People with an overactive imagination engage in vivid, prolonged fantasies that may feel as true as real life.
For many people, particularly children, daydreaming and fantasy are healthy pastimes.
As adults, you might daydream about a relationship, a dream vacation, or getting a job you really want. It can help you problem-solve and express creativity.
However, daydreaming can become a harmful trait when it begins to interfere with daily life and cause distress.
Here’s how to know if you have conditions like maladaptive daydreaming disorder or fantasy-prone personality (FPP) and how to cope.
People with an overactive imagination spend a large portion of their time in a self-created world.
These individuals have rich and vivid imaginations, intense sensory experiences, and a strong ability to give meaning to these images and feelings. They tend to be good storytellers and role players and can get swept away in their daydreams.
Fantasizing might also distract them from real life and have mental health consequences.
People with overactive imaginations may be categorized as having either maladaptive daydreaming or FPP. However, neither condition is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
The main difference between the two conditions is that people with maladaptive daydreaming are aware that their fantasies are separate from reality, but those with FPP may be unaware.
People with maladaptive daydreaming fantasize to disengage from stress and trauma by enhancing their mood. For many, their vivid daydreams help them experience a sense of intimacy and companionship and are a way to feel more powerful.
Fantasy prone personality
FPP is considered a personality trait that was first identified in the early 1980s due to the research of Josephine Hilgard who observed people’s ability to be hypnotized.
Researchers found that those who could be easily hypnotized were more likely to engage in vivid fantasies for long periods. Some research suggests that people who are fantasy-prone have a difficult time discerning their fantasies and false memories from reality.
It’s estimated that 2%-4% of people may be fantasy-prone.
A person with an overactive imagination may experience the following signs and symptoms:
- large amounts of time spent in complex and detailed fantasy worlds
- fantasies are as lively as a movie
- difficulty controlling the desire to fantasize
- fantasizing interferes with relationships and goals
- shame and efforts to keep the behavior hidden from others
- trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality
- feels and acts like another person
- never bored because fantasizing takes away boredom
- psychosomatic symptoms i.e., feeling hot or cold just by thinking of something hot or cold
- dissociation or shifting between two or more identities
- out-of-body experiences
Some researchers believe both conditions are distinct diagnoses, while other studies suggest that they are symptoms of other mental health conditions, like dissociative identity disorder (DID) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Other researchers believe prolonged fantasizing is a form of behavioral addiction.
While there is an ongoing debate about how to categorize maladaptive daydreaming and FPP, it’s true they can cause unhealthy behaviors and consequences in daily life, such as:
- inability to focus on conversations or responsibilities
- lack of productivity and withdrawal from social activities and hobbies
- no control over daydreaming, even when life demands focus
- relying on daydreaming to feel emotionally stable
- negative consequences at work and school and in relationships due to daydreaming
It’s unclear exactly what causes an overactive imagination, but researchers have provided insight into potential causes or risk factors.
People who are fantasy-prone are more likely to have a history of loneliness or have experienced more frequent physical punishment, research shows.
Overactive imagination may be linked to the following conditions or personality traits:
- dissociative symptoms (a sense of being detached from yourself and emotions)
- obsessive-compulsive symptoms, like magical thinking
- abnormal serotonin levels
- schizotypy, or traits that may increase the risk of schizophrenia
- hallucinatory experiences
- neuroticism, or being quick to experience negative emotions
- depersonalization or out-of-body experiences
Other conditions that
- anxiety disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- bipolar disorder
- dissociative identity disorder
- behavioral addictions like gambling disorder
Since FPP and maladaptive daydreaming aren’t official conditions, there’s no best practice for treating them. If you find that your overactive imagination is interfering with your life and causing distress, consider the following tips:
1. Identify your triggers
Determine when you start daydreaming. Is it in bed at night? When you’re riding in the car? Try to spend less time in spaces where you’re prone to start fantasizing. Consider listening to a podcast or an educational audiobook to distract yourself.
2. Find an external hobby you enjoy
Choose a hobby, preferably one that uses your high levels of creativity. Consider writing a story that you can work on every day and keep a storyline going. This will allow you to harness your storytelling gift and maybe even publish something.
Consider joining an online fiction group where you can share your story and creativity with others.
3. Keep a busier schedule
If you find yourself fantasizing a lot because you have excessive free time, consider scheduling more external activities that keep you engaged with the real world. When you do have free time, consider reading a nonfiction book or watching a documentary.
4. Practice mindfulness
Consider practicing mindfulness. In a mindful state, you focus your awareness on the present moment, while gently acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
5. Call a friend
Spending time with others allows you to stay present. Call up a friend or go out to dinner. Try to schedule more meetups on days when you have a lot of free time.
6. Try therapy
If you’re unable to reduce fantasies on your own, consider seeing a therapist who can help you develop skills to stay present.
Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.
7. Explore medication
One case study found that fluvoxamine, a medication for OCD, helped lessen the symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming. You can talk with your healthcare professional to discuss this as an option.
8. Practice self-compassion
Many fantasy-prone individuals are hard on themselves when they feel their fantasizing is out of control. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and remember the positive side of these traits. You’re likely a highly creative person and storyteller.
Stopping fantasizing will likely be challenging. Remind yourself that you’re human and not every day will go as planned. You’ll start to develop deeper self-love as you focus on building your resilience and celebrating your desire to get better.
If you have an overactive imagination, you’re likely a very creative person with great storytelling skills.
But if your fantasies take up most of your day, interfere with relationships or work, or cause you distress, there are several things you can do. Perhaps you can even harness your overactive imagination and into a creative outlet.
You’ll begin building — or rebuilding — strong relationships as you work with a mental health professional and are consistent with new boundaries around not fantasizing. Getting better may be a long journey, but patience and commitment will open up a richer life, grounded in reality.