As a kid and young adult, Kristen Sobel was a daydreamer. She’d conjure up party outfits, fantasize about businesses she’d run, and imagine herself in faraway places.
Then she grew up. Podcasts replaced mind wandering, actually running a business cut into fantasizing about one, and raising two girls yielded little downtime for her own imagination.
But last year, Sobel, a 36-year-old entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, committed to rekindling her daydreaming spirit. She finds time every day — typically first thing in the morning over coffee — to steer clear of devices and let her “mind roll.”
Sobel said she’s felt the benefits both at work and at home: “You play so much bigger when you give yourself the space to daydream.”
What Is Daydreaming?
Some research backs her experience up: Daydreaming — or what New York City–based psychiatrist Adjoa Smalls-Mantey, MD, describes as “thinking about something unrelated to the actual present experience while you are awake” — has been linked to creativity, improved overall well-being, and even increased pain tolerance (more on this below).
But other research (cited below) shows it can be hard to keep our internal thoughts pleasant and, in some cases, daydreaming can go too far — interfering with our daily functioning or signaling a mental health condition.
“Everyone daydreams, a little is harmless or even beneficial,” Dr. Smalls-Mantey says. “But we also recognize that sometimes people might live in a fantasy.”
When Is Daydreaming Good for You?
In one study, psychologists tracked people’s brain waves while they performed a repetitive task and occasionally asked the participants what they were thinking about. The researchers found folks whose minds meandered freely — as opposed to focused on a particular issue to solve, plan for, or ruminate over — had increased alpha waves in the frontal cortex, a marker of creativity.
“Sometimes daydreaming is the first part of the artistic process, and the question is: How do I translate this into something real?” says Elle Bernfeld, LCSW, a New York City-based therapist who specializes in working with creative people.
But daydreaming doesn’t have to yield something tangible to boost your general well-being, Erin Westgate, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has found. Her and colleagues’ research found that “thinking for pleasure” is, well, simply pleasurable — but only when the thoughts are both pleasant and meaningful.
And, while conjuring up such scenes can take intention, when people do, they report their days are more meaningful than people who spend small moments of downtime differently. That’s likely because “differently” typically means “on their phones,” Dr. Westgate says. “Phones aren’t the devil, but they’re not necessarily the most meaningful thing you can be doing with that time either.”
In some cases, daydreaming also seems to protect against negative experiences. In one study in the The Journal of Pain, people who were instructed to reminisce about eating their favorite meal while plunging their hand in an ice bucket had higher pain tolerance and less anxiety than people thinking about something neutral or nothing in particular at all.
At the very least, mind wandering can be a free, accessible, and socially acceptable escape in uncomfortable or mundane situations, like sitting in the dentist’s chair. “Anyone can do this,” Westgate says. “You don’t have to buy a bunch of fancy gear or an expensive phone or go to these expensive workshops. We have the tools right there with us all the time.”
Maladaptive Daydreaming: When Daydreaming Has Risks
But daydreaming in the positive sense doesn’t come naturally to most people. In fact, in one study, Westgate and her colleagues found that 67 percent of men and a quarter of women would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
That seems to be because thinking about nice things takes work.
“You’re the screenwriter, director, actor, filmmaker, and audience for this entire sort of mental production that’s entirely in your head, and so it’s just really resource intensive,” Westgate says. “It looks outwardly like you’re not doing much, but inwardly you’re doing a lot.”
In another study, she and her colleagues identified ways to make daydreaming easier, including coming up with a few pleasant and meaningful topics you’d like to think about before the opportunity to let your mind wander strikes.
“Instead of having all of those different roles you’re trying to juggle, you’ve already narrowed down the selection of what mental daydreams you might want to play,” Westgate said, adding that these types of daydreams typically involve doing something with other people in the future. “And that makes it easier to focus on actually playing that daydream and watching it and enjoying it.”
But there’s a darker side to daydreaming than it simply being effortful. When someone spends so much time immersed in their own mind that it disrupts their work, hobbies, or relationships, mental health professionals refer to it as “maladaptive daydreaming,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“It can be a point where you’d rather stay in your fantasy than be in real life engaging with other people,” Smalls-Mantey says.
This can play out dangerously. For one, maladaptive daydreaming can distract you in moments when you need to be alert, like while driving, Smalls-Mantey notes.
It can also be a frustrating time suck, taking people away from important responsibilities or their own goals. In Bernfeld’s practice, “people struggle to create as much as they want, to remain consistent, and sometimes daydreaming is the barrier,” she says.
And, while tapping into an imaginary world can be a coping tool for trauma survivors facing a trigger, it can also be more of a Band-Aid than a true healing mechanism, Smalls-Mantey says. The behavior can also coincide with mental health conditions like ADHD, OCD, anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders, she adds.
In these cases, techniques like grounding (making contact with the ground or earth) and journaling can help, Smalls-Maney says. But first you have to recognize the behavior has gone too far or feels out of control.
“It’s all about awareness: being able to see the difference between the times it’s helping you and it’s hurting you,” Bernfeld says. “Sometimes it’s not that easy to see the difference. Sometimes you want to process it in therapy.”
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking:
- Kam JWY et al. Distinct Electrophysiological Signatures of Task-Unrelated and Dynamic Thoughts. PNAS. January 18, 2021.
- Westgate EC et al. What Makes Thinking for Pleasure Pleasurable? Emotion. August 2021.
- Hekmat H et al. Do Food Fantasies Facilitate Coping With Acute Pain? The Journal of Pain. April 2008.
- Wilson TD et al. Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind. Science. July 4, 2014.
- Westgate EC. With a Little Help for Our Thoughts: Making It Easier to Think for Pleasure. Emotion. February 13, 2017.
- Maladaptive Daydreaming. Cleveland Clinic. June 1, 2022.
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