Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Mental Disorder?

We all know it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and maladaptive daydreaming certainly fits the bill. But what if the fantasies you escape to are actually signs of a mental disorder?

Overcoming the challenges of maladaptive daydreaming isn’t easy, especially when you lack support from the people around you. Quite simply, the fear that your daydreams are taking over your life is a concern that most people can’t relate to. Even doctors aren’t sure what to do when their patients beg them for a way to stop fantasizing.

But as MD grows in awareness, and people discover that they, too, are maladaptive daydreamers, that may all change. More people will come forward about their struggles with excessive daydreaming, and the health care system will have to address the problem.

Could this mean that MD becomes an official mental disorder? The change would put maladaptive daydreaming alongside schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and many other mental illnesses.

But while living with maladaptive daydreaming is no picnic, is the condition significant enough to call it a disorder?  That’s what we’re going to look at in this article. We’ll go through the criteria MD has to meet to be designated a mental illness, and see how it measures up. We’ll also examine whether or not this classification is a good thing.

Mental Disorders: A Profile

Before we begin, let’s define what a mental disorder is. According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition):

A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities.1

In other words, to be considered a mental illness, maladaptive daydreaming must be an ongoing problem that causes serious mental or physical distress. The symptoms could include anxiety, stress, depression, self-injury, and many others.

Do people with MD suffer serious distress? Yes, according to one study. Researchers found the answer to this question with the help of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale – a special self-report tool that measures how much MD gets in the way of daily activity.

They focused on three key areas: the amount of time spent daydreaming, health-related issues, and social issues. The results of the study showed that when compared to normal daydreamers, people with MD spent more time daydreaming and reported higher levels of social and health-related problems.2 

Although psychologists will need to perform more trials, the findings of this study confirm what we already know about maladaptive daydreaming.

MD causes significant harm to people in numerous ways. The activity absorbs a massive amount of time, preventing individuals from carrying out normal daily routines. They may ignore their bodies’ hunger signals or have trouble falling asleep.

Lastly, as they retreat deeper into their fantasies, they isolate themselves from family members and friends. All of these problems can have drastic effects on an individual’s well-being.

Is Maladaptive Daydreaming Linked to Other Mental Disorders?

People with MD express feeling that their daydreaming is addictive and that they can’t stop, even though they would like to.

Their fantasies interrupt their thoughts constantly. Even the smallest trigger can catapult them into a daydream, such as a movie scene or a catchy song. Not surprisingly, they struggle with attention and concentration issues.

All of these symptoms are associated with other mental illnesses, suggesting that there may be a connection.2

And as expected, in the same study, the researchers found that maladaptive daydreaming had associations with at least two other mental disorders: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the data, MD had a link with the obsessive aspect of OCD, as well as the inattentive component of ADHD.2

Should Maladaptive Daydreaming Become the Next Mental Disorder?

Based on everything we’ve discussed, is there enough evidence to classify MD as a psychiatric disorder? Although maladaptive daydreaming demonstrates the hallmarks of mental illness, we probably won’t see it join the ranks of other disorders for some time. Right now there are too few studies to come to such a firm conclusion.

However, if future evidence is anything like what we’ve seen from this initial study, there’s a good chance that MD could one day be added to the DSM.

With that being said, a question that’s on the minds of many skeptics is: is classifying maladaptive daydreaming as a mental disorder a good thing?

One point that critics argue is that recognizing MD as a mental disorder only stigmatizes natural creativity. They claim that maladaptive daydreaming is simply a manifestation of an imaginative mind and that it’s dangerous to pathologize what may be on the spectrum of normal, human behavior. Many are concerned that maladaptive daydreaming is yet another invention of a society that frowns on innovation.

There’s no doubt that people with MD tend to be very creative. Many of them spend years building elaborate inner worlds and even channel this creativity into their art, music, and writing.

However, it’s simply impossible to overlook the problems that maladaptive daydreaming creates. While most individuals do enjoy engaging with their imagination, they want to be able to balance this aspect of themselves with the rest of their lives.

As a society, our effort should be geared toward helping people create this balance, regardless of whether or not MD becomes a mental disorder.

Final Thoughts

Right now, there are people with MD struggling with doctors just to get their issues taken seriously. In the interest of these individuals, we need to devote more time into rooting out the nature of maladaptive daydreaming. Clinicians need to be given the knowledge and the tools to better help their ailing patients. And most importantly, patients need access to resources that they can use to help themselves get better.

Whether or not it is added to the DSM, maladaptive daydreaming deserves a more prominent place in our conscious awareness. Thankfully, due to the efforts of researchers and the growing online support, the wheel has been set in motion for this exact scenario to play out – and that can only be a good thing.

Do you think maladaptive daydreaming should be considered a mental disorder? Why or why not?

References

[1] Maisel, Eric R. “The New Definition of a Mental Disorder.” Psychology Today. N.p., 23 July 2013. Web. 29 June 2016.

[2]Somer, Eli, Jonathan Lehrfeld, Jayne Bigelsen, and Daniela S. Jopp. “Development and Validation of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS).” Consciousness and Cognition 39 (2016): 77-91. Web. 25 June 2016.

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