Are you hiding yourself in your daydreams?

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I’ve written before about how a conflict between the basic human needs for attachment and authenticity in our early childhood can potentially set the stage for the development of maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

Throughout our lives, we need to feel attached to the people we care about; we need to feel we belong somewhere; we need to feel loved. But as young children, we occasionally behave in ways that our parents or caregivers find unacceptable, whether that’s hitting a sibling, running out into the road, or having a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket. How the adults in your life handled those moments when you were growing up, along with how naturally sensitive you are, will have played a part in shaping how you see yourself.

Unfortunately, you may have got the message that you were only acceptable, only lovable, if you behaved in a certain way or if you suppressed certain emotions. For example, you might have felt that it wasn’t safe to express anger, because you’d be punished for it. Or you found that being sad made the people around you uncomfortable. So you learned to suppress particular emotions in order to be accepted by the people who cared for you. You believed that to be loved, you had to ignore your instincts and become someone you were never meant to. be.

In real life, when the world doesn’t accept us for who we are, the only way to fit in is to pretend to be something we’re not. We can’t change the world, so we have to change ourselves. At that comes at a price. But in our daydreams, it’s different. In our daydreams, we can change the world, so we don’t have to change ourselves. We can make our daydream world a place where we’re accepted just the way we are. We can create characters who love us for who we are. We don’t have to make that choice between attachment and authenticity. In our daydream worlds we’re free to be ourselves without fear of judgement or rejection. That’s a big part of what makes daydreaming so appealing – and so addictive.

And that’s why, if there’s a disconnect between who you are in real life and who you are in your daydreams, I think it’s probably your daydream self that’s closer to the real you. Maybe not literally – in my sci-fi paracosm my daydream self has superpowers, so clearly I’m not turning into her in real life any time soon. But she’s also confident, loyal, energetic, talented, outspoken – all qualities I have but which I suppressed in real life because I’d developed a belief that other people don’t like you if you stand out or draw attention to yourself.

In my daydreams, I was free to explore who I could be when I had complete freedom to be myself. I was free to express parts of my personality that might have landed me in trouble if I’d expressed them in the real world. In my daydream world, it felt safe to be seen.

The belief that being authentically me would lead to judgement and rejection is something that started in my childhood, so long ago that I don’t even remember where it came from. So long ago that I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe that. But believing something your whole life doesn’t make it true. That was something I learned the hard way, in hospital.

The magical thing about being in a psychiatric hospital is that you leave all your judgements and assumptions and pretences at the door. Everyone has hit rock-bottom, and when that happens, you really have no choice except to show up as your authentic self, because you don’t have the energy to pretend any more. And what I learned is that when people show up with authenticity and vulnerability, deep and profound connections can be made surprisingly quickly.

When we’re afraid to show up as our authentic selves, we actually push people away. We can’t connect to someone on the deep level we yearn for if we’re not allowing them to see who we truly are. So sacrificing your authenticity doesn’t just disconnect you from yourself, it disconnects you from the people around you, and thereby brings about the very loss of attachment that you were trying to avoid.

When you consciously suppress an emotion or a part of your authentic self, you don’t destroy it. You push it down into your subconscious. And that’s where we daydreamers are fortunate. Because we have a window into our subconscious. Messages that our subconscious needs to send us tend to come through in our daydreams. And the most powerful of those messages is who we really are.

As daydreamers, we spend a lot of time reminding ourselves that our daydreams aren’t real. But that doesn’t mean that the person you become in your daydreams isn’t real. If you don’t like the person you are in real life, that might be an indication that the real-world you isn’t the authentic you. And if you feel sad that you aren’t the amazing person you become in your daydreams, I’d invite you to consider the possibility that you are that person – and the only reason you think you’re not is because your real life isn’t ready for you yet.  

The first scientifically validated treatment programme for maladaptive daydreaming disorder

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On 13 January 2023, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology published an article by Oren Herscu, Eli Somer, Asaf Federman and Nirit Soffer-Dudek entitled “Mindfulness meditation and self-monitoring reduced maladaptive daydreaming symptoms: a randomized controlled trial of a brief self-guided web-based program”. This is significant for maladaptive daydreamers because it’s the first randomised controlled trial of a potential treatment for maladaptive daydreaming disorder to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Why does this matter? Firstly, because peer-reviewed journal articles are the main way science moves forward. When researchers in any branch of science discover something interesting, that finding is of no use until it’s shared with the world. So publishing articles is an essential part of conducting scientific research. But, for other scientists to be able to trust that the research findings are accurate and useful, there has to be an assessment process. Peer-review is considered the gold standard by which scientific research is validated. When an article is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, the journal editors will ask at least two independent experts to assess the research to ensure that it has been conducted rigorously and that the conclusions are supported by the data. Only after these independent experts are satisfied that the research is sound will the article be published. Scientists and clinicians therefore trust that articles published in reputable peer-reviewed journals are accurate and reliable.

Second, this article reports a randomised controlled trial. Again, this is something that’s considered a gold standard in the world of scientific research. In a randomised controlled trial, participants in the study are divided randomly into groups, and one of those groups is designated the “control” group. The people in the control group don’t receive the treatment the study is assessing. Therefore, if the treatment group(s) have better outcomes than the control group, it’s a strong indication that the treatment made the difference. Without the control group, it’s impossible to say whether any improvement happened by chance, because the condition tends to spontaneously resolve over time, or because of some other factor that had nothing to do with the treatment being investigated.

So, the authors of this study have not only developed a potential treatment for maladaptive daydreaming disorder, but they have also proved that it works and published that proof in a form that other researchers, clinicians and therapists will take notice of. For maladaptive daydreamers, this is a huge step forward.

The thing that I find really exciting about this study is the treatment programme itself. Participants in the study were given access to an online course that taught two techniques in the context of overcoming maladaptive daydreaming: mindfulness and self-monitoring. Each week for eight weeks, participants completed an online lesson (50-75 minutes at a time of their choosing) followed by homework assignments. The participants filled in a range of questionnaires (including the MDS-16, which is used to assess maladaptive daydreaming) at the beginning and end of the course and again after six months. The results were impressive – one-third of those who completed the programme saw a significant improvement in their daydreaming; one-quarter improved so much that they no longer met the criteria for maladaptive daydreaming disorder. Yes, that means a lot of people didn’t see huge improvements, but scientific studies tend to set the bar for “significant improvement” quite high, so it’s likely that many of those who didn’t improve “significantly” still noticed some benefit. And the improvement rates in this study compare favourably with those of similar treatments for other addictions.

Until now, many people, myself included, have believed that most maladaptive daydreamers will require therapy to make a lasting improvement in their daydreaming. This can be a problem. In many parts of the world, therapy is not readily available, and even if it is, it can be prohibitively expensive for those whose addiction to daydreaming makes it hard to hold down a well-paid job. And, since maladaptive daydreaming is still not in the DSM, finding a therapist who knows anything about the condition is a challenge. So for those that can’t access therapy, the idea that an online treatment programme, not involving any one-to-one time with a therapist, can produce measurable improvements is very exciting.

Hopefully, at some point, this scientifically validated daydreaming-specific treatment programme will be available to anyone struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder. But the key part of the programme, mindfulness training, is already freely available. I am sure there are many excellent mindfulness courses online, but the one I usually recommend is the MBSR course. I did the related MBCT course many years ago, and it completely cured my depression in eight weeks – something antidepressants and CBT had spectacularly failed to do. I have had a daily mindfulness practice ever since. Mindfulness is also one of the four pillars of DBT, although in DBT the focus tends to be on present-moment awareness rather than cultivating a daily practice. In my experience, both are helpful.

Mindfulness is, in many ways, the opposite of daydreaming, and that makes it a hard skill for daydreamers to master. But the participants in Herscu et al.’s study have proved that it’s something we can learn do, if we’re motivated enough, and it can help maladaptive daydreamers to take control over their daydreaming. So, if you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder and you can’t access therapy, I strongly recommend giving mindfulness a try – because, now, we know that it works.

Can you drive safely if you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder?

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If you’re a daydreamer, you’ll know just how absorbed you can get in your daydreams. When you’re daydreaming, it’s as if time stands still and, for a while, the outside world doesn’t exist. If you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you might be wondering whether it’s safe for you to drive. Is there a risk you might zone out behind the wheel and cause an accident?

Most people who drive will have had the experience of reaching their destination and realising they remember very little about the journey. They were listening to the radio, or thinking about their day, and they don’t remember paying attention to the road. This is very common, and most of the time it’s perfectly OK. You are paying attention subconsciously, and if something happened that required you to act – if a pedestrian stepped out in front of you, for example – you would snap back into awareness in an instant and respond appropriately. Just because you’re doing something automatically and subconsciously doesn’t mean you’re not doing it well.

So is daydreaming while driving a problem? I think it depends on your daydreaming and the relationship you have with it. If you have good control over your daydreaming – if you can start and stop it at will without too much difficulty – then you’re probably OK. I sometimes daydream when I’m driving on a quiet or familiar road, because I know I can put the plot on hold for a minute if the traffic ahead suddenly slows down or if I’m approaching a tricky junction. Subconsciously, I’m constantly assessing the road and deciding whether or not it’s safe to zone out a little. And when my subconscious decides that I need to focus on my driving, I’ll suddenly be fully present and able to concentrate. For me, daydreaming while driving is no more distracting than talking to my passenger, listening to the radio, or deciding what to have for dinner.

But if you have doubts about your ability to drive safely while daydreaming, listen to your instincts. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. But that doesn’t mean you can’t drive; it just means you can’t drive while daydreaming. Unless your daydreaming really is very intrusive and out of control, you should be able to resist it while driving. It’s no different from any other task that requires your full attention. If you can have a conversation with a real person without daydreaming, or if you can concentrate on a mentally demanding task for several minutes without daydreaming, then you can potentially drive without daydreaming.

Also, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you’ll start daydreaming while driving. If boredom is a trigger for you, as it is for me, then the issue may not be your daydreaming stealing your focus, so much as your mind needing more stimulation. Much of driving, particularly on a straight quiet road, can be very monotonous. It’s hard for anyone to stay focussed when there’s very little to focus on. So make your driving more interesting. If you drive to work, try taking a different route occasionally. And don’t use cruise control – the more things you have to do yourself, the more chance you have of staying focussed. And, obviously, if you’re triggered by music, don’t listen to your daydreaming playlist in the car; try a podcast or audiobook instead.

In addition, remember that a long journey on a monotonous motorway is very different from a five-minute drive to the shops through busy urban traffic. You might not be able to manage the former, while the latter is just fine. As with everything else in life, what’s important is that you know your limits, you take responsibility and you only do what you know you can do safely.

If you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you have to make a personal and carefully considered choice about whether it’s safe and appropriate for you to be driving. But I don’t believe that maladaptive daydreamers are necessarily unsafe drivers. Everyone zones out behind the wheel sometimes. Daydreaming doesn’t have to be any different from talking on the phone, listening to the radio or reflecting on your day. We all have other thoughts in our heads while we’re driving – just because yours might revolve around people and places that don’t really exist doesn’t inherently make those thoughts any more distracting than any other thoughts. So if you believe you can drive safely even though you’re a daydreamer, go ahead, and don’t feel guilty about it.

Are you making your daydreaming maladaptive when it doesn’t have to be?

Maladaptive daydreaming disorder is real. If your daydreaming is so out of control that you can’t function – can’t maintain real-life relationships, can’t study or succeed in your career – then you have a very real problem and this post is in no way meant to trivialise that. But for some people, the problem isn’t how their daydreaming affects them, it’s how their attitude to their daydreaming affects them.

The difference between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming disorder is that immersive daydreaming has a positive or neutral effect on your life, whereas maladaptive daydreaming disorder has a negative effect on your life. In general, for something to be considered a disorder, it has to cause distress or dysfunction. So if your daydreaming causes you distress, that would generally be a sign that it’s maladaptive daydreaming rather than immersive daydreaming.

But what happens when it isn’t the amount of time you spend daydreaming, or your addiction to it, that’s causing the distress, but rather the things you’re telling yourself about your daydreaming? Is it possible for daydreaming to become maladaptive not because of how your daydreaming affects your life but because of the judgements you make about it? Can healthy daydreaming become unhealthy just because that’s how you see it?

The internet and social media

There is far more written online about maladaptive daydreaming disorder than about immersive daydreaming. So when you first discover that this thing you’ve done all your life has a name, much of what you read is probably going to portray it as a bad thing. But if you never thought of your daydreaming as a problem until you learned about maladaptive daydreaming disorder, there’s a good chance you’re an immersive daydreamer. If you allow something you read online to convince you that having vivid fantastical daydreams is bad, or if you start to believe you have a mental disorder because someone on TikTok said that’s what this is, or if you feel you have to quit daydreaming just because it’s not “normal”, then your attitude to your daydreaming is making it maladaptive when it originally wasn’t.

Your plot

It’s often said that being a daydreamer makes someone naturally creative. But that doesn’t mean you can or should craft a bestselling novel in your head. Your paracosm is your private world and you can make it whatever you like. If you want to daydream about hanging out with your real-life friends, that’s OK. If you’d rather daydream about saving the world or inventing a cure for cancer, that’s OK too. It doesn’t matter if you cringe at the thought of telling anyone what goes on in your head, because you never have to. In the private space of your imagination, nothing is off-limits. But when you feel that certain topics aren’t OK to explore in your daydreams, and when you judge yourself for what you daydream about – telling yourself it’s stupid, or childish, or unrealistic – then there’s a risk you’ll end up feeling bad about yourself and your daydreaming. But then it’s not the daydreaming that’s the problem, it’s your belief that you have to censor what goes on in your paracosm.

Your characters

If you’ve ever based a daydream character on a real person, you’ve probably felt guilty about making that character do something their real-life counterpart would never do. You might also have felt embarrassed interacting with the real-life person while knowing what their character is getting up to in your mind. And it’s easy to go from there to thinking that you shouldn’t daydream about real people, and that you’re weird or crazy or delusional for doing so. But then, again, you’ve made normal immersive daydreaming into something maladaptive by adding your judgements to it. Because the truth is, you can’t put a real person in your head. The minute you put someone in your daydream, even if it’s a real person, they become a character in your daydream. They might be based on a real person, but they’re not that person. It sounds obvious, but it’s something we often forget. Your character does not have to act like the person you based them on. It’s OK if you edit them to fit whatever role they’re fulfilling in your plot. As long as you’re clear about the distinction and don’t fall into the trap of expecting the real person to act like their daydream counterpart, it’s OK. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

If your daydreaming is stopping you functioning in the real world, if it’s getting in the way of work, studying or maintaining real-life relationships, then it’s genuinely maladaptive and you might need to find a healthier balance. But if your daydreaming is causing you distress because of the judgements you’ve attached to it, then a change of perspective may be all that’s necessary. It’s your mind, and your paracosm; it’s part of who you are. Please don’t let other people’s opinions of what’s normal – or your judgements about what is or is not OK in the private space of your imagination – turn your daydreaming into something maladaptive if it doesn’t have to be.

Should you turn your daydreams into a novel? In my case, absolutely not

I think some of the best novelists are probably immersive daydreamers. Crafting intricate stories in our heads comes naturally to us. It wouldn’t be hard to write them down. But being a great novelist takes more than just creating a compelling story in your own mind. You have to put that story into words so that it can be equally compelling in the minds of your readers. That’s a different skill, and it’s one I don’t have. But there’s more to it than that. Because I don’t wish that I had the skill to write down my daydreams. I don’t feel that my plot is a story that needs to be told. It’s a story that needs to stay exactly where it is – in my imagination.

I first came up with the idea for my current plot nearly 20 years ago. I’ve dabbled in other paracosms since then, but I always come back to this one. The level of detail in it is mind-blowing. Not only do I know almost everything that happens during the 79 years of the plot itself, but I’ve invented plausible physics for the fantasy elements, I’ve sketched out the backstories of the characters, I understand the events that lead up to the story beginning. Some people might wonder how I hold all that in my head; but this is my alternate life – the people and events stick in my memory just as firmly as do the people and events in my real life. A memory of something you imagine is just as real as the memory of something that actually happened.

So, if I had the skills, why wouldn’t I turn it into a novel? Firstly, because that would mean it would have to end. I don’t mean that the plot would end – I know how the story finishes; I’ve daydreamed the final scene a few times. Rather, I mean that the constant development and experimentation that makes the daydreaming so much fun would have to end. My plot isn’t static. I’m constantly investigating alternative options. What if this event happened before that one? What if that character doesn’t die in that scene but lives an extra ten years? What if those two characters don’t meet in the way I’d originally imagined? I need novelty in my daydream life just as much as in my real life. If the plot had to play out the same way every time, it would get boring. And I’m too emotionally involved with it now to let it get boring. Writing it down would mean that one sequence of events would become “right”. In bringing one version to life, I’d be denying the validity of all the alternative versions. And I don’t want to do that.

But there’s another, deeper, reason that I won’t write it down. When I enter my daydream, I’m entering a parallel universe in my imagination. A whole world that exists just for me. It’s a vibrant, exciting, beautiful world. And it feels so special to know that it’s all mine. Every week I write in this blog about what it’s like to be a daydreamer. And if people ask me what I daydream about, I don’t mind saying that I have a sci-fi paracosm, with aliens and superpowers and space-travel. But that’s as specific as I get. I’ve never introduced anyone to my characters, and I’ve never gone into detail about any part of the plot. It’s too personal. I’ve poured every aspect of who I am into that plot. Everything that matters to me, everything that I am, the good and the bad, the rational and the crazy, is in there somewhere. My paracosm is my safe space where I learn what it means to be me. I don’t need to turn it into someone else’s entertainment.

Have you ever gone out to watch the sunrise before anyone else is awake? Or been the first person to leave footprints in freshly fallen snow? Or lifted a curtain just enough to get a glimpse of something that made you smile? Those are special moments when it feels as though the world was made just for you. And in real life, they’re rare. But my daydream world was made just for me. Every time I step into my daydream world, I feel a little burst of excitement, of anticipation, of pure joy. And if I wrote my plot down in a novel and shared it with the world, I’d lose that. I’d lose the magic. And I think it’s OK to want to keep that complex, beautiful, romantic, exciting place all to myself, because, after all, isn’t that why we have the ability to imagine in the first place?

Reflections on 2022

I am so proud of myself! It’s the end of 2022, and I’ve published a blog post every week for the entire year. If you’re a daydreamer, you’ll appreciate just what an achievement that is. It’s hard for us to set a meaningful real-life goal and stick to it – and it’s even harder when that goal involves establishing a new habit, showing up, and doing the work over and over and over again.

Usually, it’s not setting the goal that’s the problem. We know what we want. Our abilities as daydreamers mean that we can imagine how we’d like life to be a year, or five years, or ten years from now. And when we imagine that perfect life, we see every single tiny detail. In my imagined future, it’s a glorious summer’s day. I’m sitting in the garden showing a friend an advance copy of my book which is about to be published. My husband and my son are playing table tennis on the patio. My daughters are watching TV with a couple of their friends. My house is a clean, tidy, welcoming space that our friends and family know they can drop into at any time. My life is full of things that bring me joy – my writing, my mindfulness practice, spending time in nature, meeting up with friends – I’m busy, happy and fulfilled.

That’s the goal. But where I, and many other daydreamers, fall down, is that we don’t visualise the steps we have to take to reach that goal. And even if we know what we need to do, we don’t actually do it. Because the problem with being able to visualise something that clearly is that visualising it is nearly as good as actually living it, it’s a lot easier, and the reward is immediate. In reality, it’s the middle of winter here and it’s cold and wet and dark, and my house is weeks away from being tidy. The only way I can experience that glorious summer’s day right now is in my head.

But the sense of achievement you get from reaching a goal is directly proportional to the effort it takes to get there. Daydreaming about a hypothetical future is ultimately unsatisfying precisely because you can have anything you want, the minute you want it. It’s when you put the effort in, over time, to create something beautiful in real life that you feel the greatest satisfaction. So it’s worth doing the work to make your dreams a reality. I’m not talking about fantastical slaying-dragons and dating-celebrities daydreams here, but the aspirational this-is-what-I-want-my-life-to-be-like daydreams. Because for those daydreams, when you really break them down, there will be elements that are achievable. In fact, there will probably be elements you’re already working on.

One of my biggest goals is to write a book. It would be very easy to look back on 2022 – the first year after I left my career – and judge myself for not having the book written. What have I been doing in all those hours when I would previously have been at work? Why haven’t I devoted more of that time to my big goal? But that would be my inner critic talking. And I’m learning not to listen to that voice.

Because the truth is, I have been writing. I’ve built this blog into a significant resource for immersive and maladaptive daydreamers. I’ve written, every week, about the joys and challenges of being a daydreamer. I’ve had some amazing feedback from people who say I’ve helped them understand and manage their daydreaming. And in writing this blog, I’ve come to understand myself better. I’ve been able to embrace my identity as a daydreamer and I’ve learned to love the way my mind works. I may not have written my book, but I have become a writer. And that’s the first step.

So when I look back on 2022, I choose to be proud of what I’ve achieved, and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. No, I didn’t write a book, but I made a commitment to this blog, and I followed through. If you can look back on where you were this time last year, and even one aspect of your life is just a little bit better than it was 12 months ago, then you, too, have something to be proud of. So instead of ending 2022 feeling bad about what we didn’t do, let’s celebrate the things we did do.

How to resist the urge to daydream

Whether you’re a maladaptive daydreamer who wants to stop or cut down on your daydreaming, or an immersive daydreamer who needs to push the daydreaming aside for a couple of hours while you attend to real life, we all have times when we really want to daydream but shouldn’t. So what do you do when that seemingly unstoppable force inside your brain is urging you to check out, but you know you need to stay present?

Don’t just fight the urge

What you don’t do when you’re trying not to daydream is focus all your efforts on trying not to daydream. If all you do is tell yourself don’t daydream, stay present, what you’re actually doing is focussing your attention on just how much you want to daydream, and the urge will get stronger. The more you tell yourself you shouldn’t be daydreaming, the more likely you are to give in to it.

Honest reflection

Instead, when you first notice the urge to daydream, don’t just assume you should resist it. Take a moment to ask yourself why you’re feeling the urge right now. Did you experience one of your triggers? Are you bored? Are you procrastinating about something you should be doing? Or, did something happen that upset you or made you want to escape? When we use daydreaming as a coping mechanism, there are times when we really do just need to cope. If your daydream world is the safe space where you process negative emotions, then if something upsetting just happened, perhaps you shouldn’t be resisting the urge to daydream at all. Perhaps daydreaming for a little while is exactly what you need to regulate your emotional state and allow you to return to reality in a better frame of mind.

Distraction

If, after reflection, you’ve decided that it isn’t healthy or appropriate to be daydreaming right now, then you could try distracting yourself. Instead of fighting the urge, simply ignore it. Put your attention somewhere else. My go-to distraction, oddly enough, is music. Music isn’t a daydreaming trigger for me, so I’m able to use it as a distraction from daydreaming. I pick a song that I love for its lyrics, and I sing along to it. Focussing on the lyrics and enjoying the moment often distracts me from daydreaming long enough for the urge to subside. If music is a trigger for you, you could try listening to a podcast, or finding a real person to have a conversation with.

Distraction doesn’t always work, particularly if you try to distract yourself with an activity that doesn’t require your total focus. But when it does work, it works surprisingly quickly. If you’re successful in distracting yourself from your urge to daydream, notice how long it takes before the urge dissipates. You’ll probably find that it’s only a couple of minutes. And once you notice that, it will be easier to distract yourself next time, because you’ll know that you don’t have to maintain your focus for all that long.

Surfing the urge

If the urge to daydream is very strong, simple distraction may not be enough. You may not be able to hold your focus on the distracting thing long enough for the urge to pass. If that’s the case, you could try surfing the urge. Surfing the urge is different from ignoring it or trying to fight it. When you surf the urge you simply accept it, you become mindful of it, and you treat yourself with compassion. In other words, you observe and experience the urge without giving in to it. Acknowledge that you feel an urge to daydream right now. Acknowledge that you’ve used daydreaming to cope or to escape many times before, and that it’s therefore natural that you want to daydream now. Don’t judge yourself for wanting to daydream, but compassionately acknowledge the care you’re showing yourself by choosing to react differently. Notice how the urge shows up for you – what does it feel like? Is it located in a particular part of your body? If you had to give it a colour or a shape, what would it be? If the urge could talk, what would it be saying to you? Get curious about the urge without criticising yourself for having it. As you engage with the urge in this way, it may initially increase in intensity, but over the course of a few minutes it should peak and then gradually subside.

When you successfully resist the urge to daydream, don’t forget to congratulate yourself. You’ve just taken control of your own mind. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s not something anyone else can do for you. It’s proof that you can be stronger than your urge to daydream. Take a moment to notice how empowering that feels. Carefully store this feeling away in your memory, so that next time you need to resist the urge to daydream you will remember that you can do it, and that you feel great about yourself when you do.

If you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you aren’t going to get control over your daydreaming in one go. You will feel the urge again and again. Sometimes you will probably give in to it. But the more you learn to distance yourself from the urge, and to feel compassion towards both yourself and the urge, the smaller future urges will be. And eventually you’ll realise that you’re in control of your daydreaming rather than it being in control of you.

How to feel better about being a daydreamer

Being an immersive daydreamer means you have a creative gift that can enhance your life in many different ways. But having maladaptive daydreaming disorder is a curse that makes living real life extremely difficult. The daydreaming is the same in each case; the difference is in how we use it and the meanings we attach to it.

For something to be considered a mental health disorder, it generally has to cause either distress or dysfunction. So let’s take a detailed look at the ways in which maladaptive daydreaming can be distressing, and how we can alleviate that distress by viewing our daydreaming from a different perspective.

Source of distress: Daydreaming upsetting scenes
Reframe: Your daydreams are a safe space to work through negative emotions

Our daydreams can evoke real emotions. So if we daydream about difficult or painful topics, we can get upset. I’ve cried many times because of something that was happening in my daydream. Occasionally we might need to daydream an upsetting scene for purely daydream-related reasons – you might need to close off a sub-plot by killing off one of your characters, or you might have chosen to end a daydream relationship. But if you’re daydreaming upsetting scenes on a regular basis, it’s worth asking yourself why. Our subconscious generally acts to protect us. So, if you’re daydreaming about negative things, there might be a good reason. Maybe the negative emotions are arising from something in real life, and your daydreams are the safe space where you can process those emotions?

Source of distress: Not being able to stop daydreaming
Reframe: Daydreaming is an addictive behaviour that’s as hard to break as any other addiction

Daydreaming that has got out of control and become maladaptive is an addictive behaviour. Just because that behaviour takes place in your head doesn’t mean you can control it. In many other addictions, you can put barriers in place; you can put the addictive substance or behaviour out of reach, and even then people struggle to stay away from it. But you can’t take away your thoughts. Daydreaming is always there, lurking in the background, ready to pop up in a moment of weakness. If your daydreaming has become an addiction, you can’t expect to stop because it’s “just” daydreaming – there’s no “just” about it. This is every bit as hard to break as any other addiction.

Source of distress: Daydreaming is a mental illness
Reframe: It’s the relationship we have with our daydreaming that determines whether it’s a mental illness

There’s a lot of rubbish written about immersive and maladaptive daydreaming online. The truth is, most people don’t daydream in the way we do. Most people don’t have complex plots and a whole cast of imaginary characters bouncing around in their heads 24/7. Your brain is wired differently from most other people’s. But being different doesn’t make you wrong or broken. It doesn’t mean you have a disease that needs to be cured. We live in a society that tends to pathologize anything out of the ordinary. We equate “different” with “wrong”. Just because normative daydreamers can’t understand what it’s like to think the way we do, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us. Sometimes “different” just means “different”.

Source of distress: Frustration at time wasted
Reframe: Everyone has their own way of procrastinating, daydreaming just happens to be ours

When you suddenly realise you’ve zoned out for far longer than you intended, or when you find yourself daydreaming when you’d resolved not to, it’s very easy to be self-critical and to beat yourself up for lacking motivation and willpower. You can fall into the trap of thinking you’d get a lot more done if you didn’t daydream so much. But would you? Almost everyone procrastinates to a certain extent. Other people spend hours binge-watching Netflix or playing video games or mindlessly scrolling through social media. Daydreaming is no different. We all need downtime. It isn’t possible to be productive every waking minute.

Source of distress: Wishing for something that can never be
Reframe: It’s OK to enjoy a novel or movie that isn’t real; daydreams are no different

Sometimes we censor our daydreams. We tell ourselves it’s wrong to imagine something that we know isn’t actually going to happen – whether that’s living in a world populated by wizards and elves, or hoping for a relationship with your crush who’s with someone else. But in the safe space of your imagination, you can do whatever you want. So what if it isn’t going to happen in real life? We read novels and watch movies about things that aren’t real. Why is daydreaming about things that aren’t real any different?

Source of distress: Invalidating yourself
Reframe: Your daydream self is a real and valid version of you

If you become an idealised version of yourself in your daydreams, it can be upsetting to think that the idealised version of you isn’t real. You compare your real-world self to your daydream self and it’s often not a comforting comparison. But that’s because in the real world too many of us care too much about what other people think. We spend so much time trying to be what other people want us to be, that we forget to be ourselves. In our daydreams, we get people to like us by choosing their opinions instead of choosing our behaviour. And that frees us up to be ourselves. The person you become in your daydreams is the person you are in a safe non-judgemental space – isn’t that likely to be the real you?

If you find being a daydreamer distressing, the first thing to realise is that your daydreaming isn’t going anywhere. You can get control over it, you can reduce the amount of time you spend doing it, but you probably can’t eliminate it completely. Sooner or later you will have to make peace with it. Hopefully the reframes presented above can help you start to do just that.

Quitting maladaptive daydreaming – how to cope with a relapse

You’ve realised your daydreaming is out of control and preventing you from living in the real world. You’ve made the decision to stop. You’re certain this is the right thing to do. You’ve managed not to daydream for a few hours or days, and you’re proud of your progress. And then suddenly something happens, the urge becomes overwhelming and before you know it, you’re back in your paracosm. And it feels so good while you’re there. But then, when you come out of it, you feel terrible. All that effort, all that progress, all that determination, gone in a moment of weakness.

When you’ve had a relapse, it’s all too easy to feel ashamed and demotivated and afraid that you’ll be trapped in your maladaptive daydreaming forever. But the truth is, everyone who quits any addictive behaviour will have a few relapses along the way. So, how do you pick yourself up, put the relapse behind you and recommit to your recovery?

Step 1 – Be kind to yourself

Relapses happen. You’ve probably been suffering from maladaptive daydreaming for years. You’re not going to break this addiction overnight. Recovery is not a linear process. You’ll have good days and bad days. That’s OK. On the bad days, the urge to daydream will feel overwhelming. That’s OK too. Sometimes the urge will be so overwhelming that you’ll give into it. And that’s OK as well – provided you don’t let it derail your whole recovery.

You probably started to lose control over your daydreaming when you discovered you could use it to avoid negative emotions. Whether you consciously realise it or not, feeling bad about yourself is a powerful daydreaming trigger. When you don’t like your real-world self, the temptation to escape to your paracosm is overwhelming. Because when you’re in your paracosm, you don’t have to be your real-world self for a while. So if you get angry or frustrated or disappointed with yourself when you’ve slipped back into daydreaming, you can see what’s going to happen. You’re just going to want to daydream more.

The way you break out of this spiral is by forgiving yourself for the relapse. Accept that breaking an addiction is hard – not because you’re weak or a failure, but just because it’s a hard thing to do, for anyone. And when something’s hard, we very rarely get it right first time. Congratulate yourself on having the self-awareness and motivation to try to quit in the first place. Acknowledge the progress you made. Yes, you slipped up, but you also went however many hours or days without daydreaming before that slip, and that’s just as significant.

Step 2 – Get curious about why you relapsed

You didn’t relapse because you lack willpower or because you’re weak or because you don’t deserve to get better. You relapsed because your circumstances weren’t supporting your recovery, and you need to understand why not.

Are you sure quitting completely is right for you at this time? Is your real life somewhere you want to be? If you’re still facing the problem that drove you into maladaptive daydreaming in the first place, do you have a healthier coping strategy you can turn to? Are you dependent on your paras to meet an emotional need? It doesn’t matter how much you want to stop daydreaming, if you still need to daydream, relapses are inevitable.

Also, real life, unlike our daydreams, doesn’t always work out the way we want, which means we can sometimes end up feeling rubbish because of something we had no control over. Other people take their bad moods out on us. Accidents happen. Trains get delayed. Stores run out of chocolate. Whatever it’s going to take to ruin your day, once in a while it’s going to happen. And on those days, you just need to make it through the day as best you can, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow will be better. If you relapsed on one of those days, it was because of what happened, and it says nothing about you or your ability to recover.

Step 3 – Put the relapse behind you and move forward

Once you’ve broken the downward spiral by forgiving yourself for relapsing, and you’ve reflected on why the relapse happened when it did, you’re in a great place to recommit to your recovery and get back on track.

Maybe your relapse has shown that you aren’t yet in quite the right mindset to stop maladaptively daydreaming. If that’s the case, the relapse has done you a favour by highlighting the areas you still need to work on. Alternatively, if something happened in real life that sent you into daydream mode, you can make a plan for how you would cope differently if that happens again. Should you phone a friend instead of talking to your paras? Should you listen to a podcast instead of your daydreaming music? Should you go to the gym with a workout buddy instead of pacing the streets on your own? When your relapse was a response to life events, you just need to distract yourself from the daydreaming urge long enough for it to pass.

Remember, your relapse was just a temporary blip. It doesn’t have to be the end of your recovery process. You can learn from it, put it behind you and start again. And next time, you’ll do better. Because when you see each relapse as a learning opportunity, it goes from being a step backwards to a leap forwards.

Daydreaming isn’t manifesting, but daydreamers can learn to manifest

Manifesting is intentionally training your brain and your nervous system to believe in something that hasn’t happened yet.

Mel Robbins

I absolutely love the Mel Robbins podcast. Listening to Mel is just like having a best friend in the room with you; it feels like a genuine, deep, compassionate conversation, and we could all do with more of that in our lives. I particularly liked her recent episode about manifesting. I’ve said before that daydreaming isn’t manifesting, but there are similarities between the two processes. This means that daydreamers have a natural ability when it comes to manifesting. We just need to learn how to apply it.

In her podcast, Mel Robbins outlines a four-step process for manifesting anything you want. These are the four steps she recommends, along with my interpretation of how daydreamers can implement them.

Step 1. Be honest with yourself about what you want

Daydreamers can sometimes fall at the first hurdle. We spend too much time thinking about what we want in our paracosm and not enough about what we want in real life. What happens in our daydreams can hint at what we want in real life, but our daydreams usually aren’t a literal representation of our ideal future. And that’s OK. Remember, daydreaming isn’t manifesting.

But it’s important that your real-life goals are authentically yours. You won’t find fulfilment if you’re chasing after someone else’s idea of success. Your goals have to come from inside you. Because if they don’t, you’re never going to do the work necessary to reach them. So spend some time reflecting on what you want out of real life. Make sure whatever you decide to manifest is worth working for.

Step 2. Visualise the steps you need to take to reach your goal

This is something else daydreamers tend to get wrong. Our minds can go anywhere we want in an instant. So if we daydream about our real-life goals, we probably go straight to the end result. We daydream about what it will be like to have achieved the goal. We don’t devote any brain space to the steps we need to take to get there. The hard work, the patience, the set-backs, the days when we feel like giving up, they don’t make it into our daydreams. But they’re part of the real-life journey.

Because the truth is, the most meaningful things in life are the things we have to work for. So we have to train our brains to be motivated to do the work. And we do that by visualising the journey rather than the destination. This is crucial for a couple of reasons. First, it makes your goal feel achievable. The end result might feel so far away that you doubt you’ll ever achieve it. But the next step on the journey is something you can do right now. So take that step and see where it gets you.

The second reason why visualising the journey is helpful is that it prepares you for the hard work you’re going to be doing. If you focus on the end result, if you go to that end result effortlessly in your imagination, you’re going to struggle with the reality of having to work to reach your goal. But if you visualise the journey, you’re mentally preparing yourself to do the work rather than pretending you can avoid it.

Step 3 Feel the journey with all your senses

Now that you know how you’re going to achieve your goal, you have to make that journey feel real. You have to imagine it using all of your senses. That’s something that comes easily to daydreamers. It’s how our imagination works. When we imagine something, we naturally fill in all the details, and that’s exactly what we need to do to prepare our brain for the task ahead. When it’s time to work on your goal, it’s a lot easier if you’ve already mentally rehearsed every detail of the process, because your brain will know what’s coming. That means it’ll feel familiar, and you’ll just get on with it instead of resisting the effort.

Step 4 Take action

Daydreamers can sometimes fall at the final hurdle too. The problem is, our imagination can be so vivid that visualising achieving our goal can feel almost as good as achieving it in real life, and it’s a lot easier. So we tend to prefer daydreaming over taking action. But manifesting isn’t just about thoughts. Your goals won’t pop into reality just because you wish hard enough. You actually have to do the work.

If taking action feels hard, go back through the first three steps. Ask yourself: Is this something I really want? Is it worth working for? Do I know what the next step is that I need to take? Have I visualised that step in enough detail to know exactly what I need to do? Have I prepared my brain to take that step by mentally rehearsing using all of my senses?

The real magic of manifesting in this way is that it helps you get past all of your negative self-talk. Because the reality is that we’re manifesting all the time. When we tell ourselves that we’re not worthy, that we’re not good enough, that the things we want only happen to other people, we’re manifesting failure. But when we start to imagine ourselves doing the work, taking the steps, getting day-by-day closer to the life we want, then we start to generate a little bit of confidence, a little bit of self-belief. And it’s that confidence and self-belief that can help us to get where we want to go.