When stress becomes a habit – and your daydreams just stress you more

Many of us began daydreaming to escape from something stressful that was going on in our lives. Daydreaming helped us get away from the stressful situation, but it did nothing to solve the problem; the stress was still there every time we returned to reality. Depending on how old we were at the time, and what other options we had, escaping into a daydream may have been the best we could do. Some situations are outside our control, and we just have to cope with them as best we can. So, we spend as much time as possible in the daydream world while waiting for the stressful situation to pass.

But some stressful situations don’t go away, whether that’s because we aren’t acting to fix them or because they’re completely outside our control. But over time, if the stressful situation persists, our brain chemistry adapts to it. After a while, we find we need the stress to feel alive. It is only when we are under stress that we feel alert, motivated, energised. We forget how to feel calm. When we get a rare opportunity to relax, we find we’re no longer comfortable with that feeling. It feels strange; we get fidgety, restless and have an urge to go in search of our next adrenaline fix.

But chronic stress isn’t good for us. Living constantly in a high state of stress wears us out, leading to feelings of irritability, lethargy, exhaustion and eventually burnout. As our energy levels drop, we subconsciously seek out ever greater levels of stress in an attempt to ignite some action or motivation. And when the stressful situation we’ve been living with either resolves, or is simply no longer stressful enough to energise us, there’s a risk that we’ll turn to our daydreams to get the stress we are craving.

If you’re constantly daydreaming high-stress scenarios – if your plot lines revolve around suffering (your own or someone you care about), or you plunge your characters into increasingly desperate and high-risk situations without following those through to a triumphant conclusion – then it’s possible that you’re subconsciously trying to push yourself into a highly emotional state so that your body will release the stress chemicals that make you feel alive. What we daydream about affects us physically. Our daydreams help to determine our emotional state, our emotions control what chemicals our body releases, and the balance of those chemicals over the long-term can have profound effects on our health. Keeping ourselves in a state of constant stress isn’t healthy.

If you often find yourself daydreaming scenes that upset you and you don’t know why, consider whether you’ve got so used to feeling those negative emotions that it now feels uncomfortable not to have them. When something goes well, does it make you feel slightly anxious, as if this isn’t how things are supposed to be? Sometimes people interpret that feeling to mean that they aren’t worthy of good feelings and experiences, that they don’t deserve to be happy. But this isn’t about what you do or don’t deserve. It’s just about what you’ve got used to – perhaps because of a situation that was outside your control.

If you’ve got sucked into a downward spiral of negativity, and if your daydreams are now fuelling your misery rather than helping you to escape from it, then you might need to talk to a counsellor or therapist to help you break the cycle. Trying to drag yourself out of that downward spiral on your own is incredibly hard, and if you’re exhausted and burnt out, you probably don’t feel like making the effort. But there are people who can help. Even if you can’t afford therapy, there are mental health charities that offer advice and support at low or no cost. And you don’t necessarily need to find someone who understands maladaptive daydreaming. It might feel as though your disturbing daydreams are trapping you in a cycle of negative emotions, but it wasn’t the daydreams that got you into this state. The daydreams started out as a coping mechanism, but then your subconscious started using them as a resource to keep you stressed. Your subconscious thinks you need the stress to feel alive. But you don’t. If you can learn to feel comfortable with not being stressed, if you can rediscover the inner peace that is always within you, if you can find joy in feeling calm, then you’ll be able to refocus your daydreams onto more positive themes and return your daydream world to what it used to be – a place to escape, recharge, feel loved and be inspired.