What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 29, 2022
4 min read

Maladaptive daydreaming is when you spend a large amount of time daydreaming. This behavior tends to be a way for people to live with mental health conditions like anxiety. “Maladaptive” means that this form of daydreaming can be a harmful way to deal with a problem. It can get in the way of your work, relationships, and hobbies.

Experts aren’t sure exactly how many people do this, but one study in Israel found that 2.5% of adults and a little over 4% of younger adults who are students in the country had maladaptive daydreaming.

Experts don’t consider maladaptive daydreaming a condition. But this behavior can overlap with certain mental health conditions. These might include:

But some research suggests that maladaptive daydreaming is different enough from other disorders and should be defined as a condition on its own.

Maladaptive daydreaming is also related to age. Some studies have found that it’s more common is younger people. This is especially true for young adults and teenagers, but it can also happen to kids. Experts need more data to understand the link between this behavior and age.

A lot of people who have maladaptive daydreaming have lived through abuse or trauma, especially as a child. But not everyone with the behavior has gone through this.

Maladaptive daydreaming causes two groups of symptoms.

The first deals with the daydreaming behavior itself. If you have maladaptive daydreaming, there are certain factors that will play into your daydreams:

Complexity. Your daydream will usually have detailed plots with characters that pop up over and over, like in a show.

Intensity. These daydreams are a lot more colorful and stronger than regular dreams.

Duration. These daydreams can last for a long time, even for hours at once.

Intent. With this behavior, you may often start to daydream on purpose.

Disconnection. You may have such an intense daydream that you disconnect from everything around you. You may not notice the things happening near you.

The second group of symptoms has to do with how you feel about your maladaptive daydreaming. You may see this behavior as negative. These emotions may lead to:

Shame or guilt. You might feel bad about daydreaming, especially if it messes with other parts of your life.

Trouble with work, hobbies, or other activities. These daydreams can hinder you at work, school, or in any other task you do.

Issues with social activities. You may daydream more than you spend time with other people.

Compulsively daydreaming. You may feel the need to daydream. Some studies show that this need can be similar to an addiction. If you’re unable to daydream, you may feel upset.

Experts also found that maladaptive daydreaming and OCD symptoms worked together in a cycle. There may be a few reasons why they’re related, one of which being your serotonin levels. If experts can understand the tie between OCD and maladaptive daydreaming, they may be able to find better treatments for the behavior.

An attempt to stop or lessen the daydreams. Even if you try, it may be hard to daydream less or stop them completely.

Since maladaptive daydreaming isn’t an official condition, doctors have no way of testing for it directly.

But doctors can look for signs of maladaptive daydreaming with questionnaires and other tools they use for ADHD, OCDA, anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders.

There’s also something called the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale-16 (MDS-16). This is a set of questions that can show if you’re likely to have the behavior or not.

There’s also no standard treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. But doctors have found that they can use other treatments for similar conditions to help maladaptive daydreaming.

Your doctor will usually first suggest mental health therapy, or psychotherapy. People with OCD, anxiety, depression, or dissociative disorders may get cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of therapy can also help if you have maladaptive daydreaming. CBT will teach you why you do it and how you can manage it.

Your doctor may also want to treat related conditions, like ADHD. Doing so can help with both that condition and your maladaptive daydreaming.

But each case of maladaptive daydreaming is different. You’ll want to talk to your doctor to decide on a treatment that’s right for you and your symptoms. They’ll review your medical history, related conditions, and other factors to create a treatment plan that’s best for you.