The Link Between Maladaptive Daydreaming and Stress

As I’ve written many times before, maladaptive daydreaming doesn’t arise out of nowhere in full bloom. Everyone’s maladaptive daydreams arise organically, and most often they arise in response to some kind of challenge in one’s life that maladaptive daydreaming helps one cope with – until those maladaptive daydreams become so disruptive to one’s real life that any benefit they engendered is more than offset by the harm done.

For many maladaptive daydreamers, their maladaptive daydreams become a kind of automatic stress response: whenever one feels a bit stressed they start to engage in maladaptive daydreams to rid themselves of the burden of having to “feel” that stress.

Sometimes, when there was no reason to be stressed in the first place, this works well as the cause for concern that initiated the stress doesn’t materialize. But often stress occurs for a real reason: there’s a deadline that really does need to be hit, a decision that really does need to be made, or an action that really does need to be taken. But, insofar as one pushes off their stress – and thus doesn’t meet the deadline, make the decision, or take the action – the stress will only be compounded and be larger at some time in the future.

I’ve frequently harped on the fact that it’s important to spend some time really digging into the content of one’s maladaptive daydreams and asking the painful question of why one is having these specific kinds of daydreams (something that is often surprisingly difficult to do). However, it’s also important to spend some time digging into why these maladaptive daydreams arise to begin with, and whether or not there’s a better way to deal with the thing (i.e., boredom, fatigue, stress, etc.) that triggers them.

Deconstructing The Stress Event

For those that have identified stress as a frequent cause of maladaptive daydreaming, a simple strategy to follow is to recognize when you’re starting to maladaptive daydream, ask yourself if this is in response to some stress you’re feeling, and then try to deconstruct that stress.

This is important because often stress is felt as an overwhelming feeling that is a bit unintelligible. So, when you’ve identified stress as the reason you’ve started to engage in maladaptive daydreams, take a few minutes to write down why you think you’re stressed, if this stress is reoccurring, and if this stress is controllable.

If the stress is controllable (i.e., there are steps you could take to reduce your stress through taking some kind of action) then one should create an action plan for overcoming the source of the stress with as many steps as possible. It’s important to try to create an action plan with as many steps as possible as it’ll lead to a sense of accomplishment with each step taken – even if, because of how many steps are involved, each step is a small one. Types of controllable stress would include studying for an exam, meeting a work deadline, having a difficult conversation that needs to happen with a friend, family member, or co-worker, etc.

If the stress is uncontrollable (i.e., there are no steps that could be taken that would lead to a stress reduction) then the solution isn’t sitting with your stress and letting it eat away at you: instead, one should simply try to engage in healthier diversions than maladaptive daydreaming. This could be reading a book, watching a show, or even playing a video game. Sure, none of these are overly “productive” in the classic sense of the word but they’re all less destructive (and probably less time-intensive) than maladaptive daydreaming itself.

Another way to say all of this is that your goal when stress is a trigger for maladaptive daydreaming shouldn’t be to somehow avoid the stress altogether: everyone feels stress, and sometimes there’s little one can do about the stress one is feeling! Rather, the aim should be to recognize that maladaptive daydreaming is an unhealthy way to deal with stress – similar to how alcohol is an unhealthy way to deal with stress – and thus one needs to find coping mechanisms that are healthier (or at least less destructive).

Turning Stress Into a Success

While it’s never fun to feel stress, it can be rewarding to deconstruct one’s stress and ride the wave of stress (as opposed to having the wave of stress crash over you or try to hide from the wave by engaging in something like maladaptive daydreaming). This is the point of the excellent book The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal, a research psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.

In the book she makes the point that when it comes to controllable types of stress, it’s imperative that one makes the effort to grapple with that stress and overcome it – not only because it helps ensure that stress doesn’t compound over time, but also because of the psychological benefits that come from successfully overcoming a stressful situation.

To this end, if you’ve created an action plan, taken steps to grapple with what’s causing stress, and successfully resolved the source of your stress it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to write down how you’re feeling afterwards (this can be a loose piece of paper, in your phone, or in your journal or diary). This is a way of embedding in your mind that not only are there healthier ways to deal with stress than maladaptive daydreaming, but that there are also more rewarding ways. (I’d recommend reading The Upside of Stress if you have the time as it can be a benefit to anyone regardless of if they have maladaptive daydreams or not.)


Stress is an unavoidable aspect of all of our lives. However, when stress becomes a trigger for maladaptive daydreaming – as it often does – then it can lead not only to an unhealthy level of maladaptive daydreaming but can also cause your stress to multiply (either because you aren’t dealing with controllable stress, or because you become stressed out about the negative impact of your maladaptive daydreams on top of the other stress you’re dealing with).

As a result, whenever you feel yourself slipping into maladaptive daydreaming and realize that stress is the rationale for retreating into these daydreams it’s important to take time to deconstruct that stress, either create an action plan or engage in healthier forms of diversion, and when the stress has passed write down some quick notes. Because while stress is an unavoidable part of life, maladaptive daydreaming is (if you aren't sure if what you're experiencing is maladaptive daydreaming, then you might find it helpful to take the maladaptive daydreaming test to see if those questions resonate with you).

As always, I wish you the best of luck in your journey.

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