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.
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.
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.