Why you can’t daydream when you need it most

Many of us, regardless of whether we’re immersive or maladaptive daydreamers, use daydreaming as a way to escape from painful emotions. When we feel overwhelmed, we check out of real life in favour of our daydream world, where everything is perfect and under our control. And used in moderation, this is no bad thing. Daydreaming can help pull us out of unhelpful spirals of worrying or rumination, take our minds off a problem we can do nothing about, or simply allow us to relax when life is throwing more at us than we can handle.

So why, then, does our daydreaming sometimes desert us when something really stressful happens? It’s not uncommon to find that when your stress levels hit maximum, when you really need to zone out and escape for a few minutes, you just can’t get into a daydream. Why does that happen? Why does your coping mechanism disappear when you need it most?

Daydreaming is basically a stress-management system. One of the reasons we daydream is to avoid feelings of stress and overwhelm. That can be helpful, for example when you use daydreaming to stop yourself worrying about something that’s out of your control. In maladaptive daydreaming disorder, this avoidance of stress can be damaging, for example when you repeatedly avoid taking action that would solve the problem you’re running away from. But however it shows up, the basic concept is the same: on some level we don’t want to experience the stress, and so we avoid it by mentally checking out of reality.

But before our mind can choose not to experience the stress, there’s a deeper condition that has to be satisfied. It has to be safe to not experience the stress. Our minds will always, subconsciously, prioritise our safety above all else. Our minds won’t let us mentally check out of a situation where we’re in danger. If there’s an imminent danger, we’re evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to it. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived long if they’d dropped into a daydream just as they were about to be attacked by a lion.

That ancestral programming is the basis of the fight-or-flight response. In the modern world, it can be triggered by all sorts of situations, in response to different kinds of threats – physical, emotional, psychological. And in some people, it can be triggered by situations that aren’t, objectively, particularly threatening. It’s how we perceive the situation that matters. The fight-or-flight response is controlled by the most primitive part of our brain. The logical, thinking part of the brain doesn’t get consulted. So, even if we know, logically, that a particular situation doesn’t pose an imminent threat to our safety, if our subconscious mind perceives a threat, we still go into fight-or-flight. And once we’re in fight-or-flight, that primitive part of our brain will decide it’s not a safe or appropriate time to daydream, and there’s absolutely nothing the rational part of our brain can do to overrule it.

This happened to me a few weeks ago during a family crisis. The logical part of my brain knew that the situation was completely out of my control and that working myself up into an anxious frenzy would do more harm than good. What I needed in that moment was a soothing daydream in a world where all is peace and harmony. But the primitive part of my brain had latched on to the idea that my child was in danger, and I was the mother bear who needed to protect her cub. The daydreaming wouldn’t come. I was trapped in reality, pacing around the room waiting for people to return my anxious phone calls.

After the crisis had passed and I knew my daughter was safe, I thought about the experience and what I could do differently next time. I wanted to be able to use the power of my daydreaming to cope better in times of crisis. But what I kept coming back to was this: there are times when we’re not meant to feel calm. There are times when we’re supposed to feel our emotions, intense and painful though they may be. Because those emotions are trying to protect us. Our minds are trying to protect us. And, yes, OK, it can seem as though they get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes our minds hold us in reality when there really isn’t any point. But isn’t it better that way than allowing us to mentally check out when it isn’t safe to do so? Isn’t it reassuring to think that there’s that part of our subconscious that never stops trying to keep us safe? That wants to love us and protect us even when we’re our own worst enemies. So, if your daydreaming disappears in a time of crisis, remember that maybe, just maybe, it’s because the safest thing to do in that moment is stay present.  

Validation: what it is and how to get it

It’s very common to daydream about success. It can show up in different ways; we might daydream about being the natural leader of our friendship group, making a breakthrough that wins us a prestigious award, rescuing someone from certain death, or saving the world from some impending crisis. Whatever the plot, what we’re really looking for is recognition, admiration, and a sense that the world wants us to be a part of it. And what often underlies that desire is a need for validation.

Validation is the recognition and acceptance of someone else’s experience. The desire to feel validated is a basic part of being human; everyone needs to feel validated on a regular basis. When we feel validated, we feel seen, accepted and understood. We feel as though we matter.

Dependence on external validation

Sometimes, however, we can find ourselves in situations where the people around us are not validating us. Daydreamers may be particularly prone to this. For someone to validate us, they have to see us, and many daydreamers keep an important part of themselves (their daydreaming) a secret. If you have to constantly hide something about yourself from the people around you, it’s that much harder for those people to see the real you and therefore it’s harder for them to validate your experience.

But it can work the other way too. When we aren’t being validated by the people around us, we can look for validation in our daydreams, and that’s what makes us daydream about achieving success and recognition. We’re desperately trying to satisfy our need for validation in our daydreams because it isn’t being satisfied in the real world.

However, this can be a dangerous negative spiral. The more we seek validation in our daydreams, the more we withdraw, and the fewer opportunities we give people to validate us in real life, so the less validation we get and the more we have to daydream to make up for it. It’s one of the factors that can lead to the development of maladaptive daydreaming disorder. So, is there a healthier way to make up for a lack of validation from the people around us?

Learning to validate ourselves

The solution is to learn to validate ourselves. It’s called self-validation, or internal validation, as opposed to the external validation that we get from other people. Learning to validate yourself is difficult, particularly if you don’t like yourself very much and are prone to self-criticism or self-judgement. But it’s worth working on, because once you can satisfy your need for validation in a healthy way, your happiness becomes much less dependent on other people’s actions. You start to care a lot less what other people think. And you begin to have more confidence in your own opinions and choices.

A good description of how to validate yourself can be found here. But if you find it difficult to validate yourself, you can use your abilities as a daydreamer to make it a little easier. Our characters are that half-way house between external validation and internal validation. We interact with them as though they are other people, outside of ourselves, but at the same time we’re well aware that they exist only in our minds and we can control their responses.

I’ve developed a practice of checking in with one of my characters every day. I tell him what’s going on in my real life, describing in detail what’s happened and how I feel about it. Most of the time he just listens, but if he notices me being self-critical or judgemental, he’ll jump in and say something positive that helps me see the situation objectively. If I’m doubting myself, he’ll ask me what my alter ego would do. That’s the equivalent of asking me what someone more confident, capable and self-assured would do, which helps me to see past my own limitations. Having a conversation with my character also helps me put the situation into context; I’m better able to see how my own beliefs, values and previous experiences affect how I see the situation. Often the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else; likewise, I find the best way to get clear on how I feel about something is to talk it over with one of my characters.

Over time, getting my character’s perspective on things in this way has helped me to have a more positive view of myself and to understand what I want from life. As I become more aware of my values and desires, I’m less reliant on the opinions of others, and therefore I’m able to be more authentically me without worrying about whether I’ll be liked. This means I’m getting to know myself better, and I’m better able to make my own decisions, and so the progress builds on itself.

When my therapist told me I was too dependent on external validation, I didn’t really know what that meant, let alone have any idea how I might go about changing it. But by seeking validation from my characters, I’ve found that my dependence on real-world external validation has fallen away without any great effort on my part. These days, I’m a lot less worried about what other people think of me, because finally, after a lot of hard work, I really do like myself.

Ten myths about maladaptive daydreaming that could be increasing your suffering

Having maladaptive daydreaming disorder is tough. But it’s often made harder by the misinformation that surrounds what it still a new and little-known mental-health condition. The following are just some of the unhelpful myths about immersive and maladaptive daydreaming that could be causing you unnecessary anxiety.

1. All fantastical daydreaming is maladaptive daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming is not defined by what you daydream about, it’s defined by the relationship you have with your daydreaming. Inventing fictional characters with supernatural powers, or mentally dating your celebrity crush, or imagining you’re part of your favourite novel or TV show isn’t necessarily maladaptive daydreaming. Your daydreaming is maladaptive if it causes you distress or dysfunction. If you love spending time in your fantasy world and it doesn’t get in the way of real life, then what you have is immersive daydreaming. Immersive daydreaming is not a problem, and you don’t need to fix it.

2. If you daydream too much, you won’t be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality

Immersive and maladaptive daydreamers always know what’s real and what isn’t. If you daydream about people you know in real life, you might occasionally forget whether you had a particular conversation in real life or in the daydream, but apart from that you will always know what’s fantasy and what’s real. Not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is a symptom of psychosis. That’s a different condition. You can’t develop psychosis simply as a consequence of daydreaming too much.

3. If your daydreams are bothering you, you should just stop

For a more detailed explanation of why this isn’t the case, see my post about why willpower alone isn’t enough to overcome maladaptive daydreaming disorder. Maladaptive daydreaming is an addictive coping mechanism. If you rely on it, and you’ve been doing it for a long time, you can’t just suddenly decide to stop. Like any addiction, it’s going to take time and effort to get it under control. 

4. Recovering from maladaptive daydreaming disorder means you have to stop daydreaming

Immersive daydreaming isn’t a mental illness; in fact, it can be a superpower that helps you tap into your subconscious, navigate the challenges that real life throws at you and generally live an awesome life. If you stopped daydreaming, you’d lose a part of who you are, and waste of one of your most valuable talents. The way to recover from maladaptive daydreaming disorder is to turn it into immersive daydreaming, not to stop daydreaming completely.

5. Because your characters aren’t real, how you feel about them isn’t real either

It’s possible to have real emotions in fictional situations. Have you ever cried over something that happened in a film? Becoming emotionally involved in your daydreams isn’t really any different. In fact, we often use our daydreams to experience emotions that are missing from real life. That isn’t fake, it’s our mind’s way of satisfying an unmet need.

6. Your alter ego isn’t the real you

Do you like the person you become in your daydreams, while at the same time being very self-critical of who you are in real life? Do you think your life would be great if you could really be your alter ego, but you assume it’s just not possible? OK, maybe you aren’t going to develop superpowers, or move into your dream house with your celebrity crush. But you absolutely can develop the confidence, social skills, good humour and other attributes of your alter ego. You’re practicing in your daydreams every day; it’s a smaller step than you think to start practicing in real life too.

7. You’ll never achieve professional success if you’re a daydreamer

If you’re a maladaptive daydreamer who spends many hours each day daydreaming instead of working on your goals, then it’ll be hard to achieve professional success in real life. But once you turn your maladaptive daydreaming into immersive daydreaming, it becomes a tool that can help you achieve anything you want. You can work on your real-life goals through your daydreams.

8. Being in a daydream relationship means you can’t have a real-life romantic relationship

It’s easy to think that you’ll never meet anyone in real life who’s as perfect as the person you’re dating in your head. But the truth is that real-life relationships and daydream relationships are different. And what you want from each is different too. So when you meet the person you’re meant to be with in real life, they won’t be anything like your daydream partner, and it won’t matter. (If you’re fantasising about someone who exists in real life and you believe you can’t be happy unless you have a real relationship with them, that’s limerence, not a daydream relationship.)

9. You daydream because you aren’t good enough in real life.

The truth is, you daydream because your real life wasn’t good enough for you. When real life doesn’t give us what we need, whether that’s social connection, recognition, a sense of control or whatever, we tend to create it in our daydreams. It’s our mind’s way of trying to make up for what’s missing. The fact that something’s missing doesn’t make you a failure or a loser or a bad person. It’s just the way life works out sometimes. If you think being a daydreamer makes you a bad person, you might want to read my post about shame.

10. Normative daydreamers don’t have mental health problems

You know that’s not true, but it’s something we often forget. If you’re a maladaptive daydreamer, it’s easy to blame all your problems on your daydreaming. You assume that if you could stop daydreaming, you’d be happy. It’s true that we use our thoughts as an unhealthy coping mechanism, but so do normative daydreamers. They just call it worrying or rumination.

I hope this list has helped you see your daydreaming for what it is – just a different way of thinking. A lot of the shame we feel about our daydreaming comes from the negative interpretations we attach to it. And a lot of those negative interpretations come from believing myths about maladaptive daydreaming that aren’t actually true. Of course, daydreaming can be unhealthy if it gets out of control or if you’re using it to escape from your problems instead of solving them. But it can also be a tool that helps you achieve your goals and find inner peace. It just depends how you use it.

Does your name matter? And why I felt I had to change mine.

When I was a child, I used to daydream in third person. Back then, I didn’t like myself much, and I’ve often wondered whether I felt I didn’t deserve to be in my daydreams. In both real-life and the daydream world, I was an observer, not a participant. But even then, my daydreams always included one main character I identified with. She was the person I wanted to be – confident, popular, a natural leader. As I got older, my daydream worlds changed and evolved; sometimes plots were reworked, sometimes whole worlds were left behind and new ones created. And over time I found I was daydreaming more and more in first person. The main character was still basically the same, but now I was exploring what it was like to be her. I was seeing things from her perspective. I was acknowledging what had actually always been the case: she was an idealised version of me.

But she never had my name. Perhaps because I originally daydreamed in third person, that never struck me as odd. In the beginning, I didn’t realise she was me, so why should she have my name? But even after I started to identify with her, she still didn’t have my name. She had various different names over the years, but she became Kyla about ten years ago and the name stuck. She’s been Kyla ever since, through several major plot changes.

The other thing is, I’ve never connected with my birth name. Even as a little child, I always felt that the name wasn’t mine. I didn’t dislike it particularly, but it just never felt like it belonged to me. When people called me by my name, it always felt wrong, like they were talking to someone else. I never really associated that with the fact that my daydream self had a different name, because back then my daydream self was a different person.

And then, last year, I had a major mental health crisis. It felt as if the person I had been for most of my life had died. I’d spent my whole life suppressing my authentic self in a failed attempt to be what I thought the world wanted me to be. And last year I was forced to confront that. I let go of all the limiting beliefs and misguided assumptions that had been holding me back, and I started a journey to discover and connect with my authentic self. It’s been a transformational journey, and I’m not all the way there yet, but one thing has become clear. The idealised version of me that I become in my daydreams is actually the real me. My alter ego isn’t some fictional idea of what I would have liked to have been, she’s the person I should have been, the person I would have been if life hadn’t got in the way, and the person I’m going to try to be from now on.

Once I realised that, keeping my birth name became untenable. Every time someone used it, it felt like I was being pulled back into the past, back to the false self that I’d projected onto the world for so long. And I didn’t want to go back. I couldn’t move forward while I still had a name that tied me to the past. So I decided to start using my daydream name in the real world. Because when people call me Kyla, it feels affirming, it feels authentic, I feel seen. And it’s a constant reminder that I’m finally becoming the wonderful person that I always had the potential to be.

I was nervous about changing my name, obviously; it’s a big decision. But the reaction from my friends and family has been better than I expected. People who’ve known me for years have made the switch effortlessly. If anyone thinks it’s weird to change my name at my age, they haven’t said so. I’m just so excited to finally have a name. A name that feels like it belongs to me.

I don’t think most daydreamers will want, or need, to change their name. But I do think we should all reflect on the relationships we have with our alter egos. Who do you become in your daydreams, and where does that person come from? Are you allowing your authentic self to show up in the real world, or, like me, have you repressed your authenticity so that the only place you can truly be yourself is in your daydreams? And if you can be awesome in your daydreams, why don’t you think you can be equally awesome in real life? Reflecting on questions like these might enable you to improve your real life in ways you never expected. Because our daydreams aren’t just figments of our imagination; they come from somewhere much deeper. And sometimes they carry messages that we would benefit from listening to.

The negative emotions your daydreaming is trying to protect you from

There are some experiences and emotions that immersive and maladaptive daydreamers don’t experience as often as most people, if at all. Sometimes this is a good thing – it’s great to have a range of tools for dealing with negative emotions. But it can also be damaging. We feel emotions for a reason, and if we run away from our emotions without giving ourselves time to feel them and understand the message they’re sending us, we can end up making things worse. So let’s look at how our daydreaming tries to protect us from some common emotions and consider when escaping into a daydream might do more harm than good.

Boredom

Boredom is one of my biggest daydreaming triggers. If there’s nothing going on in the real world to occupy my mind, I drift off to somewhere more interesting. This comes in handy when boredom is a short-term inevitability – when I’m stuck in traffic, for example, or waiting for someone who’s running late, or being held in a telephone queue. In those moments, I can happily daydream not only to pass the time but also to calm any frustration I might be feeling about being kept waiting.

But if you’re using daydreaming to relieve boredom on a regular basis, you might need to consider whether you’re really using daydreaming to avoid doing something else. I often tell myself I don’t have anything to do, so I might as well daydream. Usually, the truth is that I have plenty of things to do, I just don’t want to do them. And that’s when daydreaming starts getting in the way of real life. In my case it’s housework, but it could be studying, starting a long-term project, having a difficult conversation, or any number of other things that need to be done but which we’d rather avoid.

Worry

We all worry sometimes. It’s a natural response to the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds and/or not being able to control that future. Diving into a daydream is a useful way to head off worry before it gets out of control. We imagine things so vividly that if we let ourselves dwell on the worst-case scenario, we’re going to experience all the pain and trauma of a version of the future that might never happen. Much better to spend our time in an imaginary world where everything always works out for the best.

But if we dive into a daydream at the first sign of worry, we deny ourselves the opportunity to shape our future. We don’t take time to think about what outcome we want and how we might go about getting it. If you daydream to avoid worrying about a job interview, for example, you don’t give yourself a chance to think through the questions you might be asked and how you could respond to them. The interview arrives before you know it, and it’s only as you walk through the door that you realise you could have prepared better.

Loneliness

We all need to feel connected to other human beings (even if you’re an introvert). But at times that’s easier said than done. There are all sorts of reasons why you might not have the human connection you need, whether that’s long-term because social anxiety makes it difficult to make friends, or short-term because your friends happen to be busy with other things. We’ve all had times when we’ve looked for connection and not found it. But we have a solution for that. We have our imaginary friends. They’re available 24/7, never let us down, always understand our point of view, and never need to burden us with their own problems.

But however much you value your imaginary friendships, they never take the place of real-life friendships. Real-life friends and imaginary friends are different, and we need both. Our imaginary friends help us escape the pain of loneliness, but they don’t help us make real-life connections. Your loneliness is a signal that your need for real-life human connection isn’t being met, and that’s not something that can be addressed through your daydreams.

Boredom, worry and loneliness are uncomfortable. They’re supposed to be. They exist to make us question what’s going on and assess whether the life we’re living is truly the life we want to live. They motivate us to make changes for the better. And we need that. So don’t be too quick to run away from these emotions by jumping into a daydream. First, take a moment to ask yourself why that emotion has come up. If it’s something inconsequential, such as you’re waiting in line, or your friend didn’t pick up the phone, then fine; it’s OK to decide the emotion isn’t helping you. In that case, you can go ahead and daydream instead of letting the emotion spoil your day. But when the emotion is showing you what’s missing from your life, escaping into a daydream won’t help you fill the gap. And as uncomfortable as the boredom, worry or loneliness is, your best option is work on improving real life. Then you won’t have to fight or escape from the emotion, because once it’s no longer needed, it will fade away all by itself.

Three reasons why willpower alone is not enough to cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder

If you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, at some point you’ve probably tried to stop daydreaming. Perhaps someone has told you “it’s only a daydream; you can just stop thinking about it”. Or perhaps you’ve said something like that to yourself. But if you’ve tried to stop daydreaming, you’ll know it isn’t that simple. And it’s not because you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re a failure, or any of the other horrible things you might have been saying to yourself. The reason you haven’t been able to stop daydreaming is because willpower alone cannot cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder. There are at least three very important reasons why.

1. You will never stop daydreaming completely

The first reason you can’t cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder by just stopping daydreaming is because that isn’t what “cured” looks like. Your brain is wired to daydream in this way. You will always be an immersive daydreamer. Your characters and plots and the emotions they evoke will always be a part of your life. “Curing” maladaptive daydreaming disorder doesn’t mean you stop daydreaming. It means you learn to control your daydreaming so that it doesn’t get in the way of you living real life, but rather becomes a tool that you can use to get the most out of real life.

2. It’s really hard to control your thoughts

Don’t try to tell yourself that your maladaptive daydreaming is just a bad habit; maladaptive daydreaming disorder is an addiction. ANY addiction is hard to give up, but an addiction to your own thoughts is harder than most, partly because giving up completely isn’t possible (see above) but also because a relapse is only ever a thought away. There’s no gap between feeling the urge and giving in to it. It’s like trying to stay sober with a glass of wine permanently within arm’s reach. Don’t underestimate how hard it is. Even normative daydreamers get trapped in negative spirals of worry or rumination. An inability to control our thoughts underlies most mental illness, and it’s not something most of us can change just because we decide to.

3. You trap yourself in real life

The most important reason why willpower alone won’t cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder is that on some level you need your daydreaming. Most maladaptive daydreamers use their daydreaming as a way of escaping something painful in real life. It starts out as a coping mechanism, and over time develops into a harmful addiction. In some cases, the addiction persists even after the thing you were originally escaping from has gone away. But even then, if you’ve been a maladaptive daydreamer for any length of time, it will have caused its own problems – social isolation, career stagnation, loss of self-esteem. Often, the desire to quit maladaptive daydreaming comes from feeling miserable in real life and wanting something to change. But quitting maladaptive daydreaming traps you in that miserable reality. You give up your escape; you give up the one thing that made all your problems go away. And when you realise that your miserable reality is all you have now, the urge to daydream comes right back. And now you have to use all your willpower to resist the urge, so there’s none left over for dealing with real life. That’s not sustainable. And even if it was, why would you want to do that to yourself?

So, please, don’t try to stop maladaptive daydreaming using willpower alone. You’ll just end up feeling bad about yourself. For some things that will help you reduce maladaptive daydreaming, at least a little bit, see my previous blog post. But be warned, none of these are long-term solutions.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Maladaptive daydreaming is a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that real life isn’t meeting your needs. In the long term, I believe the solution to maladaptive daydreaming is to work on your real life. Once real life is worth living, the daydreaming may subside on its own, and if it doesn’t, it will be easier to get it under control once you no longer need to use it as an escape.

And unfortunately, fixing what’s wrong with your real life is going to take time and effort and probably require a lot of difficult decisions. And perhaps willpower alone won’t be enough for that either, and you’ll need to seek the support of a therapist or coach, or ask friends and family to help you. But ultimately, when you’ve built a life that meets your needs, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

7 quick ways to reduce maladaptive daydreaming right now

You cannot cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder overnight. Your daydreaming got out of control over months or years of using it to escape from real life. Maladaptive daydreaming takes time to get thoroughly embedded in your brain, and it takes a significant amount of time and effort to regain control. You can’t just decide to get over it and suddenly stop daydreaming.

However, there are times when you need to push your daydreaming to the background for a short while, perhaps while you’re waiting to see a therapist, or because you have to study or complete an important project at work. And, fortunately, there are some things you can do that will give you a little bit of control and a little bit of hope when it feels as though your daydreaming is taking over completely.

Understand the size of the problem

Do you know exactly how long you spend daydreaming each day? That’s going to be useful information if you plan to see a therapist in future, and studies have shown that simply monitoring your daydreaming habits can actually help you get control over the amount of time you spend daydreaming. So start keeping a log of when and for how long you daydream. Every time you daydream, make a note of how long you were away from reality. Simply making yourself accountable to yourself in this way can be surprisingly helpful.

Set aside a little time each day for daydreaming

Your mind has got used to daydreaming. It needs it, at least for now. So look at your life and decide how long you can realistically allow yourself to daydream each day without it getting in the way of real life. For example, could you set aside an hour at the end of the day? Or perhaps 30 minutes when you get home from work? Knowing that you’re still going to let yourself daydream a little takes the pressure off. When you feel the urge to daydream, you can say to yourself “not yet, there’s time for that later”. But be careful – when it’s time to daydream, set a timer. The hardest part is stopping when the time is up, so if possible, plan something you need to do immediately afterwards to bring you back to reality.

Have another way to occupy your mind

Boredom is one of the biggest daydreaming triggers. Very few of us can tolerate boredom for more than a few minutes. If you’re used to daydreaming for hours at a time, you’re going to need something to replace it with. If you just let your mind wander, you’ll find yourself worrying or ruminating, and that will push you straight back into daydreaming. Find something you enjoy that requires enough concentration to stop you daydreaming but not so much that it exhausts you. You could try crossword puzzles, colouring, gardening, going to the gym, even housework. Find what works for you.

Stay away from your daydreaming triggers

Think about the things that trigger your daydreaming and how you can minimise your exposure to them. Remember, it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You’re trying to reduce rather than eliminate your daydreaming, so you can reduce rather than eliminate your triggers. For example, if music is a trigger, you can still listen to music in your allocated daydreaming time, but at other times perhaps you could listen to podcasts instead. Again, it’s about finding what works for you.

Make rules for yourself that you can stick to

Set some boundaries around your daydreaming, but be careful only to commit to things that are realistic in your situation. For example, I have a rule that I never daydream when I’m in the same room as another person. I originally started this because I wanted to send a message to my brain that when I’m with someone real, that person deserves my full attention. But it’s now become a useful way to stop myself daydreaming. If I need to snap out of a daydream, I go and find someone real to have a conversation with.

Talk to your characters about real life

This is one of my favourite strategies. Instead of diving headlong into my fantasy world, I have a couple of characters that I bring out of the daydream so that I can talk to them about my real-life problems. My brain might think I’m daydreaming, but in fact I’m reviewing my life, setting goals and devising action plans – all those things that daydreamers tend to avoid. And, yes, my characters hold me accountable too.

Have a way to ground yourself

When you start trying to manage your maladaptive daydreaming, you’re going to have the occasional lapse, and you’re going to have times when the urge to daydream seems overwhelming. Having a go-to strategy to ground yourself when the urge feels irresistible can be very helpful. You could use the 54321 technique – count five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This forces you to reconnect with your surroundings. Another possibility is to tune into the physical sensations in your body – scan each part of your body in turn and notice what sensations are there.

None of the above strategies will instantly cure your maladaptive daydreaming. Recovery is a longer-term project, which you may well need to undertake in partnership with a therapist. But hopefully by implementing some of these techniques, you can at least begin to feel that you have some control over your daydreaming. And, once you have control, you can start to believe that recovery is possible.

When does maladaptive daydreaming begin?

When you come across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder for the first time and suddenly realise you aren’t alone and you’re not the only crazy person who has a whole fantasy life in their head, it’s natural to wonder why your brain is wired this way. When did it start? What caused it? And was there ever any chance you could have been a normative daydreamer?

To answer the question of when maladaptive daydreaming begins, it’s first necessary to understand the difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming. The ability to create a whole fantasy world in your head that has nothing to do with real life and involves a complex plot, characters and even an alternate version of yourself, is immersive daydreaming. When immersive daydreaming gets out of control and stops you living your real life, that’s maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

Immersive daydreaming usually starts in early childhood

My earliest memories are from when I was about four years old, and I’m pretty certain I was already an immersive daydreamer by then. I remember having fantasies about being a princess in a fairy castle. Most people would probably think that was normal imaginative play at that age. But no-one had any idea how vivid and detailed my fantasies were. It never occurred to me to talk about it; as a child, you just assume everyone sees the world the same way you do.

Early memories of immersive daydreaming are common among daydreamers, and I suspect that this capacity for detailed and vivid daydreaming is just something we’re born with. In other words, I think all immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are born with the ability to immersively daydream; most of us had probably begun to immersively daydream by the age of two or three. It’s just part of who we are.

Maladaptive daydreaming disorder develops from immersive daydreaming

But being an immersive daydreamer is not the same as having maladaptive daydreaming disorder. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder usually starts as a coping mechanism. Something happens (or doesn’t happen) that makes real life more painful, difficult or complicated than we can handle. We discover that we can flee our painful reality by daydreaming; and we create an imaginary life where everything is under our control. But if real life doesn’t improve, we find ourselves spending more and more time in our imaginary world, until eventually fleeing there becomes a destructive habit that gets in the way of solving our real-life problems. We find we can’t stop daydreaming even when we want to. And that’s when our gift for immersive daydreaming turns into the curse of maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

My daydreaming first became problematic around the age of nine or ten. We’d moved to a new area, so I’d lost contact with the friends I’d grown up with. When I had difficulty making new friends, I invented them instead. It was easier. I’d spend hours repetitively bouncing a ball off the back wall of our house while having the most amazing adventures in my head.

My daydreaming has fluctuated over the years. Currently, I’d describe myself as an immersive daydreamer, but there have been times in my life when it’s been more maladaptive. And when I look back, it was the times when my real life wasn’t going so well that the urge to daydream was greater. The times when I’ve struggled with maladaptive daydreaming disorder are the times when there was something to escape from. When I was happy to live my real life, my daydreaming was easier to control.

Maladaptive daydreaming disorder can develop at any age

So, back to the question of when maladaptive daydreaming starts. Immersive daydreaming starts very young. But maladaptive daydreaming comes later. As my own experience shows, there’s no reason it can’t develop in childhood. People have unhappy childhoods for all sorts of reasons, and if that was the case for you, then you probably sought refuge in your fantasy world. As children, our options for solving our problems are limited. We don’t have the autonomy to make decisions about most of what happens in our lives, so if we’re in a stressful situation, zoning out via daydreaming may be our only option. If that was you, don’t judge yourself. Be grateful that in the situation you were in, your mind did what it needed to do to keep you safe.

But it’s also true that as children we have fewer responsibilities and fewer expectations placed on us than we do as adults. Life doesn’t ask as much of us. So if you had a happy childhood, you probably remained an immersive daydreamer. And if real life gave you everything you needed, you might not even have daydreamed that much. You didn’t need to. But the possibility of our daydreaming getting out of control never goes away. You can have a happy childhood, with minimal daydreaming, and then as an adult, life throws something at you that’s more than you can handle. Then, you rediscover your talent for daydreaming, you realise you can use it to escape from your problems, and you do it more and more often, until eventually you can’t stop. And then you realise you’ve developed maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

In summary, I think immersive daydreaming begins very young. And if you’re an immersive daydreamer, the possibility of developing maladaptive daydreaming disorder is always there. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder can start in childhood, or you can develop it as an adult, it just depends when life throws you more stress than you can handle. Being an immersive daydreamer is something you’re born with, and I believe it’s something that will always be with you. But whether and when you develop maladaptive daydreaming disorder depends on what happens to you and on how you respond to what happens to you. It isn’t inevitable, and it isn’t forever.

Why daydreaming is bad for our emotional intelligence

I struggle to feel emotions physically. My mind will tell me I’m feeling joy or frustration or disappointment, but it’s difficult for me to connect that emotion to physical sensations in my body. I don’t experience anger as a rush of heat or energy, I don’t experience fear as a tightness in my stomach, I don’t experience sadness as a heaviness in my arms and legs. And I wonder if this physical numbness is connected to my daydreaming. I’ve spent my life in my head, building imaginary worlds, characters and relationships, and to do that, I had to disconnect my mind from what was going on in my body. Over time, I’ve got so used to ignoring the emotional signals in my body that now I simply don’t feel them.

But what are emotions for anyway? Why do we need them? Emotions have several functions. Firstly, emotions can change our behaviour faster than our thoughts can. For example, in a sudden emergency, fear can activate our fight-or-flight response and we find ourselves taking evasive action before we’ve even consciously analysed the threat. Secondly, emotions are messages from our subconscious. They are our gut instinct or intuition, working with the rational side of our brain to help us make the right decision. Thirdly, emotions communicate our feelings to others. If someone is acting in a way that angers us, that anger will show in our posture and facial expression, and signals the other person to change their behaviour.

But unfortunately most of us were never taught how our emotions work, how to handle them, or even how to tell one emotion from another. And we tell ourselves myths about our emotions, such as “emotions cannot be controlled”, or “another person can make you feel a certain way,” or “some emotions are stupid, bad or destructive”. As we get older, and accumulate more life experiences, most of us learn to manage our emotions to a greater or lesser extent. But in daydreamers, this process of learning to manage our emotions sometimes gets knocked off track.

We feel negative emotions such as sadness, anger, jealously and guilt for a reason. They’re supposed to feel uncomfortable, because they’re signals from our subconscious that something is wrong. The discomfort caused by these emotions is supposed to motivate us to solve the problem. But daydreamers have an alternative. We can escape to a daydream world where the problem prompting the emotion simply never existed in the first place. We train ourselves to ignore the physical sensations the emotion is provoking in our body, because we’re determined to escape the emotion altogether.

But escaping from our emotions not only prevents us from solving our problems. It also becomes a habit. I think I’ve become so used to ignoring the physical expressions of my emotions that now, even when I try, I struggle to feel them. And that makes it harder to identify which emotion is present. Because emotions don’t always come along one at a time. You can be angry with someone you love and be afraid of losing the relationship. You can feel guilty about something you did and be sad about the consequences. The first step in managing a difficult emotion is being able to describe and understand which emotion is present. And you can get important clues to which emotion is showing up by tuning into how it feels in your body. For example, anger is often energising – you might feel hot or tense or have an urge to lash out. Fear prepares us to flee, so it tends to show up as a tightness in the chest, a racing heart or butterflies in the stomach. Sadness often shows up as an absence of energy – lethargy, hopelessness or emptiness. But if you can’t connect to those feelings, you’re missing important clues about which emotion is present.

Because here’s the thing. If we don’t reinforce a negative emotion by judging it or ruminating on it, the unpleasant physical sensations last on average for 90 seconds. That’s right; 90 seconds. That emotion we’ve been so scared of feeling – the thing we will daydream rather than acknowledge, the thing we’re trying to tune out at all costs – could be gone in less than a couple of minutes. Sounds unbelievable, right?

So that’s been my mission for the last week or so. Whenever I’m feeling a strong emotion, rather than giving in to the urge to run away from it by daydreaming, I’ve been trying to sit with the emotion for just two minutes. Two minutes to really tune in to what’s going on in my body; two minutes to thank my emotion for whatever message it’s trying to send me; two minutes to accept the emotion without judging it. And when the two minutes are up, if I still want to daydream, I can (just for a short while).

It’s only been a few days, but I’m already noticing two things. First, those sensations in my body that I’ve spent a lifetime ignoring are still there. I have to really focus to find them, but they’re there. Hopefully with practice they’ll start showing up more easily. And second, I’ve been surprised how often, at the end of the two minutes, I can go about my day without needing a daydream break. Two minutes really is, often, all it takes.

As daydreamers, we’re not used to having a gap. We indulge our urge to daydream the second it arises. But when we give ourselves a gap, we give ourselves a chance to deal with the urge in a more constructive way. So if you use your daydreaming as a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions, ask yourself, could you commit to listening to your emotion for just two minutes before you run away from it? Could you give yourself the gift of a gap? I’m finding this is not only helping me manage my emotions, but it’s also benefitting my daydreaming. Because when my daydreams don’t have to be an escape, they’re free to do what they do best – inspiring and motivating me to live my best life.

Three ways to overcome the shame you feel about your daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming disorder was first described in 2002. But even 20 years later, awareness of the condition among mental health professionals and the general public remains low. One of the reasons for this is that most daydreamers are very reluctant to open up to friends and family about their daydreaming due to a deeply rooted sense of shame. As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between feeling guilty and feeling ashamed. We feel guilt when we’ve behaved badly: it motivates us to make amends and to behave better next time. Shame, on the other hand, occurs when we feel bad about who we are, and in my opinion, it’s rarely a helpful emotion. So why do so many immersive and maladaptive daydreamers feel ashamed of their daydreaming?

We think no-one else daydreams in this way

This was my biggest source of shame for decades. I was in my mid-forties when I came across maladaptive daydreaming disorder on the internet and realised there was a name for this thing I’ve done all my life. Until then, I thought I was the only person who daydreamed like this. When you feel you’re “different”, it’s natural to fear that others will judge or reject you if they find out about your difference. Generally, people like people who are like themselves, and if you’re not like other people, it can make it harder to fit in. So it’s natural to want to hide your “difference” to avoid rejection. But once we accept the idea that we should hide our daydreaming, it’s inevitable that we’ll start to see daydreaming as bad, and ourselves as bad for continuing to do it.

The solution to this type of shame is to accept that you’re not alone, and you’re not weird, or bad, or broken. The shame I used to feel about my daydreaming started to fall away the day I discovered that other people do it too. Suddenly it wasn’t a reflection on me, it was just a condition I had. If you’re ashamed because you feel different and alone, the answer is to connect with other daydreamers. Check my resources page for details of daydream groups on Facebook and Reddit. Sign up and start posting. You’ll be among friends. And you’ll notice the shame gradually begin to subside as you get more used to talking about your daydreaming in a safe and accepting space.

We constantly invalidate ourselves

One of the things that distinguishes maladaptive daydreaming disorder from psychosis is that we know our daydreams aren’t real. But that knowledge can sometimes lead to self-destructive thoughts. We think that all the positive experiences we have while daydreaming somehow don’t count because they only happen in our heads. We judge ourselves for getting emotionally involved in something that isn’t real, and for having feelings for people that don’t exist.

But why? Almost everyone has cried while watching a movie. No-one judges us for that. Daydreaming is a bit like having a movie playing in our heads the whole time, except that for many of us it becomes an epic creation that grows with us over months or years, or involves characters based on people we care about in real life. So of course we’re going to become emotionally involved in the story. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real. The emotions are real. And they’re valid.

If you feel shame about becoming emotionally involved in your daydreams, remember that emotions are messages from our subconscious. We feel them for a reason. Daydream emotions may represent feelings that you need but aren’t getting from real life, or they may be real-life emotions that need to be worked through in the safe space of your own mind. Either way, they’re there for a reason, and if your shame makes you stuff them down and ignore them, they’ll just keep shouting until they get your attention.

We believe everything we read on the internet

When you first realise that other people daydream the way you do, it’s natural to be curious about it. But there’s an inbuilt bias in what you’ll find online. A Google search for “maladaptive daydreaming” returns nearly 320,000 results; a search for “immersive daydreaming” returns less than 28,000 results. At the moment, maladaptive daydreaming is by far the better-known condition. And that means that most of what you’ll read about daydreaming is likely to focus on how it can damage your relationships and steal years of your life. If you’re an immersive daydreamer, but you don’t understand the difference between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming, it can be scary see people describing daydreaming as a mental illness.

It’s important to remember that only you can judge whether your daydreaming is getting in the way of you living your best life. If it is, then you probably have maladaptive daydreaming disorder and you might want to investigate ways of managing it. But if you’re an immersive daydreamer – if your daydreaming helps you thrive or is just an entertaining pastime – then don’t let maladaptive daydreamers convince you that there’s anything wrong with you. Maladaptive daydreamers have a different relationship with their daydreaming. Their suffering is real and their challenges are significant. But it’s OK for immersive daydreamers not to share those challenges. Daydreaming isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s the relationship you have with it that determines how it affects you. And if you have a good relationship with your daydreaming, that’s OK.

When we feel shame, we tend not to like ourselves. And when we don’t like ourselves, we talk very harshly to ourselves. And in many cases, it’s that negative self-talk, not the daydreaming, that’s really keeping us stuck. To move forward, we need to overcome the shame so that we can treat ourselves with compassion and believe that we’re worthy of a wonderful life. Because once we believe that we deserve it, it will be so much easier to achieve.