The Differences Between Mind Wandering and Maladaptive Daydreaming
When discussing maladaptive daydreaming, it’s important to use reasonably explicit definitions that don’t cast too long of a shadow. The reason being that many things that share similarities to maladaptive daydreaming – such as mind wandering or regular daydreaming – are perfectly adaptive.
Indeed, if you were to never let your mind wander then you would have to reside in either one of two states: perfect awareness, in which your mind is empty, or perfect focus on whatever thing you’re currently doing.
However, at the same time it’s important to keep in mind that maladaptive daydreaming isn’t something that spontaneously occurs. Rather, it’s something that creeps up on you, which is why many will engage in it for months or years without realizing that they’re engaging in it.
And the way that maladaptive daydreaming creeps up on you in through either having an excessively wandering mind or engaging in excessive levels of daydreaming.
The Distinction Between Mind Wandering and Daydreaming
There’s no strict distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming. Instead, you can think of them as both operating on a continuum that also contains maladaptive daydreaming.
The way that I would think about it is that mind wandering is shallower and less intensive than any form of daydreaming. It’s something you naturally fall into but can shake off relatively easily (partly because the level of depth or abstraction of what you’re thinking about is significantly less than when you’re daydreaming).
Perhaps an example can illustrate this best. It’s perfectly normal for someone driving to have their mind wander – maybe thinking about what they’re going to eat next, what they’ll be doing a few years down the road, or about some show they just watched.
While it’s certainly best to always keep solely focused on the road when driving, let’s be honest: everyone allows their mind to wander while driving. However, the reason why people who let their mind wander (again, this is almost everyone!) aren’t constantly getting into accidents is that this is a very shallow form of distraction.
If someone hits the brakes in front of you, your mind will refocus on the real world and also brake your vehicle to avoid an accident from occurring. Or, alternatively, you may let your mind wander significantly while out on the highway, but once you hit the downtown of a city begin to focus more clearly.
With adaptive (normal) daydreaming, it takes a little bit more effort to be “shaken” from the level of thinking you’re engaged in. For example, if you’re engaged in adaptive daydreaming about some romantic partner, or new career move, and someone calls you it may take you a few rings before it really registers that your phone is ringing. In other words, you’re a little bit absorbed in a daydream than you are when you just let your mind wander.
With maladaptive daydreaming, we’re just ratcheting up how intensive and engrossing your level of thinking is. This is why one of the things I always recommend for those looking to stop maladaptive daydreaming is to try to catch yourself before you really get engrossed in a daydream, because once you’re in it’s often hard to even realize.
Note: If you're curious if you may have maladaptive daydreaming, you can take the maladaptive daydreaming test.
Is Having an Excessively Wandering Mind a Bad Thing?
Many get concerned that having an excessively wandering mind makes them liable to start engaging in maladaptive daydreams. While this could certainly be the case, there are those who having a very wandering mind that never develop maladaptive daydreams.
The reason being that someone who has an excessively wandering mind may just be someone that is prone to distraction or that has some other clinical issue – such as ADHD – where one of the manifestations is being easily distracted by their internal thoughts.
Because of this, it’s important to ask yourself if you feel like you have an inability to focus. One of the ironies of those who have engaged in maladaptive daydreaming for years is that they actually tend to develop quite good abilities to focus.
This is a bit of a coping response as those with MDD know that they’re going to be engaged in a dream state for a certain number of hours a day, so when they aren’t they really need to focus if they want to get anything productive done.
So, if you’re feeling let you have a real inability to focus and are constantly having your mind wander, you may want to try to develop a deeper level of focus. This is easier said than done, but trying to do two or three minutes of mindfulness, removing distractions like phone from where you’re trying to work, etc. are all tried and true methods for trying to build back the focus muscle.
How to Stop a Wandering Mind
Something that I’ve always tried to emphasize when discussing how to stop maladaptive daydreaming is that daydreams are perfectly adaptive. Being able to daydream about a new career, a new romantic partner, how you’ll resolve an inter-personal conflict, etc. are all things that help you in the real world.
Likewise, there’s nothing per se wrong with having a wandering mind. No one can be focused all the time, and when your mind wanders that can often lead to creative insight or give your brain the mental break it needs to continue being productive thereafter.
For example, if you’re writing a paper – whether for school or work – your mind wandering could provide you a temporary little break, or could even lead to you coming up with an idea for a difference angle you can take with the paper.
However, just as daydreaming can become excessive and begin interfering with your life, the same is true for mind wandering.
The good news is that solving excessive mind wandering isn’t nearly as difficult as solving maladaptive daydreaming. This is because, as I mentioned before, it’s not as deeply rooted of a phenomenon (e.g., you don’t get so engrossed, and they aren’t usually a coping mechanism).
There are two great techniques for helping to stop excessive mind wandering, while also not being too hard on yourself.
The first technique involves carrying around a piece of paper with you wherever you go. Whenever you find your mind wandering, put a little note of what you were doing prior to your mind wandering, why you think your mind has wandered (e.g., to distract yourself from something you have to do), and how long your mind wandered for.
Just writing this down can help you begin to understand how often your mind wanders and why it occurs. While this can seem remarkably simple, it’s often the case that seeing tangible evidence of your mind wandering tends to focus you more in the present and reduce the allure of having your mind wander so frequently.
The second technique involves mindfulness. All this involves is developing a simple routine: whenever you feel your mind wandering, take a few deep breaths, try to focus your mind on nothing at all, and then resume what you were doing previously. Over time this tends to have the effect of making your mind wandering less appealing, as you’re always making a subtle intervention and never letting it run its full course.
In the end, letting your mind wander is a perfectly adaptive thing to do and it’s something that everyone engages in. But there is always the ability for a wandering mind to do so a bit too frequently, so hopefully the above techniques will help you ensure that it doesn’t happen too often.
How often or not you should allow your mind to wander is an entirely subjective call. I would say that you should only worry about a wandering mind insofar as you think it’s actively harming your real life (e.g., causing an inability to concentrate, interfering with school or work, etc.). This is similar to my definition of what distinguishes maladaptive daydreaming from adaptive daydreaming – it’s all about how much you feel it’s interfering in your real life.
As always, I hope this has been helpful and I wish you the very best moving forward.