When Arria, a 23-year-old in Georgia, was a junior in high school, her band played a concert supporting her first self-written album. Without warning, her lead singer and rhythm guitarist jumped off the stage to crowdsurf — and no one caught him. He hit the floor, fracturing his arm and breaking the neck of his guitar. The rest of the band was forced to improvise, she says, and so, they set down their instruments and finished the song a cappella. It ignited the crowd, and everyone in attendance sang the hook. The concert was saved, and the band could continue their two-van tour around the state.
Except there was no concert, and there was no band. Arria didn’t even know how to play guitar. In fact, she was sitting in her second-period English class, completely ignoring her teacher, immersed in a reality of her own creation.
Arria’s reverie may not be an officially sanctioned entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but she suffers from what many mental health experts call “maladaptive daydreaming.” Unlike “normal” daydreaming, maladaptive daydreamers have daydreams so often, and so intensely, they begin to interfere with daily life.
For example, Arria’s rock-star daydream spanned days and showed no signs of stopping. “I can still remember the tunes and the lyrics I’d written,” she tells me. “I really had the impression that I didn’t need school, and I was going to be some sort of musical revolutionary like Jimi Hendrix.”
Not unexpectedly, Arria’s grades began to slip. “I was super-distracted, and assignments often went unfinished,” she explains. “When I daydreamed, I’d do every [real-life] action sensibly, like I normally would, but out of habit — like, I’d answer questions on assignments, but not remember how I got to my answer.”
Arria developed a whole library of daydreams. She invented a character on whom she “had a legitimate crush” that kept her from talking to boys in real life. There was an imagined friend group with what felt like very real storylines and drama. In turn, she began to feel depressed: Her real-life self didn’t live up to the idealistic persona she’d created in her mind.
“My regular, logical thinking was always mingling with my storylines, coexisting on the forefront of my mind,” she explains. “It was sort of like my daydreams were a TV being played on medium volume while I tried to do my homework.”
Arria needed to put an end to her daydreams and focus on real life before things got worse. But how does anyone “quit” daydreaming?
According to Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst in New York, it’s important to first define exactly what maladaptive dreaming is, and why it happens. In short, she explains, “maladaptive daydreaming is a defense against intolerable feelings. It puts your mind into a better place. You don’t want to get rid of that, because then you’ll have a mental breakdown.”
Similar to other dissociative disorders, “when you try to dissociate yourself from thoughts and feelings, you can also end up dissociating yourself from productivity and emotional connections with people,” she continues. When this happens, it’s important to regain control over your daydreams and reconnect with reality.
So how exactly do you break free? “The first thing is to avoid the most typical mistake people make, whether it’s a dissociative disorder, an impulse disorder, an anxiety disorder, etc.: not to simply ‘stop it,’” Luiz says. Trying to simply “quit” maladaptive daydreaming won’t “help you to reconnect with the parts of your psyche you’re trying to dissociate from,” she explains. “Yes, you may look a little bit more ‘normal’ when you stop using a defense, but it won’t resolve the problem.”
In other words, going cold-turkey from maladaptive daydreaming would be like a hoarder moving into a new house. It’s not addressing the real issue.
“The catch-22 is that the reason you have this maladaptive dreaming is precisely because reality is too intolerable to be present,” says Luiz, before advising talking to a trusted professional. “Only then can you start to understand yourself compassionately, instead of running away from yourself with dissociation.”
Unfortunately, quitting cold-turkey was Arria’s first route — and it didn’t go well. In order to stop daydreaming, she “stayed away from books, music and being unproductive for too long, but the daydreams kept coming.”
Not only that, she says, but the daydreams “became more incessant and violent, reflecting the internalized anger that I had for certain people in my life. That made me sad, so I tried to make a counter-daydream to my negative thoughts, which worked until that also became distracting and I eventually once again tried to become my idealized, rock-star daydream self.”
Arria started lifting weights, playing piano, “growing my Afro and talking to boys. But then it became boring.”
Eventually, her parents and teachers noticed her anger issues and slipping grades and sent her to the school counselor. “[The counselor] helped me realize that I was under a lot of stress, and there were a lot of things going on that I didn’t know how to express myself about, so I internalized everything and used these stories to cope with every complex emotion I didn’t understand,” Arria says. “I eventually learned I have borderline personality disorder, and these vivid daydreams kind of come with the territory.”
Now, Arria’s daydreams are under control and she’s “living more in the present.” Seeing her counselor often helps, along with medication she takes for her borderline personality disorder.
Lindsay, another maladaptive dreamer living in Missouri, hasn’t had such an easy time with it. By her freshman year in college, she was daydreaming 10 hours a day. She let anyone close to her believe she just slept a lot. “I had them under the impression that I took a lot of naps, when in reality there were plenty of nights when I hardly slept at all because my daydreams would keep me up,” she tells me.
“I started to mix up elements of my daydreaming with reality. If I would daydream about a certain person being mean to me a lot, I’d start to actually perceive that person in real life as being a jerk, even if I had no real reason to believe that,” she continues. “As it got worse with me getting older, I dropped nearly all of my hobbies, making me feel like there was nothing I was good at or could contribute.”
She Googled “excessive daydreaming” and was delighted to learn that maladaptive daydreaming “checked all the boxes” of the things she experienced. Equipped with the knowledge that “it was a real thing other people suffer from,” she decided to reach out for help. “I told all of this to my therapist, and she helped me develop a plan to quit,” Lindsay, now 21, tells me. “At the time, I was averaging around 10 hours per day, [but I] decided to set my goal at three hours per day every day of the week. It was a pretty big goal considering where I was starting from, but I was determined to do it.”
Her therapist also advised she keep a journal of her daydreams, marking how many hours she spent daydreaming and “what kinds of struggles or triggers” she noticed.
If Luiz had been Lindsay’s therapist, she would’ve advised the same. “Don’t be ashamed of the maladaptive dreaming, don’t make it go away and don’t see it as a sign that there’s something wrong with you,” she says. “Instead, follow it. Who and what are you dreaming about? What are the dynamics that make it come on more?”
Lindsay is now down to a half hour a day. “I realize everyone daydreams to some degree, but for me, it invokes a psychological feeling, like indulging in an addictive behavior that I know is unhealthy. It’s a problem for me that I’d love to never experience again, not a casual hobby like it is for some people.”
“It’s really hard to connect to the parts of yourself your conscious mind can’t tolerate,” Luiz concludes. “When you can find the courage to start shining a light on what’s happening, things usually resolve naturally as you get more comfortable with the parts of yourself you need to push away.”