Everyone gets caught in a daydream every now and then. But constant or disruptive daydreaming may be a sign of a mental health condition, like ADHD.
Daydreaming is associated with all kinds of fanciful names — zoning out, having a wandering mind, or experiencing flitting thoughts.
Occasionally escaping from the drudgery of the current moment can be novel and fun. But daydreaming that interferes with your daily life could be a sign of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD or not, if you need help reining in your daydreams so that you can focus on the task at hand, there are resources and accessible mental exercises available to help you stay present.
People with ADHD tend to experience spontaneous mind wandering more frequently than people who don’t live with ADHD.
Daydreaming is a part of the human experience. Using your imagination to enjoy a mental escape from reality can be enriching and stress-reducing.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) criteria, daydreaming alone isn’t enough to be diagnosed with ADHD.
However, even though nearly everyone may daydream, people with ADHD typically experience daydreaming differently.
Studies have shown that ADHD daydreaming is more likely to be spontaneous when compared with neurotypical daydreaming, which is more likely to be a deliberate, purposeful mental rescue.
Who experiences ADHD daydreaming?
Girls may be more likely than boys to experience spontaneous daydreaming as a symptom of ADHD. However, reliable research is still needed since girls are often substantially underdiagnosed than boys.
Yet it’s well known that girls commonly express ADHD symptoms internally, whereas boys tend to express ADHD symptoms externally. This is why ADHD symptoms in boys tend to be easier to observe and diagnose.
Since ADHD daydreaming is an internal expression of the inattentive type of ADHD, it’s likely that girls with ADHD might get lost in a daydream more frequently than boys with ADHD.
If you’re spending 4 or more waking hours daydreaming, you may be dealing with more than ADHD daydreaming.
Maladaptive daydreaming, or daydreaming disorder, is a condition that causes people to voluntarily spend more time daydreaming than engaged in:
- work duties
- parenting responsibilities
Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t yet included in the DSM-5, but research continues to grow on this mental health condition.
Typical daydreams evolve into daydreaming disorder when the daydreamer develops an “addictive” relationship with their fantasy. This consumes enough of their time to disrupt real-world responsibilities.
Signs of maladaptive daydreaming
Some characteristics of maladaptive daydreaming may include:
- creating immersive storylines, characters, and settings
- experiencing strong emotional responses to daydreams
- awareness that the daydream is fantasy and not reality
- daydreaming for time periods long enough to interrupt daily functioning
- an “addictive”-feeling mental experience
According to a
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- dissociative disorder
Whether or not you’re diagnosed with any of these conditions, it’s important to bring it up to a doctor or therapist if you notice that your daydreams are overtaking your real life in any problematic or disruptive way.
Findings from that same
The surge in OCD symptoms alongside maladaptive daydreaming could suggest a possible shared link in the brain between the two mental responses, such as low levels of serotonin.
Generally, daydreaming is the mind at play. Your brain can occupy itself with interesting turns of thought and lead you to new, creative ideas that might never have surfaced otherwise.
Your internal world of imagination is important. But it shouldn’t run your life or hinder day-to-day functioning.
To help keep ADHD daydreaming in balance with staying focused, there are several methods you can try, as long as you can find a few minutes of quiet time.
A 2017 review of mindfulness-based intervention in adults with ADHD found that a consistent mindfulness practice improved attention deficits in adults with ADHD.
Here are a few ways mindfulness can gently guide your mind away from a daydream and back to the present moment:
- focused breathing
- a journaling practice at the start or end of your day
Psychotherapy is often the first line of treatment for those who experience more disruption from ADHD daydreaming or maladaptive daydreaming.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you recognize when unwanted thought patterns — like daydreaming — are happening. CBT also teaches skills to gain better control over the paths your mind takes, which can be very helpful for both ADHD and maladaptive daydreaming.
Spontaneous daydreaming can be a subtle symptom of ADHD for some people, especially girls and women. Excessive or disruptive daydreaming may also be linked to other mental health conditions, like maladaptive daydreaming.
You may want to speak with a doctor or therapist if daydreaming has become a nuisance that hinders your day-to-day life. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
Whether or not your daydreaming habit is connected to a larger condition, there are ways to manage constant daydreaming. Mindfulness practices and therapy, such as CBT, may be the most effective approaches to wrangling daydreams.