Why we make up fake scenarios in our heads at night
You’re lying in bed with the lights off. You’ve finished reading or scrolling TikTok. Now you’ve got some time to kill while your eyes are closed and you wait to drift off.
It’s the perfect opportunity to imagine some fake scenarios. If you thought you were the only one who does this – think again.
Maybe you imagine bumping into your crush while you just happen to look absolutely amazing, or confronting an ex with all the things you never got to say to them. Maybe you picture yourself quitting your job dramatically, or playing out a reunion with a long-lost friend.
Whatever your go-to scenarios are, you’re probably cycling through some unresolved business, or living out a deep fantasy. And it can feel oddly comforting, like you’re reading yourself your favourite bedtime story.
Leah, a writer from Manchester, says she has been making up scenarios in her head at night ever since she was a teenager.
‘When I was younger, it would be made up stories but the characters were people from real life, then when I was a tween it would be fantasies of being friends with my favourite celebrities (like one direction) or even in a relationship, but it was ever sexual fantasies, it was just stories,’ Leah tells Metro.co.uk.
‘These days, it tends to be more fake arguments or scenarios involving my friends and acquaintances.’
Because it’s been part of Leah’s life for such a long time, she says it has become a habit – something she does without thinking.
‘I wonder if it is a form of coping mechanism or distraction,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have a necessarily bad childhood, but it was turbulent in ways I wouldn’t have been able to understand at a young age. I wonder if this habit developed as a response to that.’
Dawn Baxter, certified positive psychology coach, says this is likely. She says creating fake scenarios can bring us comfort and make us feel more prepared to face the real world.
‘In order for us to feel prepared for any eventuality we can sometimes “fantasise” about things that have not happened yet,’ says Dawn.
‘We can play out a scenario to support what coping mechanisms we can create or apply or even to test out a hypothetical role play of this idea so that you can make sense and feel equipped.
‘It may be that you think about what it would feel like for your crush to notice you – how would you react, how could you “stay cool”. Perhaps you are considering what would happen in the event of a negative situation.
‘Like Dr Strange playing the Thanos scenario through his mind 14,000,605 times to find the one that would actually work in their favour and save the planet, you are likely giving yourself a dress rehearsal to ensure that you are prepared for a best-case scenario.’
Dawn says these scenarios can be comforting as they are a form of escapism. For some, they are a necessary precursor to sleep, a technique used to try to kickstart your brain into dreaming. However, Dawn says, they can also have a more practical purpose.
‘Visually running these ideas through our minds allows us to build every day life coping and thriving strategies, and it also gives us a somewhat false sense of control over our lives,’ she says.
‘Giving yourself the permission to consider and play out events that have not happened or will never happen is a personal mind luxury that can be incredibly comforting, especially in the event of a possible negative scenario.’
Qualified therapist Caroline Plumer says nighttime imaginary scenarios are incredibly common.
‘Daydreaming allows us to be anyone we want to be, and respond in any manner we chose,’ she says.
‘Even the shyest of us can be a super confident extraverts in our internal fantasies if we chose to be. This can be a great way to show ourselves what we might one day be capable of.’
Caroline adds that imagining fake scenarios can be a really useful way of processing what has happened to us, what we might want to happen to us, or even what we don’t want to happen.
‘It gives us great freedom to play out a multitude of endings and interact as different versions of ourselves,’ she says. ‘It can also be a fun, creative exercise where your imagination gets to run wild.’
However, we can’t always control what our minds want to do. Even when we start out with a positive image, our minds can start catastrophising and playing out worst-case scenarios.
What to do if your scenarios start to feel too negative
If we find ourselves becoming anxious because of the things we are imagining at night, Caroline says it is helpful to remind yourself of where you actually are.
‘You are safe in bed, and you are not under threat,’ says Caroline.
‘Take some deep breaths and take in your surroundings – notice what you can see, hear and feel. If you’re ruminating on something that has it’s roots in reality, try to think rationally and look for the evidence – if you’re imagining a scenario that has never happened before (like getting fired) chances are it isn’t about to start happening now.’
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, says it isn’t surprising that these imaginings can tip over into something more unpleasant, because many people find that their anxiety ramps up in the evening when there are less distractions around.
‘Not only is it quieter in the evening, which means we are left to our own thoughts more, but the mind tends to be busier and louder after a day’s activities,’ says Elena.
‘Make sure you have a healthy sleep routine where you allow yourself to relax before bedtime. Likewise, it can help to do a quick mindfulness meditation to allow your mind to fully unwind before bedtime.’
There’s also a danger that you may start to become too heavily reliant on these made up scenarios. So, while they can be a helpful tool if they feel like a comfort, it’s important to know where the line is.
‘Although fun, daydreaming too much (to the detriment of your real life) or about the wrong things, can be destructive,’ says Caroline.
‘If you find yourself stuck in a loop of fantasising, ask yourself what are the daydreams trying to tell you? Is it a signal to chase after something you really want? Equally it may be a way of avoiding or ignoring something difficult in your real life.
‘It can be helpful to try and unpick why the daydreams are taking over – whether that be by reflecting, journalling or talking to a friend or professional.’
Elena adds that creating fake scenarios can also be used as a means of escaping from – or avoiding – reality.
She adds: ‘If you suspect your daydreaming might be impacting you negatively, I would suggest consulting your GP or speaking to a therapist so you can delve deeper into what might be causing it.’
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