Why you can’t daydream when you need it most

Many of us, regardless of whether we’re immersive or maladaptive daydreamers, use daydreaming as a way to escape from painful emotions. When we feel overwhelmed, we check out of real life in favour of our daydream world, where everything is perfect and under our control. And used in moderation, this is no bad thing. Daydreaming can help pull us out of unhelpful spirals of worrying or rumination, take our minds off a problem we can do nothing about, or simply allow us to relax when life is throwing more at us than we can handle.

So why, then, does our daydreaming sometimes desert us when something really stressful happens? It’s not uncommon to find that when your stress levels hit maximum, when you really need to zone out and escape for a few minutes, you just can’t get into a daydream. Why does that happen? Why does your coping mechanism disappear when you need it most?

Daydreaming is basically a stress-management system. One of the reasons we daydream is to avoid feelings of stress and overwhelm. That can be helpful, for example when you use daydreaming to stop yourself worrying about something that’s out of your control. In maladaptive daydreaming disorder, this avoidance of stress can be damaging, for example when you repeatedly avoid taking action that would solve the problem you’re running away from. But however it shows up, the basic concept is the same: on some level we don’t want to experience the stress, and so we avoid it by mentally checking out of reality.

But before our mind can choose not to experience the stress, there’s a deeper condition that has to be satisfied. It has to be safe to not experience the stress. Our minds will always, subconsciously, prioritise our safety above all else. Our minds won’t let us mentally check out of a situation where we’re in danger. If there’s an imminent danger, we’re evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to it. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived long if they’d dropped into a daydream just as they were about to be attacked by a lion.

That ancestral programming is the basis of the fight-or-flight response. In the modern world, it can be triggered by all sorts of situations, in response to different kinds of threats – physical, emotional, psychological. And in some people, it can be triggered by situations that aren’t, objectively, particularly threatening. It’s how we perceive the situation that matters. The fight-or-flight response is controlled by the most primitive part of our brain. The logical, thinking part of the brain doesn’t get consulted. So, even if we know, logically, that a particular situation doesn’t pose an imminent threat to our safety, if our subconscious mind perceives a threat, we still go into fight-or-flight. And once we’re in fight-or-flight, that primitive part of our brain will decide it’s not a safe or appropriate time to daydream, and there’s absolutely nothing the rational part of our brain can do to overrule it.

This happened to me a few weeks ago during a family crisis. The logical part of my brain knew that the situation was completely out of my control and that working myself up into an anxious frenzy would do more harm than good. What I needed in that moment was a soothing daydream in a world where all is peace and harmony. But the primitive part of my brain had latched on to the idea that my child was in danger, and I was the mother bear who needed to protect her cub. The daydreaming wouldn’t come. I was trapped in reality, pacing around the room waiting for people to return my anxious phone calls.

After the crisis had passed and I knew my daughter was safe, I thought about the experience and what I could do differently next time. I wanted to be able to use the power of my daydreaming to cope better in times of crisis. But what I kept coming back to was this: there are times when we’re not meant to feel calm. There are times when we’re supposed to feel our emotions, intense and painful though they may be. Because those emotions are trying to protect us. Our minds are trying to protect us. And, yes, OK, it can seem as though they get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes our minds hold us in reality when there really isn’t any point. But isn’t it better that way than allowing us to mentally check out when it isn’t safe to do so? Isn’t it reassuring to think that there’s that part of our subconscious that never stops trying to keep us safe? That wants to love us and protect us even when we’re our own worst enemies. So, if your daydreaming disappears in a time of crisis, remember that maybe, just maybe, it’s because the safest thing to do in that moment is stay present.