On the surface, excessive daydreaming may not sound particularly serious – but, over time, it can have a destructive impact on people’s lives

Having a strong imagination is something that’s often admired. Being a creative person can make us better problem solvers and innovative thinkers, and can support social development. Daydreaming is a natural extension of our imaginations, and escaping into our minds can be the break so many of us need from the outside world. But is it possible for daydreaming to go too far?

What is maladaptive daydreaming?

Referring to when a person daydreams excessively, maladaptive daydreaming (MD) can have a negative effect on someone’s life. It’s a relatively new concept, coined by professor of clinical psychology Eli Somer in 2002, when he defined it as an “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning”.

MD may look different for each person, but individuals sometimes talk about maladaptive daydreaming like entering another world. They may have real emotional and even physical reactions to the things that happen in these daydreams, and the daydreams may vary or they may consistently enter the same scenes, sometimes over years. They may pick up where they left off, continuing the plot like a TV series, or return to something familiar time and time again.

In June 2023, in a case report published in The Primary Care Companion, a 27-year-old single man presented with a nine-year history of MD. He described the ‘stories’ as running continuously through his mind for most of the day. Typically, these stories centred on having a romantic relationship, but also were sometimes about mundane activities. To begin with, the ‘stories’ were enjoyable, but the frequency and intensity gradually increased so much that it hampered his occupational, social, and personal life. He went on to experience frequent dismissal from jobs due to his concentration, and he shared that these stories became clearer and more vivid while listening to music or watching television, and were not under his control.


The compulsive nature of MD is an important factor in its identification, as well as a devastating aspect. In fact, a 2018 study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, highlighted that maladaptive daydreaming shared many features with behavioural addiction. A 2020 study, published in the same journal, went on to find that MDers report a strong urge to daydream whenever they can, and annoyance whenever they cannot. They may also make repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop daydreaming, and negative emotions follow their daily daydreaming activity.

“Daydreaming is something that we all do, both as adults and as children, and is a very normal part of the human experience,” explains counselling psychotherapist Leah O’Shaughnessy. “It can be very positive and play a part in forward planning, envisioning a future for ourselves, going over a past experience to see how we could have done something differently, enhancing creativity or aiding problem-solving. But maladaptive daydreaming can be seen as negatively impacting a person’s life, as it can distract a person from everyday tasks and relationships, and it can also cause feelings of distress and/or guilt and shame.”

As it stands, maladaptive daydreaming is not recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, however, research into it is ongoing with many calling for its official recognition.

For now, the 16-item Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale is used for self-reported data used in MD research, and includes an 11-point scale across four domains, which are: ‘the strong, addictive urge to engage in daydreaming (yearning); daydreaming impairing functioning and interfering with long-term life goals or daily chores (impairment); physical movement associated with daydreaming such as accompanying facial expressions, mouthing the words, rocking, or pacing (kinesthesia); and music as a facilitator of the daydreaming (music)’. If someone were to score over 40, they would be considered to have suspected clinical-level MD.

Much more than being ‘a bit of a dreamer’, MD can have a debilitating effect on several areas of an individual’s life. They may find that their relationships suffer, that they have difficulty falling asleep, that their work may be impacted, and that they may struggle with feeling present in daily life.

“Daydreaming becomes a problem if it is highly distracting or if it involves negative or frightening thoughts or images, or if it induces feelings of guilt,” Leah says. “Healthy daydreaming is time-limited, and does not impact on a person’s ability to function in everyday life, while maladaptive daydreamers are not able to fully engage in daily activities – either social or professional. While daydreaming, they may experience an intense sense of immersion that includes visual, auditory, or affective properties, and they may have made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop daydreaming. It differs from normal daydreaming as instead of serving as a function to improve problem-solving and creativity, it becomes hard to control, and is addictive and dysfunctional in nature.”

There can be a tendency to go into ‘rescuer’ mode, and want to fix the other person, as it’s so painful to observe their hurt (4) copy.jpg

Who does MD affect?

Leah goes on to highlight that maladaptive daydreaming tends to affect people who have experienced aversive early life experiences, and coped with this by escaping reality into a dissociative fantasy life of daydreams. A study in Frontiers in Psychiatry also found that it tends to impact young people more than adults.

Beyond that, research from the past decade has consistently found links between MD and ADHD, with a study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease finding that around 20% of those with ADHD experience MD – with 77% of people with MD also having a diagnosis of ADHD. The same study, which examined the comorbidity profile of individuals meeting the criteria for MD, also saw that 71.8% met the criteria for anxiety disorder, 66.7% for a depressive disorder, and 53.9% for OCD or related disorder. Additionally, 28.2% had attempted suicide.

But while these are impactful figures, sample sizes for such studies are still relatively small, and Leah urges caution around jumping to conclusions.

“Some research seems to indicate that those who experience maladaptive daydreaming are also more likely to have suffered with depression or dissociative types of mental illness, but this is not conclusive,” she says. “Even if it is linked to current or past mental illness, daydreaming may be a coping mechanism and not in itself another degree of psychopathology in those individuals.

“We all daydream in that we let our thoughts wander, and perhaps play out different scenarios in our minds – past, present, or future,” Leah continues. “As daydreaming is reported as a common occurrence, it has meant that experts are reluctant to describe excessive daydreaming as a mental health issue, even if it causes distress or impacts everyday functioning.”

The future of maladaptive daydreaming

On the forum-based social media platform Reddit, more than 109,000 people are members of the Maladaptive Dreaming community support subreddit – putting it in the top 2% of communities site-wide. Here, they share their stories, ask questions, offer suggestions, and vent. What soon becomes clear from such spaces is the frustration, fear, and shame that can accompany MD. And while research is in its infancy, these experiences are happening now.

The lack of an official diagnosis means that there is currently no standard treatment, however, mental health professionals are still able to support individuals with approaches used for related conditions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and reaching out for support should be the first step those who are struggling with MD should take.

It’s a fast-moving area of research, with new papers being published each year, and as awareness grows and experiences are shared, the path to greater understanding is laid.