Daydreaming and Mental Health

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A single daydream lasts only a few minutes however, it is estimated that we can spend up to one-half of our waking hours daydreaming, although the total varies from person to person.  What exactly is daydreaming and can this regular part of our daily lives be good for our mental health, or can it be damaging instead?  According to Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, daydreaming is not only a regular part of our cognitive processes; it can be a beneficial cognitive function as well.  “The wandering mind correlates with higher degrees of working memory. Cognitive scientists define this memory type as the brain’s ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions,” according to a study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. Now that we know that daydreaming has some rewards, let’s explore some studies that highlight its benefits.

When you daydream you are actually giving your mind a workout. An area of the brain called the “default network,” is this area that is often considered accountable for daydreaming.  It becomes more active as the stimulus level diminishes. During a daydream the mind is very active. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, illustrates this concept; “When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle isn’t doing much, but when your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it’s doing a tremendous amount of work. Scientists call it a resting state, but the brain is not at rest at all.”

In an article by Christine Dell’Amore of National Geographic the benefits of daydreaming are explored.  Daydreaming can make you more creative because many times the thoughts that occur during daydreaming rotate through different parts of the brain and can actually access information that was dormant.  Also, the daydreaming mind may make an association between bits of information never considered in a particular way before. This accounts for creativity and often the solutions to problems that the person had not yet considered, notes Eugenio M. Rothe, a psychiatrist at Florida International University.

Furthermore, according to Christina Frank of WebMD, daydreaming can help you relax, manage conflict, maintain relationships and boost productivity.  Like meditation, daydreaming allows you to relax and let your mind take a break from reality.  You release tension and anxiety and return to the task at hand refreshed.  Daydreaming can help to manage conflict because the same kind of visualization used to curb anxiety is also useful for personal conflicts. You review the conflict in your mind, then go back and imagine responding to the conflict differently. After a few times and with a couple of diverse responses, you’ll begin to figure out better ways of dealing with the disagreement going forward. Daydreaming can help maintain relationships because people tend to think about one another when they’re apart, which has the effect of psychologically maintaining the relationship, says James Honeycutt, PhD, author of Imagined Interactions. “We imagine sharing news with them, along with our successes and failures.”

Daydreaming can also boost productivity. According to Cari Noga, a freelance writer in Traverse City, Michigan; “a few minutes for daydreaming can help to be more productive in the long run.  For example, if you find yourself getting distracted from the task at hand sit down and allow a short time to let your mind wander instead of thinking about all of the things to do.  Imagine different things, places and people.  Afterward you will find yourself in a better frame of mind. Finally, daydreaming can boost productivity and help you to achieve your goals.  With daydreams nothing is impossible.  When you dream big, you end up working harder to make the dream into a reality. Olympic athletes use this same kind of visualization, which can help their performance in the way that actual physical practice does.”

It is clear that we all daydream and these visualizations can be beneficial, but can daydreaming be a hindrance as well?  According to a recent study done by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, people who are focused on the task at hand are happier than those who daydream about something else.  Daydreams don’t lift mood very much. So for those who suffer from depression, daydreaming will not help you at all. “A lot of us have the intuition that when we’re doing something that’s not very enjoyable, if we can escape somewhere else in our mind it will end up making us happier,” lead researcher Matthew Killingsworth of Harvard University states. “But on average that is not true.” The study suggests that mind-wandering may play a role in depression, said the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Jonathan Smallwood, who studies attentiveness. He said other research shows depressed people are more prone to let their minds drift away.  “If daydreaming can put them in a gloomier frame of mind, they may get into a vicious cycle,” he states.  “They dwell on problems, and that lowers their mood.  Even people who aren’t depressed are more likely to have absent-minded lapses if their thoughts wander.”  It is clear that the ability to think about other things can be useful, but there is no guarantee that you will always have pleasant thoughts.

It is apparent that daydreaming is normal and can have benefits regarding your mental health.  However, it does not provide relief for those suffering from a severe mental illness. Daydreaming is not a replacement for quality professional treatment and medication.  It is important to seek the help of a licensed mental health provider to properly manage the symptoms of mental illness.

The Villa Orlando and Pasadena Villa’s Smoky Mountain Lodge are adult intensive psychiatric residential treatment centers for clients with serious mental illnesses. We also provide other individualized therapy programs, step-down residential programs, and less intensive mental health services, such as Community Residential Homes, Supportive Housing, Day Treatment Programs and Life Skills training. Pasadena Villa’s Outpatient Center in Raleigh, North Carolina offers partial hospitalization (PHP) and an intensive outpatient program (PHP). If you or someone you know may need mental health services, please complete our contact form or call us at 407-574-5190 for more information.





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