Imagine toggling between real life and a compelling virtual reality. For maladaptive daydreamers, reality and fantasy is distorted, and a quick pinch simply won’t cut it. Zoning out isn’t just part of everyday life for these individuals—it’s an extraordinary disorder.
Daydreaming is a universal phenomenon that lets us “disconnect from thoughts, feelings, surroundings and perception of time,” said Joanne C. Ongsitco, a Miami-based trauma-informed psychotherapist. She continued to add that these dreams help us to briefly “escape” by “imagining or picturing scenarios when we’re experiencing significant stress, anxiety, depression or life challenges.”
Dr. Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, said that daydreaming can often be a constructive opportunity for reflection. “When it happens outside a task,” she explained, “[daydreaming] can be helpful.” Its benefits can include an uplifted mood and heightened creativity. But if the dreams become too persistent, she said, it can signal as a problem for individuals.
Too much of anything is bad for you—or so the adage goes. Does this include intensive, indulgent over-daydreaming? Experts say yes. Dr. Eli Somer, professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel, was the first to address this psychiatric disorder termed maladaptive daydreaming (MD), which he explored in a 2002 paper for the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.
Initial patients, he discovered, were often survivors of childhood trauma who “developed the capacity to become absorbed in their minds to get away from the pains of their upbringings.” Somer and fellow scientists now co-direct Israel’s International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming Research (ICMDR), dedicated to advancing awareness of the condition and collecting and publishing scholarly work to inform others.
Maladaptive daydreams, Somer said in a YouTube video, are often so vivid that they include elaborate and fantastical storylines, often involving repetitive physical movement and exposure to evocative music.
Somer further distinguished the contrast between immersive, or normal, and maladaptive daydreaming: “If [one’s daydreaming] does not compromise reality [and is] not distressing,” he said, “then it’s not maladaptive—[it] is a gift to enjoy.” Immersive daydreaming, he continued, only becomes abnormal when it’s so enticing that patients prefer the daydreams over real life, often at the expense of their mental health—hence the adjective maladaptive.
“Internal distraction” or mind-wandering, Jha explained in a 2017 TEDx talk, can harm attention spans like “external distractions” in the environment. Like alcohol and substance abuse, MD poses a threatening addictive quality. Excessive daydreamers uncontrollably crave reveries to the point that their emotional distress explodes and multiplies, damaging their productivity and interfering with their ability to function. Put simply, MD seriously harms one’s concentration and can disrupt their work, studies, social life and human interactions.
Because it’s not officially deemed an illness according to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Somer said in a YouTube video, MD is sometimes dismissed by doctors as a non-pathological habit or misdiagnosed as psychotic hallucinations. Psychologists have also correlated its symptoms with ADD, OCD, depression, dissociation and social anxiety. There’s currently no nail-on-the-head cure for MD, but counseling for similar conditions may be applied to treat maladaptive daydreamers. “Utilizing grounding strategies can be a great start to bringing one’s self back into the current moment,” Ongsitco said. Somer suggested in a YouTube video avoiding triggering cues such as soothing music as well as being alone.
These daydreamers are often struck with confusion, especially when—unconsciously—acting out their trances in public. And while this mental compulsion may sound fascinating on the surface, it’s no laughing matter for victims and their loved ones. Fortunately, this dreamy disorder is on its way to becoming normalized in academia thanks to the ICMDR, and victims may soon get the help they need and deserve.
words_ gianna milan. design_avani choudhary.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.