"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
August 25, 2006 5:15 AM   Subscribe

When do daydreams become harmful to your way of life, and is there anything you can do to prevent them from making you miserable in the "Real" world?

I'm a pretty creative person, and I've always had an overactive imagination. It's proven to help me out tons during photoshoots (i'm a photographer and model), so I suppose I'm thankful. However, I've started noticing that my daydreaming is becoming more frequent, more vivid and well, more real. I've always had them - at least for the last 10 years, possibly earlier but I didn't pay attention. But lately they're more... "powerful", I guess is the proper word.

On a 1-10 scale, 1 being suicidal and 10 being completely 200% content and happy with my life, I'm at about a 4 or 5 - maybe even a 6. I'm usually not depressed about my life, but I'm doing something that I love and will (hopefully) pay off one day as far as financials and benefits. Only a few things need to change for me to be happier (more money, more benefits, less work).


I've noticed that whenever I'm not busy and not thinking about 20 things at once (which is usually how I operate), I immediately fall into a daydream. I have no control over them - as soon as my brain shuts down the "work side", the "dream side" kicks on the generator and I'm plunked down in the middle of something already going on. Usually the daydreams consist of, for lack of a better phrase, "alternate universes" where overall, my life is far better. Sometimes book and movie settings, characters, etc are present. Sometimes, not. But the things that happen in the daydreams are things that can't possibly happen in the real world - they're too mystical, too unrealistic, too fantastical. This isn't the case but it's a good example of what I mean: I wouldn't have a crush on a celebrity... more like, I'd have a crush on a character the celebrity played and the movie setting in which the character lived. The only way I can explain this - and I haven't seen this movie since it was in theaters, so I might be way off - is to compare it to The Matrix... just not as superheroey.

Using that same 1-10 scale from before, my "alternate" life is about a 9, and it's making me hate my (real) life more and more. It's becoming harder and harder to shake that feeling and at least once or twice, I've woken up and have been depressed because I'm not "There" in the daydreams - I'm here in reality.

Yes, I can work to improve my (real) life - work harder, make more money, downsize my responsibility, make more friends, etc. I recognize that and I've been working on it. But is that going to help?

My questions, finally: When do daydreams become harmful to your way of life? And if they're harmful, how do you make yourself stop daydreaming - or at least, how do you put a cap on what you do/don't daydream and how frequently you do it? Does everyone daydream this much? Is this happening because I work too much? Is there any way that I can make it chill the fuck out? Am I going crazy?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It depends, a friend of mine has "vivid daydreams" but he is diagnosed bi-polar. For him these daydreams become a major hazard and he loses touch with reality completely.

I don't see how you correlate working harder and making more money as a way to overcome these problems. The way it sounds, your mind is working way too hard. That may be part of the reason why your mind is shutting down with the daydreams. Take a week off and go somewhere quiet where your mind can relax. Cut out all stimuli and sit in the natural environment without distractions.

The September National Geographic Traveler magazine had a story about a writer who was on the search for the world's quietest place. He finally found that it wasn't about remoteness from civilization as much as it was simply a place where the natural and built environments managed to exist together in such a way as to calm the mind.
posted by JJ86 at 5:42 AM on August 25, 2006

The Count your Blessings Answer: If your daydreams were a 2 on your scale I'd be a lot more worried. But since they are 'better' than normal, I'd try and look into them as motivators. The ideal life that you would want to have.

Daydreams are inviting and exciting because they are not about the downsides of life, you never Daydream about your car breaking down...you Worry about your car breaking down, you fret over getting sick, you fear dying; but You aren't dwelling on that side of things.

If you were to add up all the daydreams (which rank 9 on your scale) and all the stress & worries (which I would venture would rank around 2) then you would probably average it out. But by simply remembering the good parts -- the daydreams -- i'd be willing to wager that you are discounting about half of your fantasies.
posted by iurodivii at 5:49 AM on August 25, 2006

Maybe you need to assiimilate some kind of 'dystopian' imagery as an antidote to this constant utopian projection? I know it sounds trite but, in my own humble experience, I found that reading some of the terrifying and horrific personal stories recounted from global conflicts (e.g. the Rwandan massacre and Congolese civil war), as well as provoking a physically painful empathy, made me grateful for the privilege of my own meagre existence despite its numerous flaws! Essentially, to realise how your world could be ALOT worse as well as potentially better.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 5:51 AM on August 25, 2006

I daydream a lot. I have found that it's actually a pretty good signal for Something Is Wrong. Not necessarily badly wrong-- I am overall a content person-- but when my daydreams veer off from their usual completely-unrelated-to-my-life content and start involving meeting old crushes on the bus, I have learned to take it as a sign that my subconscious is feeling lonely or bored and I need to go Do Something. In my case the issue usually involves getting too wrapped up in work and not getting enough socialization, so the over-daydreaming is a sign to start calling people and dragging myself out. It may be something different for you.

The goal is not to change your life into something approaching that 9; the theory is that the daydreams about the 9 suggest that something in you is unhappy with the 4-5, and once you're at an unarguable 6 the daydreams will no longer be so pressing.
posted by posadnitsa at 5:51 AM on August 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Don't watch Brazil. Or perhaps you should watch it. For some, daydreams can make life worth living.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:23 AM on August 25, 2006

No more Mr. Nice Gaius!
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:35 AM on August 25, 2006

When I was 17 and quite isolated from other people and stimulation, I spent a lot of time imagining other scenarios and livestyles. I realised I was in danger of having it interfere with my real life when I nearly told my brother an anecdote about the boy-next-door that never happened.

So I stopped. Not completely - i reserved these fantasies for a nighttime segue into sleep - and that was a lot less often that I had been doing it in the past. As time went on, I also had a lot more control over my life, and chose to fill my time with things that interested me.

However, my fantasy life was entirely voluntary (but yours does not appear to be so.) I think whenever our brains are doing things that we can not control, professional help might be necessary. What you might attempt to confirm the involuntary nature is, next time it occurs, to count, or multiply 2s (2, 4, 8, 16 etc) until you can't do the numbers and then start again.

Another alternative is to use this time to develop or prepare creative output. Map out stories or artwork in detail rather than dissolving into a fantasy world.
posted by b33j at 7:07 AM on August 25, 2006

Umm, to put a different spin on your question; is there something in your day to day life that is perhaps causing you to daydream?

In other words are there possibly some stressors in your life that you have not identified as yet that are causing you to want to go your "happy place"? The reason I ask is that in your third last paragraph you state that your daydreams are causing you to " hate my (real) life more and more".

You sound a bit depressed, perhaps in a rut? Maybe you just need a break? Alterntively, perhaps a hobby that is creative to give your mind a break?
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 7:30 AM on August 25, 2006

Wow, and here I thought I was the only one (Partial to dystopic Mad Max/The Stand/Zombies Everywhere fantasies, myself). I agree 100% with posadnitsa.

I've found that the daydreams aren't as bad when I blog or engage in writing projects. Despite the already creative nature of your job, maybe it isn't providing you with enough of the kind of catharsis needed to exercise your daydreams?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:08 AM on August 25, 2006

All perception is gamble. The initial phrasing of your question is so curious, it's such an entirely loaded proposition. Daydreams, dangerous? Fantastic. Why stop there? What other mental faculties are at work that could also incur a negative affect upon your lifestyle? Anything you want, really. What you should really be concerned with is taking your perceptions so seriously, especially that of your unfulfilled subconcious sprawling about.
posted by prostyle at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2006

If you want to break the habit of daydreaming try something that is simultaneously relaxing and requiring focus: learn to knit or crochet, bead or weave. It might help your brain not go into autopilot if you're doing something with your hands.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2006

I too daydream a LOT and I've found it's good for me to try to channel my daydreams into healthy paths.

The "bad" daydreams are things that couldn't possibly happen or shouldn't happen, such as me going back in time to fix somethingor bumping into and then getting back together with a bad-for-me ex. Daydreaming about these things makes me frustrated with my real life.

"Good" daydreams range from the readily attainable to at least theoretically possible, i.e., me throwing a fabulous party at the house I'll be moving into in November, me finishing my novel and having it become a roaring success, me bumping into a certain incredibly hot actor and having a passionate fling with him. These daydreams have a good effect on me because I'll do things like organize and plan to make the party dream come true, work on my novel daily, or pay extra attention to my appearance because I just never know whom I might meet....

So my advice is, go ahead and dream about what you might do with your life. It'll keep you hopeful and inspired.
posted by orange swan at 8:37 AM on August 25, 2006

I daydream a lot as well (mine are more of the witnessing violent capacity, but I'm a very passive person). The only time I had problems was when I was very young (elementary school) and was unable to distinguish between reality and the daydreams. Made school a bitch. (Had to go to a counselor who then told my parents what I said...long story.)

I'd say, if it's not hurting you or anyone else (like driving off the road type antics), then it's not really an "issue". I basically control mine the same way I would a dream while I was sleeping--try to take control of the situation in some way, typically with a physical aspect like pinching myself or shifting my posture or something like that.
posted by sperose at 9:39 AM on August 25, 2006

The part that troubles me is that you say you have no control over them.

You may want to get this checked out. At the very least it does display discontent with your real life to a massive degree-a discontent you seem unable to admit to yourself.

(This is why I rarely read fiction anymore as my brain clicks into the alternate world and it's hard for me to pull back into the real one. But I'm bipolar.)
posted by konolia at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2006

I second having it checked out -- the no control is worrying. Do you mean you can't control when they start or you can't control what happens in them?

I do think working on real life will help, but not in any of the ways you mention, because you seem to think that changing things in your life will make you happier, but probably changing you will make you happier. Go work on it with professional psychological help. It can't hurt just to ask if it is something you should be worried about, or if it is perfectly normal. Maybe there is even a support group for daydreamers?
posted by Eringatang at 1:51 PM on August 25, 2006

Watch Scrubs :)

IF you want to stop it:
One thing that worked for me when I was trying to cut daydreaming was to just cut it (abruptly, no time for saying goodbye to Mr. Kangaroo) as soon as you find out you're doing it. Whenever I found myself as far as playing a future scene in my mind (this is what I mostly daydream) I'd just cut it and go think about the present. Worked for two weeks (at the end of which I was so good at this that I'd rarely drift for more than seconds).

Benefit: I have some social anxiety. In my completely uninformed analysis, I concluded that playing many social interactions in my mind, and then having real social interactions be different (not just in outcome, but even in subtle ways) fed my subconscious with feelings of social ineptitude (like "if I can't predict this right then I must really suck at this social thing"). I then tried to cut it off in order to try to feel more confident in social interactions. Can't tell if it worked, which probably means it didn't.

Disadvantage: After two weeks, idle moments with no external stimuli (like when trying to sleep) got so incredibly boring that I decided it was not worth it.

About feeling your life sucks because your daydreams are better: Completely normal to some degree. Whenever I watch a zombie movie I get a feeling that the real life is so boring without zombies... I feel that if I never get to take on a giant creature from beyond with a shotgun and catch phrases, life isn't all that great. This passes as soon as I go do something else. I'd say the timeline watching a movie would be 2 hours of catharsis (during the movie, even immediately after), then 5-30 minutes of pessimism (bleh, I can't do that in real life, shucks) then an undefined amount of realism (hm, great sandwich). If you're daydreaming too often, I'd say you aren't having enough of realism, just alternating cathasis, pessimism, work, catharsis again... Perhaps having a no-daydream interval (say, no-daydreams when the sun is up, try the technique described above) will be enough to get you to feel better about your life, without cutting on ALL daydreaming.
posted by qvantamon at 5:30 PM on August 25, 2006

real life is so boring without zombies...

sorry to derail but this is the truest statement I've ever read in my entire life.
posted by damnjezebel at 11:30 PM on August 25, 2006

If you find that you have long complicated daydreams with narrative plots, you may want to try writing-- not necessarily writing down the daydreams, but turning that particular creative faculty, which is storytelling, into something more concrete. When I'm writing, I don't need to daydream, because I'm engaged in something more creative and more rewarding.

But disappearing into fantasy worlds (autistic fantasy) is a coping mechanism, a retreat from stress, boredom, and anxiety, and can become addictive. The best cure is engaging with your life in ways that are satisfying... it's always a signal, for me, that I've lost the plot a bit.
posted by jokeefe at 10:14 PM on August 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

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