What Age Does Maladaptive Daydreaming Begin?Last Updated:
There’s a common misconception that maladaptive daydreaming invariably begins in one’s youth, and the only real question is if it persists into adulthood. It’s true that most maladaptive daydreamers are young (as you can see from the maladaptive daydreaming test and results). However, it’s not uncommon at all for individuals to first begin maladaptive daydreaming later in life – sometimes well past middle-age.
So, there’s no explicit age, or age range, that maladaptive daydreaming must begin by. And, if you’ve read the other posts here, that shouldn’t be too surprising: most believe that maladaptive daydreaming isn’t something that magically materializes from the ether, but rather that there’s always a reason why individuals begin maladaptive daydreaming.
While there are innumerable reasons why someone may turn to maladaptive daydreaming – usually without recognizing that they’re engaged in it – you can broadly think about the reasons for it starting as being in one of two buckets: organic outgrowth or triggered outgrowth.
The most common age range that people begin developing maladaptive daydreams is 13-21. For most of these people, their newfound maladaptive daydreams can be classified as being an "organic outgrowth”.
This means that their maladaptive daydreams are simply an extension of their regular daydreams – but taken to an extreme that has begun to impact their life in negative ways (i.e., diminishing their ability to focus, etc.).
The reason that this organic outgrowth occurs are numerous and vary depending on the person. But there are two primary reasons that are the likely culprits for most...>
First, without one realizing, daydreams can quickly become one’s preferred form of procrastination. No different than playing with your phone, playing video games, or otherwise engaging in activities as a means to distract one from doing what ought to be done. However, as mentioned above, if daydreams begin to become so time consuming as to interfere with your day-to-day life (i.e., procrastinating too much and missing deadlines) then that’s when they begin to tip into maladaptive daydreaming territory.
Second, without one realizing, maladaptive daydreams can become the primary way that many (especially the young) socialize. Needless to say, daydreaming about social situations isn’t maladaptive – in fact, it can be incredibly adaptive as it allows you to play out scenarios in a risk-free setting. The issue that many young people face, however, is that they begin to use maladaptive daydreams as their primary, or perhaps only, social outlet and these daydreams can become more and more divorced from one’s current social reality.
For those outside of the 13-21 age range, the way that maladaptive daydreams manifest through organic outgrowth tends to be through imaging what life could be like if one went down a different road – or perhaps what it would be like to be an entirely different person.
But, if taken too far, the pendulum can swing from adaptive to maladaptive. There are many cases of individuals who get wrapped up in daydreams of how their life could have unfolded that are impractical – itself something that is likely unhealthy to engage in, but doubly so if it begins to take up hours of your day.
In the end, most that develop maladaptive daydreams later in life through “organic outgrowth” are those who are using their maladaptive daydreams as a simulacrum of a life they believed they could have or should have lived. And, in this way, it precludes them from moving forward with their real life, even if the preceding events led them to a position that isn’t quite what they would have imagined or hoped for.
Put more plainly, these individuals live two distinct lives: the one in the real-world, that they’re unhappy with, and the one in their mind that is exactly to their liking. The issue becomes when one becomes satisfied, or at least apathetic to, their real-life circumstances because they can always retreat into their mind and the “better” life that they’ve constructed there.
With organic outgrowth, maladaptive daydreams are just a natural progression from one’s current (adaptive) daydreams. The line between the two is blurry, and the progression takes time before one realizes that their daydreams are perhaps actively interfering in their day-to-day life.
Triggered outgrowth, by contrast, is when a certain life event disrupts one’s life enough that they begin looking for some kind of crux or coping mechanism and turn to daydreaming – and, if those daydreams begin becoming excessive and disruptive to one’s life, they then can be classified as being maladaptive.
As you’d expect, maladaptive daydreams that were precipitated by some trigger tend to be more common in adults. Common triggers include job losses, sudden job dissatisfaction, breakups or divorce, along with many other large (negative) life events.
However, what these life events all have in common is that they require you to (sometimes radically) reorientate your perception of yourself. For example, if you were an engineer – or perhaps aspiring to be engineer – but suddenly find yourself out of a job and needing to take a new job outside of your area of specialty, that will cause you to need to radically change the story of your life (in other words, the story you tell yourself about who you are, what you do, what you hope to do in the future, etc.).
When faced with this, some use daydreams as a coping mechanism. Instead of confronting their changed circumstance, they retreat into daydreams so that they don’t have to think about the (unhappy) change to their real life.
Importantly, these maladaptive daydreams are usually those most divorced from one’s own life. With maladaptive daydreams that originate organically, one’s daydreams tend to still involve a recognizable version of you – they just begin to get so time consuming that they interfere with your real life.
However, with maladaptive daydreams that originate from a trigger, often the maladaptive daydreams that people begin developing, and then repeat over in their head, involve either themselves in wildly different life situations or involve engaging in daydreams that don’t even have themselves as a character at all.
Ironically, these maladaptive daydreams can persist for years without one recognizing why they’re engaged in them, or even that they really are engaged in them at all. This is why I’ve always stressed the importance of writing down one’s daydreams, even if you feel some resistance to doing so, as it can be a light-bulb moment where you finally realize that your daydreams are almost comically absurd. And this can help release some of the appeal of entering back into your maladaptive daydreams in the future.
As I’ve written before, one of the best first steps toward stopping your maladaptive daydreams is to turn the spotlight on yourself and begin doing a bit of reflection. This, ironically, can be incredibly difficult to do despite how much time you may spend in your maladaptive daydreams.
However, you know your maladaptive daydreams best, and simply writing them out (there’s no need to share them with anyone!) and trying to come up with a rational explanation for why you’re engaging in them can be incredibly cathartic and often manages to clear the fog that your maladaptive daydreams have foisted over you.
Hopefully this post has been helpful, and hopefully some aspect of it has resonated with you. But, if neither bucket really fits you, then don’t fret! Instead, treat it as your homework to try to figure out how your maladaptive daydreams originated.