Excessive Daydreaming vs. Maladaptive Daydreaming: The DifferencesLast Updated:
Part of the reason why maladaptive daydreaming hasn’t been added to the DSM, despite a significant push to do so in recent years, stems from the fine line that exists between excessive daydreaming (i.e., daydreaming slightly too much, which is irksome) and maladaptive daydreaming (i.e., daydreaming far too much, which is actively disruptive to your life).
The reality is that psychiatrists and psychologists are very reticent to create new labels for things, such as daydreaming, that have some adaptive qualities (especially if there’s no external test that is widely approved of).
And it’s certainly the case that daydreaming, even to an excessive degree, can be an adaptive activity that can be helpful in navigating life. For example, if you’re daydreaming for significant periods of time about what major to choose in college, or what job you should take among several options, that’s perfectly adaptive: you’re just trying to envision what your future life could look like without having actually lived it.
This is why I’ve always stressed that when one combats their maladaptive daydreaming, they shouldn’t have the long-term goal of having no daydreams, but rather should try to get back to a place in which they have moderate adaptive daydreams.
In this post we’ll be breaking down what delineates maladaptive daydreaming from the much more innocuous excessive daydreaming. This will largely draw on the same themes as in the maladaptive daydreaming test, so if you haven’t already taken it then it may be worth your time to go through it.
Excessive Daydreaming Isn’t (Normally) Abstract
For many maladaptive daydreamers, they begin to feel something is awry once they realize that their daydreams are becoming more and more abstract. For example, they may find that as the amount of time they spend daydreaming has increased, they’ve also begun to involve main characters that are increasingly unrelated to their real life (e.g., look different, have different interests, are at different stages in life, etc.).
For those who are merely having excessive daydreams, their daydreams tend to still involve themselves as the main character. And, as discussed above, it’s perfectly normal and adaptive for a person – especially during an uncertain period of their life – to begin having more daydreams than they normally do as they try to work out various real-life situations.
So, for example, if you have multiple job offers and need to decide between them, then it’s not abnormal or wrong in any way to think about how life would potentially look like if you were to go down one of these divergent paths. In fact, this would be a perfectly adaptive thing to do, as daydreaming can help you think more abstractly and creatively about how your real life could change by choosing among a series of different options.
Excessive Daydreaming Doesn’t Involve Identical Daydreams
Another common attribute of maladaptive daydreams is that they involve going through the same script over and over again – much like a song kept on repeat.
This is one of the tell-tale signs that separates excessive daydreaming from maladaptive daydreaming. With excessive daydreaming, you’ll normally have daydreams that cover the same themes but will be quite differentiated. But, with serious cases of maladaptive daydreaming, the nearly identical script may be played out over the course of weeks or even months.
For example, it’s not uncommon for a maladaptive daydreamer to have a few different stories, none of them overly related to their real life, that they revisit over and over again for months. Then, after a break for some period of time, they may revise these stories again with some slight alterations along the way.
Excessive Daydreaming Isn’t Disruptive to Your Real Life
Perhaps the largest difference between excessive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming is that with excessive daydreaming you generally have the ability to turn the daydreams easily and effortlessly off when you need to. So, if you’re in a meeting or out with a group of friends you can easily depart your daydream without thinking twice about it.
However, for maladaptive daydreamers this is often a bit more difficult. It’ll sometimes be the case that maladaptive daydreamers will actively delay doing something, or be late for an obligation, as they finish up their daydream – even though they know they shouldn’t.
This is something that varies significantly between maladaptive daydreamers. But, as I’ve written many times before, what tends to really separate out someone who merely engages in too much daydreaming and someone who engages in maladaptive daydreaming is how much one’s daydreaming actively disrupts their life.
If you’re able to stop daydreaming whenever you need to, then it per se can’t be too disruptive to your life and is perhaps just excessive daydreaming.
Excessive Daydreaming Comes in Waves
With excessive daydreaming, it’ll tend to come in waves and not be linear (or increasing) over the course of months. Practically, this means that you may go through a few periods a year in which you seem to be spending a lot of time daydreaming, but for other periods you’ll do a more regular amount (e.g., an hour or so before bed or while you’re doing some chores around the house).
However, for maladaptive daydreamers they’ll tend to not have any kind of respite to their maladaptive daydreams (except for maybe a day or two if they’re particularly busy in their real life). For these folks, their daydreams will be a constant part of their life and, usually, will take up an increasingly large amount of their time.
Therefore, a question to ask yourself is how long you’ve noticed your elevated levels of daydreaming and whether or not it has come and gone. Alternatively, another question to ask yourself is if they’ve been increasing over a prolonged period of time (e.g., months) in a reasonably linear fashion.
Excessive Daydreaming Turning Into Maladaptive Daydreaming
The reality is that no one begins spontaneously maladaptive daydreaming one day. Instead, it’s a gradual process that folks don’t even quite realize is happening. Then one day they recognize that they spend an awful lot of time daydreaming, search around the internet a bit, and realize what they may be doing is maladaptive daydreaming (something that millions of others have done at some point in their life).
For almost all maladaptive daydreamers, they’ll start with something that looks like excessive daydreaming (e.g., long daydreams involving some real-life situation) that slowly morph over time until they become longer, more persistent, harder to stop, and increasingly disruptive to their life.
The good news is that one of the best ways to proactively stop maladaptive daydreaming before it becomes too disruptive to your real life is by simply having an understanding of what it is (since most metaphorically sleepwalk into their maladaptive daydreaming and spend months or years doing it before realizing that they are!).
So even if you think you fall on the excessive daydreaming side of the spectrum – not the maladaptive daydreaming side of the spectrum – it’s still a great idea to know what delineates the two and to be on the lookout for signs that you’re perhaps traversing the boundary into the world of maladaptive daydreaming.
In the end, there is a fine line between excessive and maladaptive daydreaming. However, there are some key factors that separate the two as we’ve discussed above. If you’re concerned about how much you’re daydreaming then this site is full of tips and tricks for moderating your daydreaming to more normalized levels (including, of course, the book that I wrote!).
I’ve increasingly come to the view that excessive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming are simply the (negative) side effects of having a creative personality type. But while spinning up worlds of your own that are engaging and entertaining to you is indicative of a creative mind, it’s also one that can preclude your ability to use your creativity in the “real” world.
So hopefully you’ve found this post helpful and, as mentioned earlier, if you haven’t taken the maladaptive daydreaming test yet then be sure to do so. At a minimum, it’ll be a thought-provoking exercise even if you’re quite certain you’re just experiencing excessive, as opposed to maladaptive, daydreams.