Signs, Causes, Mental Health and Coping

People with an overactive imagination engage in vivid, long-lasting fantasies that can seem just as true as real life.

For many people, especially children, daydreaming and fantasy are a healthy pastime.

As adults, you may daydream about a relationship, a dream vacation, or getting a job you really want. It can help you solve problems and express creativity.

However, daydreaming can become a harmful trait when it begins to interfere with daily life and cause anxiety.

Here’s how to tell if you have conditions such as maladaptive daydreaming disorder or fantasy-prone personality (FPP) and how to manage them.

People with an overactive imagination spend a great deal of their time in a self-created world.

These individuals have a rich and vivid imagination, intense sensory experiences, and a strong ability to give meaning to these images and feelings. They are usually good storytellers and role players and can get carried away in their daydreams.

Fantasizing can also distract them from real life and affect mental health.

People with an overactive imagination can be categorized as ill-adjusted daydreaming or FPP. However, neither condition is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).

Daydreaming inappropriately

The main difference between the two conditions is that people with maladaptive daydreams are aware that their fantasies are separate from reality, but people with FPP may not be aware of it.

People with maladaptive daydreams fantasize about detaching from stress and trauma by improving their mood. For many, their vivid daydreams help them experience a sense of intimacy and camaraderie and are a way of feeling more empowered.

Fantasy sensitive personality

FPP is considered a personality trait that was first identified in the early 1980s thanks to the research of Josephine Hilgard, who observed people’s ability to hypnotize.

Researchers found that those who were easily hypnotized were more likely to have vivid fantasies for long periods of time. Some research suggests that people prone to fantasy have difficulty distinguishing their fantasies and false memories from reality.

It is estimated that 2 to 4% of people are prone to fantasy.

A person with an overactive imagination may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • spent a lot of time in complex and detailed fantasy worlds
  • fantasies are as vivid as a movie
  • difficulty controlling the desire to fantasize
  • fantasizing disrupts relationships and goals
  • shame and efforts to hide the behavior from others
  • difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality
  • feels and acts like another person
  • never bored because fantasizing takes away boredom
  • psychosomatic symptoms, that is, feeling hot or cold just thinking about something hot or cold
  • hallucinations
  • dissociation or shift between two or more identities
  • out-of-body experiences

Some researchers believe that both conditions are different diagnoses, while other studies suggest they are symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Other researchers believe that prolonged fantasizing is a form of behavioral addiction.

While there is an ongoing debate about how maladaptive daydreaming and FPP should be categorized, it is true that they can have unhealthy behaviors and consequences in everyday 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 requires focus
  • rely on daydreaming to feel emotionally stable
  • negative consequences at work and school and in relationships from daydreaming

It’s unclear exactly what triggers an overactive imagination, but researchers have provided insight into possible causes or risk factors.

People prone to fantasy are more likely to have a history of loneliness or have more frequent physical punishment, research shows.

Overactive imagination can be linked to the following disorders or personality traits:

  • dissociative symptoms (a feeling of being detached from yourself and emotions)
  • obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as magical thinking
  • abnormal serotonin levels
  • schizotypy, or traits that may increase the risk of schizophrenia
  • hallucinatory experiences
  • creativity
  • neuroticism, or experiencing negative emotions quickly
  • depersonalization or out-of-body experiences

Other conditions that can occur in addition to maladaptive daydreams include:

Since FPP and maladaptive daydreaming are not official conditions, there is no one best way to treat them. If you find that your overactive imagination is interfering with your life and causing stress, consider the following tips:

1. Identify your triggers

Determine when you start daydreaming. Is it in bed at night? When you’re in the car? Try to spend less time in spaces where you tend to fantasize. Consider listening to a podcast or educational audiobook to distract yourself.

2. Find an outside hobby you like

Pick a hobby, preferably one that uses your high degree of creativity. Consider writing a story that you can work on every day and keep a storyline going. This allows you to use 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 a lot of free time, consider scheduling more outside activities that will keep you involved in the real world. If you have free time, consider reading a non-fiction book or watching a documentary.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Consider practicing mindfulness. In a conscious 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 can help you stay present. Call a friend or go out to dinner. Try to schedule more meetings on days when you have a lot of free time.

6. Try Therapy

If you are 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 don’t know where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support Resource can help.

7. Research medication

One case study found that fluvoxamine, a drug for OCD, helped reduce symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming. You can talk to your healthcare provider to discuss this as an option.

8. Practice Self-Compassion

Many fantasy-prone individuals are hard on themselves when they feel their fantasizing is spiraling out of control. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and remember the positive side of these traits. You are probably a very creative person and storyteller.

Quitting fantasizing will probably be a challenge. Remind yourself that you are human and that not every day will go as planned. You will begin to develop a deeper self-love as you focus on building your resilience and celebrating your desire to get better.

If you have an overactive imagination, you are probably a very creative person with great storytelling skills.

But if your fantasies take up most of your day, are disrupting relationships or work, or are worrying, there are several things you can do. You may even be able to harness your overactive imagination and turn it into a creative outlet.

You begin to build — or rebuild — strong relationships as you work with a mental health professional and be consistent with new boundaries around not fantasizing. Getting well can be a long journey, but patience and dedication will lead to a richer life grounded in reality.