When daydreaming becomes addictive and maladaptive, it’s usually an unhealthy coping mechanism. But using daydreaming to cope with something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unhealthy. So where’s the line between a healthy coping mechanism and an unhealthy one?
Briefly stated, a healthy coping mechanism at least partially solves the problem you’re coping with. Whereas an unhealthy coping mechanism lets you run away from the problem and does nothing to solve it. Since daydreaming doesn’t change anything in the real world, it’s easy to assume it’s always an unhealthy coping mechanism.
But sometimes the thing we’re running away from isn’t something tangible, physical and measurable. Often the problem isn’t a real-world event but rather the uncomfortable emotions that arise from it. And although we shouldn’t ignore or numb-out our emotions, there are times when a bit of carefully controlled daydreaming can be helpful.
So when could daydreaming be considered a healthy coping mechanism?
When it gives you and others time to calm down
If you’ve just had an argument with someone, you might want to resolve the issue immediately. But trying to make peace while emotions are still running high often makes things worse. You, or the other person, might need to take a break and return to the situation when you’re feeling calmer. Non-daydreamers might go for a walk to clear their head. But if it’s repeating and intrusive thoughts about the situation that you need to step back from, daydreaming can mentally take you somewhere else until the emotional intensity subsides.
When it gives you a safe space to process an emotion
Some emotions aren’t safe or acceptable in certain situations. If you’re angry because your boss was mean to you, punching them in the face will only make things worse. Expressing your anger in that situation isn’t helpful. But that doesn’t mean the anger isn’t there or that it isn’t justified. And that means you need a way to diffuse the anger safely. Daydreaming a scene where you feel anger and act on it can be one way of doing that. You don’t have to daydream about the thing that upset you. You can visit any scene in your plot where your character feels the emotion you need to deal with.
When it provides love or reassurance you’re not getting elsewhere
If something made you feel left out or rejected, you might wonder whether other people like you as much as you thought they did. In that situation, having someone tell you that they love you unconditionally, that you’re a good person, and that you add value to the world, can be very reassuring – even if the person telling you all that is a figment of your imagination. Our characters are real to us. Tapping into the deep emotional connection we have with them can be a powerful antidote to real-world negativity.
When it’s a problem-solving tool
If you’re in a complicated, messy situation that you can’t see an easy way out of, daydreaming can give you a different perspective. Talking to your characters about your real-world problems can help you see a situation more objectively. It often surprises me that my characters can come up with ideas I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
You can probably think of other examples where your daydreaming has helped you cope with something in a healthy way. It’s about balance. Daydreaming for a little while to allow you to calm down or process something or get a sense of perspective or find a solution can be beneficial. Getting lost in a daydream for hours and then feeling guilty about it isn’t. In healthy immersive daydreaming, you’re in control. You can choose to daydream, and you can choose when to stop.
If you’re using daydreaming as a healthy coping mechanism, you should leave your daydream world feeling better than when you went into it. You should return to reality feeling ready, excited and motivated to tackle the problem you’re facing. If you return to reality and immediately feel terrible because the problem feels more insurmountable than ever, that’s a sign your daydreaming was an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Maladaptive daydreaming is usually an unhealthy coping mechanism. When it doesn’t help us feel better and doesn’t help us solve the problem, coming back to reality is painful and we escape into fantasy over and over and over again. But that doesn’t mean that using daydreaming as a coping mechanism is always bad. Immersive daydreaming can be a healthy coping mechanism. Instead of being a way to avoid your problems, it can be a tool you use to strategically manage them.