You pour yourself some tea, put on your favorite jams on Spotify — and before you know it, you've spent an hour fantasizing about taking an antiquing trip with Kristen Stewart. Daydreaming is pretty natural, but how much is too much? If you've been drifting off constantly in quarantine, to the point where your to-do list has been completely not-done, you could be spending a little too much time in your fictional universe. It's a phenomenon called maladaptive daydreaming, and it can really disrupt your ability to function day to day.
"Everyone daydreams — it’s healthy!" Rachel Hoffman, LCSW, Ph.D., head of therapy at mental healthcare platform Real, tells Bustle. But maladaptive daydreaming takes the flights of fancy to another level. "Maladaptive daydreaming can be addictive and a compulsion," Hoffman says.
On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #maladaptivedaydreaming have over 12 million views, thanks to people exploring the topic during the pandemic. Acting out scenes in your bedroom, concocting an intense storyline set in the Marvel universe while brewing tea — it's all fair game. And there's research to show the phenomenon isn't isolated to TikTok: A study of patients in 70 countries published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in November found that COVID-19, with its unique (and awful) combination of social isolation and stress, has increased maladaptive daydreaming everywhere.
So you spend a lot of time in your imaginary world — what's the problem? "As a therapist, I define something to be a disorder when it interferes with your ability to function," Hoffman says. Maladaptive daydreaming isn't a currently recognized diagnosable condition (though some researchers are lobbying for it), so there's no checklist to determine how much is too much. But if your imaginary escape has started to cause you real-life issues, that could be a warning sign.
"It is important to have fantasies and 'zoning out' can be a coping tool to reduce stress and anxiety," Hoffman says. A lunch-break dream involving your favorite TV characters: A-OK. "However, healthy daydreaming is within your control. You can easily move in and out, focusing when you need to at the task at hand." Maladaptive daydreams, in contrast, take up big swathes of your day, and you might find them very hard to leave, or get upset or angry if forced to cut them off early. Hoffman also says you could notice you're replacing human interaction with daydreams, or can't focus on your work any more. After an extended bout of daydreaming, you may feel more detached from reality, or feel guilty and annoyed, according to Frontiers.
Nobody knows why maladaptive daydreams develop, Hoffman says. But she points to the fact that it tends to happen more often in people who have anxiety, depression, ADHD, or OCD. A study of 39 people who had "daydreaming disorder," another name for the condition, in Journal of nervous and mental disease in 2017 found that nearly 75% of them met the criteria for three additional psychiatric diagnoses. A 2020 study in Psychiatric Research & Clinical Practice found that people with ADHD were most likely to experience maladaptive daydreaming, followed by those with anxiety and depression. There's also evidence, from a study in Psychiatry Research in 2020, that people who daydream excessively don't score well on tests of emotional regulation — that is, how well they can control their own emotions.
Fantasies can be a safe haven during rough times, but hours inside your own head might end up doing more harm than good. Even if that epic adventure with all the members of BTS is nearly perfected, it could be worth talking to a therapist or a mental health professional about how to daydream in ways that accentuate your life, rather than taking it over.
Rachel Hoffman LCSW Ph.D.
Greene, T., West, M., & Somer, E. (2020). Maladaptive daydreaming and emotional regulation difficulties: A network analysis. Psychiatry research, 285, 112799. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.112799
Ross, C.A., Ridgway, J., George, N. (2020) Maladaptive Daydreaming, Disassociation, and the Dissociative Disorders. Psychiatric Research & Clinical Practice. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.prcp.20190050
Somer, E., Abu-Rayya, H. M., Schimmenti, A., Metin, B., Brenner, R., Ferrante, E., Göçmen, B., & Marino, A. (2020). Heightened Levels of Maladaptive Daydreaming Are Associated With COVID-19 Lockdown, Pre-existing Psychiatric Diagnoses, and Intensified Psychological Dysfunctions: A Multi-country Study. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 587455. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.587455
Somer, E., Soffer-Dudek, N., & Ross, C. A. (2017). The Comorbidity of Daydreaming Disorder (Maladaptive Daydreaming). The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 205(7), 525–530. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0000000000000685