Negative daydreams, part 2. Using DBT to create a calm alternative to distressing themes

Last week, I explored some possible reasons why we might daydream about things that upset us. Here, I’m going to look at how a technique from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can help us break out of a cycle of distressing daydreams. This technique, called “IMPROVE the moment”, is a crisis-management technique. That means it doesn’t address the underlying problem; it’s about helping you cope in the moment. So, this technique won’t help you stop or cut down on your daydreaming, and it won’t help you with the underlying cause of your negative daydreams. It’s helpful only when you’re stuck in a daydream that’s upsetting you, and you want to quickly break out of the distress.

IMPROVE is an acronym for imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, one-mindfully, vacation, and encouragement. In DBT, these themes can be applied broadly and usually separately. However, I’ve combined all of them in a single daydream scene, which I think of as my calm place. I go there whenever I’m stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, and within minutes I can lift myself into a more positive place.


Imagery (or directed daydreaming) is the foundation of making your calm place. You need to create somewhere in your mind where you feel safe and happy. You might have such a place already, either based on a real place or existing only in your imagination. It could be a forest, a beach at sunset, your fantasy home, the top of a mountain – anywhere that evokes calming and positive emotions in you. Fill in the details for each of your senses – what does this place look like? What sounds can you hear? What can you smell? What can you touch?


When you’re in your calm place, it’s easier to believe that everything happens for a reason. The Universe won’t send you a challenge you can’t handle. Your mind won’t take you to a dark place without good reason. When you’re stuck in a negative daydream, it’s easy to forget that your mind is acting in your own best interests. But from the peaceful perspective of your calm place, it’s sometimes easier to see why your daydreams have been challenging you to explore such difficult topics.


If you believe in a higher power, you might be more comfortable keeping prayer separate from daydreaming; but in the context of IMPROVE, prayer means surrendering your problems to something greater than yourself. You can do that in your daydreams by bringing in a character that is a teacher or mentor figure and asking them to help you through this difficult time. While you’re in your calm place, you don’t need to solve your problems on your own.


If you’ve been trapped in distressing daydreams for a while, you might have forgotten how relaxing daydreaming can be when you’re able to focus on a more positive theme. Your calm space should be deeply relaxing, a place where time seems to stand still, there are no demands, no expectations, and no need to hurry.


In DBT, doing something one-mindfully means focussing all your attention on what you’re doing; no multi-tasking. In the context of breaking out of negative daydreams, one-mindfully means staying focussed on your calm place. Don’t allow any elements of the negative daydream to creep into your mind. Stay in your calm place, ignoring all distractions, until you feel better.


You need to give yourself a break from your distressing daydream or your stressful reality. So in your calm place, take yourself completely away from anything that’s even remotely connected to the distressing daydream. And if your distressing daydream is rooted in current or past real-life problems, make sure your calm place isn’t connected to your real life either. This is one time you can give yourself permission to use your daydreaming as pure escapism. Leave all your problems behind for a while and take yourself to a happier place.


To help you regain a sense of perspective, remind yourself of all your good qualities and all the things that are going right (either in real life or in your daydream world). If this is difficult, you might invite one or two of your characters to join you in your calm place. You could ask a character who is a teacher or mentor (see Prayer, above) or a close friend. Someone who adores you and always sees you in your best light. Tell them you are struggling (without going into too much detail) and let them remind you of all the reasons why they love you.

In my case, bringing all of this together has involved creating a calm place of a beautiful woodland in late spring. My woodland is based on a real place where I have happy memories, but in my daydream I bring in extra elements – a trickling stream, butterflies flitting through the air, etc. Simply walking in that woodland for a few minutes brings in the imagery, relaxation, one-mindful and vacation parts of IMPROVE, and can often be enough to break a negative cycle of rumination and lift my mood. If I’m still feeling distressed, then I ask my daydream mentor to join me on my walk so that I can ask his advice. That brings in the aspects of meaning, prayer and encouragement. My mentor reassures me that whatever I’m struggling with is happening for a reason, and reminds me of how far I’ve already come. I always come away from our conversations with a renewed sense of optimism.

I hope that by breaking down the different aspects of IMPROVE, you will be able to build your own calm place that incorporates things that are special to you. Don’t try to add too much – you’re looking to build a scene that will give you quick relief from negative daydreams, not something that’s going to grow into your main plot and take you away from real life. But if you keep it to just a single scene, you’ll be able to return to it again and again whenever you need a quick burst of positive energy.