By Eric Charles, MA., PhD-c
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“I have everything I need in my daydreams. A big home, fast car, money and tons of good friends. I could never have that in my so-called real life so why try?” ~Anonymous
Maladaptive day dreaming is a psychological concept that was first introduced in 2002 by Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in traumatized patients. Dr. Somer found that patients who suffer early trauma regularly escape into a world of imagination where they fantasize compensatory empowering stories. Through these stories they live a life full of experiences they were missing or missed in their real lives. Somer named this phenomenon “Maladaptive daydreaming.” In 2011, another study by Jayne Bigelsen and Cynthia Schupack showed maladaptive daydreaming in individuals who had no childhood trauma. It appears that this form of day dreaming is wide-spread and practiced by many.
Maladaptive daydreaming is currently a psychological concept that is yet to be recognized as a disorder. Maladaptive daydreaming describes an extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal or vocational functioning. Dr. Somer and others are currently working on research to prove maladaptive daydreaming is a valid disorder that differs from normal daydreaming. It is somewhat controversial because other psychologists consider daydreaming as a normal part of being human and that there is no need to create another category of mental disorder. They tend to believe that if the daydreaming is causing problems, most mental health professionals will be able to help without labeling it as a pathology. Also, there are those who self report experiencing maladaptive daydreaming and embrace it fully. They feel they are able to use their daydreaming in a way that adds creativity to their lives.
Maladaptive daydreaming is different from normal daydreaming. Typically, a normal daydream is spontaneous, lasts for a short period of time and is the result of mind wandering. Normal daydreaming is fantasy related. A person experiencing normal daydreaming usually is accomplishing something amazing or experiencing something extraordinary. On the other hand, maladaptive daydreaming is a daydream on steroids. A person with maladaptive daydreaming will spend many hours a day daydreaming and creating an alternative and complex fantasy world. According to Dr. Somer, a person who experiences maladaptive daydreaming can create an alternative world with an alternative family and have the same daydream for years. A maladaptive daydream is detailed and elaborate. It can have different characters and story plots. The characters can have real lives and the day dreamer will become emotionally attached to these characters even when they acknowledge that they are not real. It is important to note that the person who experiences maladaptive daydreaming is fully aware that the day-dream characters are not real and can differentiate between what is real and unreal. The person suffering from maladaptive daydreaming might have started by enjoying their complex daydreams, but soon find that it has become an addiction and is no longer volitional. The created world becomes much more satisfying than the real world.
According to Somer maladaptive daydreaming is an exercise in compensation. Extremely shy and introverted or socially anxious people will find great solace in imagining themselves hanging out with famous people or being extremely famous. Abuse survivors are often super hero’s rescuing others. They dream of an idealized self in a world that caters to them. Somer states, the ability to daydream with such detail is not the problem. He states that they are “Born with a special capacity to visualize very vividly… and this is “sort of a gift.” The problem occurs when the person finds themselves living in two worlds and they find it hard to engage in the real world. The daydreaming is so excessive it begins to interfere negatively with their life. The fantasy world begins to take over their lives and causes problems such as the following:
1. Interferes with the real world
A person experiencing maladaptive daydreaming will isolate themselves in order to engage in their fantasy life. Somer states that they spend about 60 percent of their waking time fully immersed in their fantasy world. They are able to engage fully with the characters they have created and exhibit emotions evoked by these characters. Maladaptive daydreaming is almost always accompanied by repetitive body motions such as pacing and rocking. These behaviors ultimately interfere with work, relationships and general activities. The daydreaming is so excessive that they have no time to live their life.
2. The daydreams occur involuntarily
Maladaptive daydreamers report that the daydreams become involuntary and are highly immersive and repetitive. They can experience the perseveration seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders. During monotonous tasks they may constantly shift inward involuntarily.
3. Difficulty disengaging from the day dream
Maladaptive daydreamers have trouble shifting their attention back to the real world. They can become fully immersed in the world they have created. Their daydreaming experiences are lifelike. They are able to enter a different time and place. They are able to have adventures and relationships with the characters they have created. Imagine how difficult it must be to part with a world that has been created solely to cater to your own desires.
Many Maladaptive daydreamers report that they are not able to stop their intense daydreaming. They become addicted to the world they have created. They will continue to isolate themselves in order to live in their fantasy world even to the detriment of their real lives. They will spend the entire day alone getting pleasure from their immersive vivid daydreaming.
Somer’s long term goal is to have maladaptive daydreaming formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by clinicians all over the world to diagnose and treat mental health patients.
This article is not meant to diagnose or be a guide for self-diagnoses. The purpose of this article is to educate readers on maladaptive daydreaming.
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