How to Finally Stop Maladaptive Daydreaming: Essential Tips and TricksLast Updated:
Maladaptive daydreaming occupies a unique space in the world of psychology and psychiatry. On the one hand, an increasing number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists are beginning to recognize that maladaptive daydreaming is a distinct phenomenon that should be actively addressed.
However, on the other hand, maladaptive daydreaming isn't yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). As a result, there is no standardized test for determining whether an individual has maladaptive daydreaming, and no specific treatment pathway that’s been developed.
Change is coming though. Over the past few years, a huge influx of academic researchers have begun conducting research on maladaptive daydreaming and many practitioners (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists) are advocating for the inclusion of maladaptive daydreaming into the next iteration of the DSM.
This is because despite the fact that maladaptive daydreaming isn’t yet included within the DSM, hundreds of thousands of individuals each month are searching online for resources on how to stop maladaptive daydreaming.
Indeed, if you’re familiar with my story then you know that a number of years ago I was in this position. I had always been someone more prone to daydreaming, but my daydreams had always been quite adaptive. For example, my daydreams would often involve me imagining what my life would be like if I took a series of potential future pathways (e.g., in college imagining my life as a doctor or lawyer).
However, after graduating college and landing in a high-prestige, high-stress, and time-intensive job my daydreams became increasingly divorced from my “real life” and became far more intrusive. Progressively over time I began to have these abstract daydreams that began to hoover up all of my free time. Eventually these daydreams began to negatively impact my real life -- causing me to drift into a state of daydreaming while I should have been focusing on other more important things.
So, I did what most young people do: I turned to the internet. After searching around, I stumbled across the term maladaptive daydreaming for the first time. Much to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one struggling with excessive daydreaming. Instead, it seemed to be something that an increasing number of people were searching for answers to.
But, much to my dismay, there were no real resources on what to do once you’ve identified that you have maladaptive daydreaming and what to do to stop them from occurring. So, I decided to experiment on myself and after quite a few failed strategies developed an approach to permanently riding myself of these maladaptive daydreams.
Initially, I just happily resumed my regular life while enjoying all the free time that getting rid of my maladaptive daydreams provided me with. However, I recognized that I really should share my experience and share what worked for me. So, that’s exactly what I did by creating this site and then writing my little book.
My experience with maladaptive daydreaming taught me two things. First, true maladaptive daydreams are very maladaptive, stripping you of your time and often negatively impacting your real life. Second, while stopping your maladaptive daydreams can seem like an incredibly difficult and daunting task, the strategies needed to actually get rid of them are surprisingly quick and effective.
So, let’s get started.
On This Page
Since this is a bit of a longer post, I’ve broken it down into a few distinct sections. You can use the links below to navigate it.
- What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?
- How Do You Know if You Have Maladaptive Daydreaming?
- Stopping Maladaptive Daydreaming by Writing About Them
- Stopping Maladaptive Daydreams Through Mindfulness
- Stopping Maladaptive Daydreams by Altering Them
- Stopping Maladaptive Daydreaming by Using a Rationalist Mindset
First, let’s start with a reasonable and pragmatic definition of what maladaptive daydreaming is, which is as follows:
Maladaptive daydreams are any daydreams that not only serve no useful purpose to furthering your life, but actively harm your “real” life by consuming increasing quantities of your time and energy.
What this definition does is accurately capture the critical distinction that separates adaptive daydreams – as most people have them – and maladaptive daydreams. Namely, that those who have maladaptive daydreams believe they are actively harming their lives.
So, for example, if your daydreams are actively interfering with your ability to focus, even when you really want to, and this is disrupting your academic or professional work, then the daydreams your experiencing are more likely to be maladaptive in nature.
As I discuss in the book, there are additional attributes that maladaptive daydreams often have that separate them from adaptive daydreams. For example, most of those who have engaged in maladaptive daydreams for a prolonged period of time will notice that they become increasingly abstract over time. Meaning that they often don’t involve you as the main character of the daydreams, or involve you in situations that you would never find yourself in.
However, it’s important to recognize that the type of maladaptive daydreams an individual has often correlates to why they are engaging in maladaptive daydreaming to begin with. So, those with the most abstract maladaptive daydreams tend to be those who have engaged in maladaptive daydreaming primarily as a form of escapism from a current life that they find entirely unsatisfactory or unbearable. But, of course, engaging in maladaptive daydreaming does nothing to remedy an unsatisfactory or unbearable life. In fact, it just robs you of the time you could use to pragmatically think of potential solutions to your real struggles.
Since maladaptive daydreaming isn’t yet included in the DSM, there’s currently no standardized test that an individual can take to understand whether their daydreams are maladaptive or not. Further, given the subjective nature of maladaptive daydreams it’s impossible for any test to objectively tell you whether or not your daydreams are maladaptive.
However, there are several tests out there that can help you better understand the nature of your daydreams and whether they are more or less likely to be maladaptive. Just answering these test questions can be incredibly thought provoking and perhaps make you realize that what your experiencing isn’t quite as unique as you had initially thought.
The first is a maladaptive daydreaming test that I personally developed and have recorded the results of hundreds of those who have taken it. This has allowed people to better understand how their results correspond to others that believe they have maladaptive daydreams as well. The test involves just ten assertions that you answer from zero to ten based on how much you agree or disagree with the assertion.
The second is a maladaptive daydreaming test called, “The 16-Point Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale” or MDS-16. This was developed in 2017 by a group of researchers – Somer, Soffer-Dudek, Ross, and Halpern – and was published as part of a larger academic article in a prominent academic journal. In case you’d like to reach the entire academic article, it’s titled, “Maladaptive Daydreaming: Proposed Diagnostic Criteria and Their Assessment with a Structural Clinical Interview”.
For your convenience, I’ve published both maladaptive daydreaming tests so you can work through them whenever you’d like to.
One of the central ironies of maladaptive daydreaming is that while people will spend hours each day engaged in them, they’re very reluctant to ever write down what’s going through their own head (even if they don’t show what they’ve written down to everyone).
This is all for good reason. For most people, including myself, just writing down what my maladaptive daydreams were was an incredibly embarrassing thing to do. Even though I had no intention of ever sharing what I had written down with anyone else.
However, committing pen to paper and writing down your maladaptive daydreams – without omitting any details – can have an incredibly alleviating effect. Almost like the very act of doing so lifts a veil that was hanging over you.
While it’s hard to say why this is the case, it’s likely due to you taking your daydreams from the comfort and complete security of your internal world to the external world. This allows you to assess more objectively – almost as if you’re a third-party – what’s going through your own head. This is also likely why people find writing down their own daydreams, even if they aren’t going to show anyone what they’ve written, to be such an embarrassing thing to do.
Indeed, after realizing how powerful the act of writing was, I developed a set of questions that I forced myself to answer. I took my time thinking through each question and writing as much as I could for an answer. But, importantly, I didn’t show these answers to anyone and threw them away immediately.
However, just answering these questions seemed to heavily diminish the appeal of engaging my maladaptive daydreaming. I quickly found myself not really finding my prior maladaptive daydreams – that were like a carefully honed script I had developed over months – simply were no longer wroth rerunning again.
Some of these questions that you can try to answer for yourself are as follows:
- How abstract or different is the main character in your maladaptive daydream from yourself?
- Think back to when your maladaptive daydreams began, if you can. Was this a time of acute stress or trauma?
- When you think about your maladaptive daydreams, do you feel embarrassed or ashamed? If so, why do you think you feel that way?
Note: The entire list of seventeen questions that I developed are contained in the book, Solving Maladaptive Daydreaming, as part of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Survey.
One of the difficulties of trying to stop maladaptive daydreams is that you can easily slip into them and spend a few hours daydreaming almost without realizing it.
So, one of the most important skills you can develop is quickly catching yourself falling into a maladaptive daydream and then trying to distract yourself for a few minutes until the urge passes you.
This is easier said than done and takes a bit of practice to do initially. However, after a few days you’ll get the hang of it.
Many people get caught up in trying to figure out something productive to replace maladaptive daydreaming with as they’re trying to quit. For example, they’ll try to pick up a textbook and begin reading it whenever they feel themselves drifting into a maladaptive daydream.
However, this is a hard strategy to stick to and is not something I’d recommend. The reality is that if your maladaptive daydreams are really disrupting your life, then you shouldn’t feel guilty by temporarily replacing them with something else even if it’s not the most productive thing in the world.
With that said, whatever you’re doing must be something that actively engages your mind. So, for example, if you notice you’re drifting into a maladaptive daydream you shouldn’t then start listening to music (as most people find music prompts them to enter into maladaptive daydreams further). Instead, you should do a puzzle, read the news, start playing a little game, etc. Anything that actively engages your brain so that the very idea of entering into a maladaptive daydream begins to pass.
Note: An effective tool for some is doing a mindfulness meditation as soon as you recognize you’re drifting into a maladaptive daydream. However, for some this holds no appeal, and the most important part of this trick is to make sure you’re replacing entering into a maladaptive daydream with something you find fun and temporarily distracting.
Note: You shouldn’t worry about replacing maladaptive daydreaming with a “bad” habit like playing a video game, as any bad habit can be replaced once you’ve overcome your maladaptive daydreams once and for all (since you no doubt find maladaptive daydreaming to a worse habit than playing a video game would be!).
While using “external” tactics to stop your maladaptive daydreams – such as writing about them or trying to stop them before they get going – are very effective, so too is using “internal” tactics like trying to use your ability to daydream to make your existing daydreams less enticing.
In fact, a large portion of the book is dedicated to walking through various tricks to make your maladaptive daydreams less appealing to you as you’re engaging in them (almost like you’re sabotaging your own daydreams).
The reality is that being able to create such elaborate daydreams – even if they’ve become maladaptive and are disrupting your life – is incredible and shows a level of creativity that many don’t have. So, it makes perfect sense to try to use your creative abilities to try to make your maladaptive daydreams less enticing.
For example, a common form of maladaptive daydreaming involves envisioning that you are quite famous in some capacity. But you can easily turn this around by using the “poisoning the well” tactic by putting the main character of your daydreams into positions that show the downfall of being famous and make the daydream itself less engaging.
Since all maladaptive daydreams involve some form of escapism, what you want to do is make it less alluring to venture from your “real” life into these daydreams. You want to try to ruin the storyline that you’ve so carefully crafted. Because when you do you’ll often find that the story no longer holds any appeal.
When overcoming my own maladaptive daydreams, I found it incredibly useful to always try to adopt a rationalist mindset. By this I mean always trying to think about why it could have been rational to begin maladaptive daydreaming (even though it can seem, from an outside perspective, like such an irrational thing to do).
What I’m firmly convinced of is that people always begin maladaptive daydreaming for a rational reason. The issue is that then their maladaptive daydreams – much like an invasive weed – then begin to grow and requires some tough measures to get rid of them.
Adopting a rationalist mindset can help you dig a layer deeper and think about the root cause of your maladaptive daydreams and show you what they were trying to protect you from. Further, adopting a rationalist mindset can show you that even though it’s worth getting rid of your maladaptive daydreaming now – because they’ve begun to disrupt your real life – it wasn’t a complete waste of time to have engaged in them (at least for a short period of time).
While this post is already too long to begin to fully delve into the rationalist mindset, one thing that many people do is beat themselves up over how much time they’ve “wasted” being engaged in maladaptive daydreaming.
By really engaging in quiet introspection and thinking about how it could have been rational to start engaging in elongated daydreams, it can provide yourself with a level of peace, acceptance, and forgiveness.
Stopping maladaptive daydreaming can seem like a daunting task. However, the reality is that by using a systematic approach – mixed in with a few tricks along the way – it can be done much more quickly than many expect.
This is particularly true of those who have reached the stage of being entirely fed up with their maladaptive daydreams, as those who want to stop their maladaptive daydreams the most often find it easiest to do so.
What’s important to recognize is that daydreaming in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, being able to create elaborate daydreams can be an incredible asset as it can allow you to explore potential avenues that your real life could take (without you needing to actually pursue them in the real world right away).
However, that all changes when your adaptive daydreaming begin to tip over into the more time-intensive, abstract, and distracting world of maladaptive daydreaming. So, what you want to do is try to cull your maladaptive daydreams and then slowly get back into adaptive daydreams that are relatively short, don’t interrupt your life, and always involve you as the main character.
As you begin the process of stopping your maladaptive daydreams you should do so with a cheerful, positive, and optimistic attitude. Treat it like a fun challenge to attempt to overcome, not as a large obstacle you must approach stoically. You should also always keep in the back of your mind that thousands of others before you from across the world have stopped their maladaptive daydreams. If they were able to, you no doubt can.
Hopefully this post and some of the strategies shared on how to stop maladaptive daydreaming have been helpful. It’s always hard to try to cram so much information into posts that don’t stretch too long. But hopefully I’ve struck the right balance, and no matter where you are in your journey with maladaptive daydreaming I wish you all the best as you (successfully) move forward.