What is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live a double life?

On the outside, you lead an ordinary existence. In the day, you spend long hours in class or at the office. When evening rolls around, you come home to household chores and family time, or you head out to your favorite restaurant with a group of friends.

But in secret, you maintain a separate life – one filled with adventure, drama, fame, love, and heartbreak. One where you become a brand new person.

Your appearance, identity, and personality are radically different. An entirely new set of friends – and even love interests – occupy your time. You enjoy this world so much that you escape to it every chance you get, even to the point where your second life eclipses the first.

Yet this second life is lived entirely within your own imagination.

Many people have a functional relationship with daydreaming; it may serve as a mental reprieve from a moment of boredom, or as a creative stimulus that propels them toward a life goal. Fantasizing is a means to an end, not something to be done for its own sake.

But for some of us, daydreaming is a much more intimate experience. From the depths of our minds, we can invent an entire universe. Each day brings a new adventure more exciting than anything we could ever experience in real life.

We become so invested in this imaginary world and its characters that we don’t want to pry ourselves away when the demands of real life come calling.

And before we know it, the passion that enriches our lives becomes the obsession that robs us of them.

The Dark Side of Daydreaming

Ninety-six percent of people daydream every day,1  making it a common part of the human experience. Once maligned as a source of “neurosis and even psychosis”,2 daydreaming is becoming more recognized for its beneficial role in the human psyche.

Even several writers and artists credit daydreams as their source of inspiration. Bestselling author Neil Gaiman states in one interview, “As an author, I’ve never forgotten how to daydream.”3 In this regard, Gaiman is far from alone.

But what happens when daydreaming gets out of control? Dr. Eli Somer, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, coined the term maladaptive daydreaming (MD) to describe excessive fantasizing.

According to Somer, compulsive daydreamers may stay lost in their fantasies for hours and even days. Eventually, their habit negatively impacts other areas of their lives – from work or academic pursuits to interpersonal relationships.1

In her article for The Atlantic, Jayne Bigelsen describes her childhood experience with maladaptive daydreaming. As a young girl, she incorporated her favorite television characters into her fantasies. She grew so attached to them that she brought them with her everywhere she went. At this point, she realized that they were taking away from her real life. She writes:

If I woke up in the middle of the night, I couldn’t fall back asleep because the stories kept spinning along. The people I’d meet in real life couldn’t compare with my characters, who were more attractive and fascinating, who could make me cry when their foster parents adopted them or when they went to jail for a double homicide they didn’t commit. I tried to pay attention in school, but unless it was something I truly loved, like drama class, I mostly failed. Somehow I managed to teach myself what I needed to know the night before the tests, and I would ace them, but up until then I would have little idea what we were covering.4

As Bigelsen describes, individuals with MD struggle to keep their fantasies from eroding their personal lives, and become distressed when all of their attempts fail. The emotional highs of daydreaming are simply too tempting to resist, especially if real life lacks the same emotional satisfaction.

What are the Symptoms of Maladaptive Daydreaming?

While maladaptive daydreaming is not yet classified as a mental disorder, people with MD often experience similar signs and symptoms,5 as described below:

  • The MD may have started in childhood. Childhood trauma may be a factor in some cases.6
  • Individuals may have elaborate and highly detailed fantasy worlds.
  • They may neglect other everyday tasks to spend hours and days absorbed into the daydream.
  • Some people experience external “triggers” — movies, books, music, video games, etc. — that draw them into the fantasy world.
  • Individuals may make repetitive movements while daydreaming, such as pacing, rocking, spinning, etc.
  • They may sometimes “act out” their daydreams through talking, laughing, crying, etc.; however, they can still tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

People turn to MD for many reasons, including stress-relief, wish fulfillment, companionship, intimacy, and soothing.1

The Way Forward

At this point in time, the medical community is still unfamiliar with the concept of maladaptive daydreaming. Until there is adequate research, clinicians cannot diagnose and treat the condition as they would another mental disorder. But in the meantime, where does this leave the people who need help?

Through the increasing awareness of maladaptive daydreaming, compulsive fantasizers can take solace in the fact that they are not alone. By seeking out others like them, they no longer have to conceal their double life. Instead, they can work toward creating a new one – a life where the real world and the imaginary world are finally in balance.

Are you a maladaptive daydreamer? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Not sure if you have MD? Check out this helpful quiz. 

References

[1] Somer, Eli. “Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry”. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

[2] Klinger, Eric. “The Power of Daydreams.” Psychology Today (1987): n. pag. Web.

[3] Austin, Jonathan D. “Neil Gaiman: Adults Deserve Good Fairy Tales, Too.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Feb. 1999. Web. 25 June 2016.

[4] Bigelsen, Jayne, and Tina Kelley. “When Daydreaming Replaces Real Life.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 June 2016.

[5] Bachai, Sabrina. “Maladaptive Daydreaming – What Is It?Medical Daily. N.p., 12 July 2013. Web. 20 June 2016.

[6] Ardino, Vittoria. Post-traumatic Syndromes in Childhood and Adolescence: A Handbook of Research and Practice. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 162. Print.

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