Top 5 Maladaptive Daydreaming Signs: What to Watch ForLast Updated:
Something that I’ve written many times before is that maladaptive daydreaming is an issue that creeps up on you. In fact, it’s often the case that you’ll have spent months, or even years, maladaptive daydreaming before you even realize that you’ve been doing it.
However, there are some tell-tale signs that point to when someone is engaged in maladaptive daydreaming even if they don’t realize it yet themselves. This can be particularly helpful for those who are trying to figure out if someone they know – whether that’s a partner, child, or friend – is engaging in maladaptive daydreaming without talking to them directly about it.
Note: If you yourself are wondering whether or not you may be engaging in maladaptive daydreaming, you can ask yourself whether or not you recognize the signs below or you can just take the maladaptive daydreaming test (there are a number of them, including one that I developed years ago that’s been used by thousands of people at this point).
Maladaptive Daydreaming Signs
Below are the top five maladaptive daydreaming signs. It’s not invariably the case that someone who exhibits one or two of these signs is engaged in maladaptive daydreaming. But if all five are applicable, then it’s likely the case that they’re engaged in some form of maladaptive daydreaming (or are perhaps just incredibly distractible!).
Perhaps the number one sign that someone is engaging in maladaptive daydreaming is that they begin to lose track of time. This could result in missing appointments, missing deadlines, or otherwise spending the day doing very little (even if they themselves don’t realize they’ve done very little).
Something that everyone who’s engaged in maladaptive daydreaming should do is begin to keep a diary of what they’re doing every fifteen minutes (similar to what a lawyer will do for billing purposes). The diary entries needn’t be overly lengthy. Rather, they just need to note down, in a word or two, what they’re doing (e.g., writing, doing an assignment, responding to emails, etc.).
The way that many maladaptive daydreamers – including those who have done it for years – realize that they’re engaged in maladaptive daydreaming is when they’re forced to keep track of their time and suddenly find out they can’t account for large chunks of the day. Because, as any maladaptive daydreamer can attest, once you begin engaging in maladaptive daydreams you suddenly lose track of time: what you thought was just a few minutes of daydreaming was really a few hours or more.
Another classic sign of a maladaptive daydreamer is that almost all their (free) waking hours begin to become consumed by their daydreams. If someone wakes up and immediately enters into one of their daydreams, then that’s a reasonably good sign that their daydreams are maladaptive (remember that a daydream is maladaptive if it takes up hours of one’s day and interferes with one’s real life).
It's hard, for obvious reasons, for a third party (e.g., a parent) to know what someone is thinking about when they awake. However, having someone who may be engaged in maladaptive daydreaming write down what they’re thinking of within the first few minutes of waking up will prove very helpful. This is also a great way for them to track their progress of getting rid of their maladaptive daydreams – because if they’re no longer daydreaming immediately upon waking, then they’re making progress!
It’s entirely normal to “daydream” as one falls asleep. In fact, it’s the way that many help themselves fall asleep. However, a sign that someone is engaged in maladaptive daydreaming is when their daydreams just prior to bed are the same as those that they wake up with. If this is the case, then it’s a sign that one is likely maladaptive daydreaming significantly through the day as well – even if they don’t realize it themselves.
This is why a difficult (but effective!) trick for stopping one’s maladaptive daydreaming involves trying to fully clear one’s mind before falling asleep. This can be done by trying to count sheep, focusing on one’s breath, or thinking about just one thing (e.g., a certain problem, in one’s real life, being grappled with). Because by not engaging in one’s maladaptive daydreams prior to bed, it helps lessen the likelihood that one begins entering their maladaptive daydreams upon waking.
Maladaptive daydreams are classically defined as being engrossing. However, most maladaptive daydreamers will also have their daydreams on in the background as they’re doing less intellectually intensive tasks (e.g., washing the dishes, watching something, etc.).
The fact that maladaptive daydreams can operate in the background, at a kind of low hum as you go about your life, can lead to an inability to focus when you need to. This is especially true when you’re passively consuming information as opposed to delivering it. So, for example, when you’re listening to someone or reading something.
So, if you recognize, either in yourself or others, a sudden inability to focus then it could be a sign that maladaptive daydreaming is playing a role.
Closely related to sign four is sign five: worsening memory. This is something that many maladaptive daydreamers don’t realize until after they’ve managed to quit, because suddenly they find their memory has significantly improved.
There are a number of potential factors for why maladaptive daydreaming significantly can lead to a worsening memory. But the main factor gets back to what was mentioned before: maladaptive daydreams can often seemingly operate in the “background” of your mind. Because of this, the daydreams tend to interfere with your ability to store information when you want to and to retrieve it when you need to.
For example, college students grappling with maladaptive daydreaming often report struggling because of an inability to focus, despite their best attempts, during class. This is an area that hasn’t had much peer-review research, but common sense would indicate that if one is absorbing information, but not pondering it afterwards because they enter back into their maladaptive daydreams immediately, that whatever information was initially absorbed will quickly get crowded out by their daydreams.
This is why many, when describing their maladaptive daydreams, describe them as crowding out everything else in their life despite their best attempts for it not to. This is likely what’s happening when it comes to memory: whatever information you’re trying to retain is being given an almost lower priority than your maladaptive daydreams. Almost like a computer running an intensive program in the background that makes browsing the web slower because its hogging up all the power.
Spotting the signs of maladaptive daydreaming is deceptively hard. However, there are most certainly tell-tale signs – some of which you can spot in someone and some of which require a bit of self-knowledge (e.g., if one wakes up and immediately enters into their maladaptive daydream).
With that said, knowing what these signs are is important for those trying to get over their own maladaptive daydreams. Because, as I’ve stressed in other posts, it’s important to always be vigilant that you aren’t inadvertently falling back into your daydreams without realizing it in the moment.
Further, it’s always important, no matter what habit you’re trying to quit, to see the positives of what you’re doing. So, if you’re currently trying to get over your maladaptive daydreams, it’s a great idea to ask yourself after a few weeks if you feel more clear-headed, have a greater ability to focus, and even if you have slightly increased memory (some even use little “brain game” apps on their phone to try to quantify any improvements in memory!).
As always, I’m wishing you all the very best in your journey and I hope this post has been helpful.