Everyone fantasizes or daydreams while awake now and then. As noted by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. for “Psychology Today,” the human brain is capable of a particular type of neural networking that allows people to focus better on certain mental tasks that require their imagination and shift their attention away from their external environment.
Via what psychologists refer to as this “default network,” people can imagine visually and to varying degrees with other senses a wide range of things. For example, they might imagine events that they personally experienced (i.e. memories), real and fictional people and events that they learn about, the outcomes of events they anticipate will happen someday in the near or far-flung future, and fictional events that they create in their minds based on a combination of real-world experiences and fictional writings and other stimuli.
Daydreaming is considered a healthy, normal human process that helps people better understand the world around and their relationships with others. People also use daydreaming to rehearse conversations they expect to have or important events that involve interacting with others like giving a speech in front of a crowd and making short-term and long-term plans. In fact, psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that daydreaming could even be utilized as a healthy form of meditation.
Daydreaming becomes a problem when it increases a person’s already negative emotions or serves as an obsessive coping mechanism for escaping real-world problems. The term “Maladapative Daydreaming,” abbreviated to “MD,” is not yet officially recognized as an official mental health condition diagnosis. It first appeared in medical literature after Eli Somer, PhD., an Israeli college professor, published information about the topic in the “Journal of Contemporary Psychology” in 2002. In that paper, he described MD as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.”
Maladaptive daydreamers might lose up to 60 percent of their entire “waking life” to the fantasies that they create in their own minds. Unlike with schizophrenia, where a sufferer can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality at times, people who daydream in this seemingly abnormal fashion never believe that the fantasy is their actual reality. Instead, they become lost in daydreaming until they either manage to deal with the trigger for the daydream through fantasy scenarios or an external influence pulls them out of the fantasy.
People who compulsively daydream typically have difficulty restraining themselves from switching over to their fantasies when they need to focus on real-world tasks, situations and responsibilities. They prefer their fantasies so much to reality that they start to only feel what they consider to be “real” pleasure, joy and contentment in their dreams.
MD sufferers often fantasize for hours at a time. While they daydream, they might talk or sing, emote physically, pace back and forth or in circles, rock while seated, gesticulate to match movements of characters, or repetitively play with something in their hands. When talking out loud, their voices might change to match the voices of characters they have imagined in their heads.
In almost all MD fantasies, events seem far outside the “norm” of a dreamer’s actual life or hyper real. These scenarios are what you might expect to see in TV shows, films and books. A sick person might daydream about being physically fit and capable of traveling around the world or in fantasy worlds and interacting with exciting people. A child in a bad home might repeatedly escape into daydreams about a life with a stereotypical loving family while in the real world they never seek help from teachers or the parents of friends. An unemployed father might obsessively dream about a future where he has a high-paying career and then in real life fail to even look for a job.
Dramatic plots in dreams might unfold that present reality as much faster, violent and sexualized than the “norm.” Many maladaptive dreamers add in non-real characters and events like dragons and faeries or imagine things that have not happened in known human history like meeting aliens and traveling to other galaxies. MD dreamers often imagine they have greater control than they do in the real world. Their characters might also play out domination and submission and rescue and escape scenarios.
A lot of people experience an obsessive component within the storytelling aspect of the dreams where they have to repeatedly return to previous characterizations and plots and play them out again and again until they feel that they have “perfected” those moments.
Maladaptive daydreamers fantasize excessively to positively enhance their mood, fill in a void that exists in their lives in areas like wish fulfillment, companionship and intimacy, or to help cope with physical or environmental stresses and pain. Maladaptive daydreamers are more likely to have low self-esteem because of their self-talk or daily negative reinforcement from people in their lives who tell them that they are not good enough.
MD sufferers typically started out as creative but normal children who then had negative or severely traumatic childhood or adult life experiences that prompted them to turn to far more pleasant fantasy world(s) to escape bad memories or continuing painful experiences in the real world.
Many people who suffer from MD were found to have been neglected or verbally, physically and/or sexually abused as children. Some were repeatedly bullied based on their physical appearance or social standing or made to constantly feel guilt or shame by other children, parents/guardians or people in authority positions. Some MD sufferers have been greatly disappointed by all of their relationships with family, friends, co-workers and others or feel that they should have better or different lives than the ones they are leading. A person dealing with MD might also be severely ill and struggling with mobility problems or severe pain and living alone without a strong support system.
Maladaptive daydreamers are more likely to feel that they can’t have more satisfying real-world lives or relationships or that the world is too overwhelming, fearful or threatening. They might practice real-world direct confrontation avoidance behavior where they fantasize how their ideal self would manage or control a situation instead of ever dealing with it directly head on. Some MD sufferers feel under-appreciated, ignored or over-controlled in their real lives or experience intense desires to be something they are not currently in reality such as brave, outgoing, funny or pain-free.
Since Maladaptive Daydreaming is not recognized officially, some maladaptive daydreamers believe that this extensive and intensive daydreaming is an element of creative gifts that are unique to them and do not seek any sort of medical assistance even when it takes over their lives.
Given that MD is also typically tied to past or present negative experiences and trauma and some patients feel shameful about those events and/or their inability to stop their obsessive fantasizing, a lot of sufferers are unwilling to talk to psychologists and or people in their social networks about their situation and fail to seek treatment at all. Some people were also told as children by their abusers that they imagined abuse or that they would get into trouble if they ever talked about it with anyone.
Those MD sufferers who believe that they have an addiction and have sought professional help typically do not receive the help that they need. Most doctors consider this type of creativity a normal general activity or normal special ability or gift that opens doors to creative career opportunities or helps those who have MD see the world in unique ways. Members of the medical community typically also consider daydreaming a controllable process.
Doctors who do believe that their patients need help consider MD a symptom of depression or related to a recognized condition like Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Stereotypic Movement Disorder and recommend psychotherapy to determine the cause of the symptoms and/or anti-depression medication. In those cases, some of their patients refuse drug treatment because they fear that they will stop being as creative overall or lose the memories of the world(s) that made them happy for so long.
Some doctors believe that MD is rooted in heightened creativity, a positive trait, and recommend that patients immerse themselves in external outlets that offer them more creative challenges.
There is currently no method for preventing the initial onset of maladaptive daydreaming other than for parents, educators and doctors to do more to recognize the signs of MD as early as possible. They then need to help children break the habit and introduce better outlets for those who experience heightened creativity, such as writing, sculpting and acting.
In children and adults who currently struggle with this type of daydreaming, it is important that they or their caregivers attempt to determine the source of the original cause of the addiction and then attempt the treatment methods outlined in the above section with the oversight of a physician and therapist.
Patients who have experienced successful treatment need to remember that backsliding can occur with Maladaptive Daydreaming as with any addiction. They need to find healthy ways to better cope when faced with new traumas and stresses. They should also invest in building a support system of people from all areas of their life who they trust to help them recognize the signs of a relapse or alert their medical team and attempt an intervention.