Is daydreaming a mental illness?

When I first came across the term maladaptive daydreaming, the overwhelming emotion was one of relief. I wasn’t alone. Other people had stories bouncing around in their heads all the time too. I finally had a label to describe this thing I’d done all my life. And that meant I could research it, understand it, and make it work for me. Excitement and optimism quickly followed the initial relief.

But for some people, discovering the term maladaptive daydreaming confirms all their worst fears. Maladaptive daydreaming is, quite rightly, often described as a mental health disorder. It can steal years of your life. And it can also steal your motivation, your confidence and your sense of self. And that can be a scary prospect if you’d always thought of your daydreaming as a more-or-less harmless pastime.

When something you’ve always done – something that’s part of who you are – is described as a mental illness, it can be devastating. Because even if you’d never seen your daydreaming as a problem, when you see articles online warning of the dangers of maladaptive daydreaming, you’re going to start to doubt yourself. You see maladaptive daydreamers sharing stories of how they’ve wasted their lives and how they desperately wish they’d quit this habit years ago, and you wonder if that’s going to be you in years to come, looking back with regret at a life not fully lived.

But what’s missing from almost every article on maladaptive daydreaming is this: not all vivid narrative daydreaming is maladaptive daydreaming. Making up stories in your head is not necessarily maladaptive daydreaming. Talking to your imaginary friends is not necessarily maladaptive daydreaming. Feeling an emotional connection to fictional characters is not necessarily maladaptive daydreaming. Daydreaming intensely while pacing and listening to music is not necessarily maladaptive daydreaming. Those are all signs that you’re an immersive daydreamer.

I usually use the term immersive daydreaming to mean vivid narrative daydreaming that is not maladaptive daydreaming. But technically, that’s not quite right. Immersive daydreaming is the ability to make up stories, characters and worlds. It’s the ability to feel an emotional connection to something or someone that only exists in your head. Immersive daydreaming is returning to the same daydream over and over again, daydreaming for hours at a time, or daydreaming about things that have no connection to what’s going on in real life. It’s a specific style of daydreaming that comes very naturally to some people. And it’s very different from mind-wandering, which is what non-daydreamers usually mean when they talk about daydreaming.

All maladaptive daydreamers are immersive daydreamers. But not all immersive daydreamers are maladaptive daydreamers. Maladaptive daydreamers use their daydreaming in an unhealthy way. It’s not through choice, and it’s not their fault. But somewhere in their past or their present is something that maladaptive daydreamers find too stressful or painful to face. And so they escape from it by daydreaming. That’s why you’ll often hear that maladaptive daydreaming is linked to trauma. It’s an escape. And unfortunately, like most things we use to escape reality, it comes with a whole set of negative consequences.

But if you hadn’t thought your daydreaming was a problem until you heard about maladaptive daydreaming, there’s a good chance your daydreaming isn’t a problem. You’re probably an immersive daydreamer. It’s not “normal”, in the sense that most people’s brains don’t work that way. But it’s not a problem. And it’s not a mental illness.

Of course, this comes with one big caveat. Maladaptive daydreaming is a behavioural addiction. And with any addiction, there are addicts who are in denial about their problem. You do need to be honest with yourself about the effect your daydreaming is having on your life. If your daydreaming is getting in the way of your career success, or making it hard to maintain friendships, or if you prioritise daydreaming over things you know are more important, then it’s a problem – even if you enjoy it. But imagining something utterly unrealistic does not, by itself, make you mentally ill.

By definition, a mental illness causes distress or dysfunction. Maladaptive daydreaming often causes both. But healthy immersive daydreaming can be a fun way to fill those moments of the day when you’ve nothing better to do. It can be a creative way to solve problems. It can be a way to experience things that aren’t possible in real life. And immersive daydreaming can be deeply emotionally fulfilling. If you have control over your daydreaming and you can prioritise real life when you need to, you don’t have maladaptive daydreaming – regardless of what’s going on in your imagination.

If your first reaction on learning about maladaptive daydreaming was to panic, because you suddenly questioned whether you have a mental disorder, don’t worry. Yes, maladaptive daydreaming disorder is real. And it’s a serious problem for many people. But imagining fake scenarios doesn’t mean you have maladaptive daydreaming. You need to dig deeper before you start diagnosing yourself or questioning your sanity.

[Photo by Sharath G]