then that’s a problem. But that isn’t and wasn’t inevitable. Plenty of people live happy, successful, fulfilled lives as immersive daydreamers. The only difference is that somewhere along the line, your real life wasn’t what you wanted or needed it to be. You suffered because your needs weren’t being met. And you discovered that you could temporarily alleviate that suffering by escaping into your daydream world. And then you realised you preferred daydreaming to real life, so you kept going back. None of that was your fault; you were just using the talents you had to survive as best you could.

Even if you’re trapped in the misery that is maladaptive daydreaming disorder, your daydreaming is not the issue. The issue is whatever made real life so unbearable that your only choice was to escape from it. Blaming your daydreaming for your problems isn’t going to make that issue go away.

3. Connect

The third thing you should do once you realise that you’re an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer is connect. My resources page has details of Reddit and Facebook groups where you can chat with other daydreamers. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent your whole life wondering whether you’re the only person who makes up stories in your head and still has imaginary friends. Knowing you aren’t alone can be liberating, and validating. Suddenly, instead of being the only one, you’re part of a group. We all need to find our tribe; we all need to have places where we can be our authentic selves without fear of judgement or rejection; we all need somewhere where we don’t have to keep secrets. In time, hopefully, you’ll have the confidence to be open about your daydreaming in real life, but if you’re not there yet, connecting with other daydreamers online is a good place to start.

Finding out that you’re a daydreamer – and that other people daydream too – can be life-changing. It was for me. But that change isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take time for you to figure out what being a daydreamer means to you, what relationship you want to have with your daydreaming, and how you can use it to live your best life. You’ll work through those questions in your own way, at your own pace, and the answers you come up with will be unique to you. But one thing’s for sure. You understand yourself better now that you have a name for the way you think, and that can only be a good thing.