Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Let’s start with a story. ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a movie that takes us into the fantasy world of Walter Mitty who routinely daydreams that he is the hero of a grand adventure. Sometimes he is a wartime pilot, at other times he is an emergency surgeon or a cold-blooded assassin…
However, the most heart-breaking part of this tale is the stark contrast between his daydreams and his real life, where he is a timid man who gets pushed around by other people. This story reminds us that our habit of fantasizing may give us more than we bargained for. We all daydream now and then, where our mind wanders from one fantasy to the next. It can be normal and even healthy as it enhances creativity, facilitates goal-setting, and provides a mental break. But for some of us, daydreaming can take a darker turn...
Maladaptive Daydreaming (MD) is when people spend excessive amounts of time daydreaming (often for hours at a time). The term MD was coined in 2002 by clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr. Eli Somer. His research showed that people with this condition get so absorbed in daydreams that they substitute them for human interaction and neglect their daily activities. However, MD is not a diagnosable mental health condition and is yet to be classified in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Many people who deal with MD report that these daydreams play out almost like a TV show or movie in their minds. These daydreams tend to be more vivid and realistic than regular daydreams and may feature elaborate storylines and characters. Individuals become so immersed in their daydreams that they may respond to them with vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions. Some may even rely on using movies, music, images, and other stimuli to enhance the experience. MD has symptoms that are similar to what is seen in addiction and impulse control disorders. For instance, daydreaming can become a compulsion i.e., the individual finds it difficult to stop themselves from doing it even if they want to. Additionally, they begin to prefer their fantasy worlds to real life and experience something akin to withdrawal where they become irritable if it is not possible to escape into a fantasy world. People who spend excessive amounts of time daydreaming become so immersed in their imagination that they may lose touch with the here and now. This can have an impact on day-to-day functioning. MD can cause inattention, lowered productivity and lowered engagement in social and recreational activities. Additionally, in MD, people often use their fantasy life as a way to escape their problems or difficult emotions. The more realistic the daydream, the more the individual disconnects from reality. This
triggers a vicious cycle where real life becomes even more impaired and unsatisfactory due to the excessive time spent daydreaming causing further withdrawal into fantasy.
The roots of MD are unclear. It has been associated with a history of trauma and abuse. Research shows that daydreaming often begins in childhood, as children learn to escape from trauma by creating vivid, imaginary worlds for themselves which may extend into adulthood. In daydreams, individuals are free to create idealized versions of themselves and their lives as a way to escape the dissatisfaction, loneliness, and shame that they experience. They seek to fulfill their needs of emotional connection, validation, and self-worth in the fantasy world. However, this can often keep individuals from making the healthy changes they want in their lives.
Aside from this, research shows that people are more susceptible to MD if they have an inborn propensity for vivid imaginings. Additionally, MD appears to be more common among people who have comorbid conditions such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. There is no standard treatment for MD. Psychotherapy can help people identify the underlying issue prompting MD and find ways to manage it. This may involve addressing underlying trauma, emotional regulation issues, and interpersonal problems. Additionally, treating co-existing conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD is also possible through both therapeutic and medical intervention.
There are also some self-help strategies for individuals to curb maladaptive daydreaming. Often people who daydream feel ashamed about doing so, and joining online communities and support groups for people with MD can be a way to feel supported and less alone. Furthermore, mindfulness practices such as meditation can help individuals be more present in their lives. Reducing time spent online or watching TV which can stimulate daydreams more easily is also recommended. Because daydreaming is often a strategy to cope with overwhelming emotions, finding alternatives for this such as physical exercise, artwork and other hobbies can be helpful. Additionally, going out, attending events, and meeting people can help people shift back into the real world.