EToday Kayla* travels to a fictional universe with advanced space travel. This, of course, is not real, but an incredibly vivid vision, in the center of which is the main character with a detailed history. “It covers 79 years of my main character’s life,” she says. “I know how it all happens and I can dive into it any moment I want to experience it.”
Today, this habit is pure entertainment, which it limits to just an hour a day. “It’s like watching Netflix,” she says. “I just go inside my head and enjoy it.” However, in the past, she felt that her fantasies had become all-consuming. “There was a moment when it was like an addiction.”
Karina Lopez tells a similar story. Her dreams focus on conversations with different characters – some real, some imaginary. She will replay the same scenario, tweaking the details, a process she finds incredibly enjoyable. “As soon as I wake up, I want to dream.”
In college, she became so engrossed in these fantasies that she forgot to study for exams or run errands. “I put off so many things, but I feel so good right now,” she says. On average, she now spends about three hours a day daydreaming, but on bad days in the past, she could spend up to six hours locked in her inner world.
Such reports are of increasing interest to psychologists, who have begun to isolate a subset of the population characterized by unusually exciting dreams. At their best, these vivid and obsessive fantasies can be a source of pleasure and comfort, but they can also be a major cause of procrastination and distraction, and can prevent people from maintaining their social connections, caring for their health, or even eating regularly. .
As studies show that one in 40 people may experience these problems, it’s becoming increasingly likely that “maladaptive daydreaming” will soon be officially recognized as a mental disorder. So what is it? And how can it be treated?
PRoth Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, was the first to identify this phenomenon. In his practice, he encountered six patients who described entering into vivid fantasies as a way to soothe their psychological pain.
After a romantic breakup, one patient simply continued the relationship in his head; another, faced with extreme loneliness, imagined the conversations he would like to have. “This is an escape from what is happening here and now,” a third patient told him. “There are many circumstances in everyday life that scare me. Dreams help me not to feel fear.”
Somer recognized their reports as a form of dissociation not previously described in the scientific literature, and so, coining the term “maladaptive dreaming”, he wrote an article describing this phenomenon for Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.
It immediately became apparent that these intense fantasies were very different from the mind wandering that the average person might experience. “Mind wandering can be a fleeting thought,” explains Dr. David Markusson-Clavertz, a psychologist at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden. “You can read a book and then spontaneously think of an old friend.” Although people with inadequate daydreams may also be prone to these distractions, their fantasies are complex, detailed, and intrusive.
Consider the experience of an inadequate dreamer named Michelle. Her dreams involve international travel, working as a reporter in a disaster area, and doing important research about Covid. The story she comes up with is often so complex that she can spend hours searching the Internet for specific details to fuel her fantasies. “In my head, I see it very clearly – like I’m drawing what I did yesterday.”
Many inadequate daydreamers report being motivated by regular movement—and may even use rocking motions or steps to get into the right mental zone, a bit like self-hypnosis.
Despite the minute details of their fantasies, immersive dreamers do not confuse their fantasies with reality and do not tend to appear out of nowhere. “It’s voluntary – it’s not intrusive,” says Somer. This distinguishes it from psychosis, in which one is less aware of one’s mental state, and daydreaming in and of itself is not detrimental to one’s mental health.
Problems arise when it comes to excess. As noted in Somer’s original article, many people use their dreams to escape negative emotions. This may provide short-term relief, but may prevent the person from facing problems that may be the source of their suffering. In the same vein, a recent study by Somer and Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev asked participants to keep a daily record of their feelings and behaviors over a two-week period. They found that negative emotions often come up after a day of particularly excessive daydreaming.
Meanwhile, a study by Professor Alessandro Musetti of the University of Parma in Italy examined people’s reactions to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He found that inadequate daydreamers are particularly prone to higher levels of depression and anxiety, further suggesting that escaping to an alternate reality does little to address the real suffering one faces.
For many inadequate dreamers, fantasies are so useful that they take precedence over real life experiences. Think of Pietra’s words: “Nothing else brings such pleasure.” She says that at some point in her life, she could not live 10 minutes without falling into a waking dream. “I would go into them no matter what I did.” It interfered with her studies, relationships, and even regular meals. “I put off eating for two to three hours while I was fasting,” she says. “And the food was right there to be eaten.”
Such reports have led some psychologists, including Somer, to view maladaptive daydreaming as an addiction, akin to compulsive gaming or alcoholism. “Immersive daydreaming is like drinking a glass of fine wine,” he says. “But drinking a bottle of vodka every day is not good.”
Despite the severe difficulties they face, many inadequate dreamers find it difficult to share their experiences with the people around them. “I only told three people and they had a similar reaction: they looked like they wanted to laugh,” Karina Lopez tells me. Michel agrees that these questions may seem trivial from the outside. “It’s like you have a lot of control,” she says. But trust me, I tried. For this reason, she said, it was more difficult to uncover her inappropriate dreams than her anxiety and depression, even despite the stigma surrounding these mental illnesses.
Ddespite our lack of awareness and understanding, these kinds of experiences are surprisingly common. In a survey of over 1,000 Jewish Israeli participants, Soffer-Dudek found that about 2.5% of the population met the criteria for inadequate daydreaming. It’s one in 40 people, which means the condition is more common than anorexia nervosa or obsessive-compulsive disorder and similar in prevalence to generalized anxiety disorder. While further research will need to ascertain prevalence among larger and more global samples, it seems likely that at least one of your acquaintances will struggle with the urge to escape into their addictive fantasies.
Interestingly, maladaptive daydreaming appears to be much more common among people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with a recent article reporting a prevalence of around 20%. (Furthermore, 77% of people with maladaptive daydreams have been diagnosed with ADHD.) It appears that the constant desire to daydream contributes to difficulty concentrating and focusing—and this group may need different forms of treatment than other people with the disorder. ADHD.
Given this data, Somer believes that maladaptive daydreaming should be officially recognized as a disorder by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “We have accumulated a lot of evidence to show the reliability of this design and that it cannot be better explained by any other mental illness,” he says, adding that he has already received positive feedback on his proposal.
Musetti agrees that we need to raise awareness among healthcare professionals. He says there is a rapidly growing number of people on the Internet describing inappropriate daydreams, but these bloggers often hit a wall when they try to get professional help. “They often find neither recognition of their suffering nor appropriate treatment,” he says.
How exactly one should treat inappropriate daydreaming remains an open question, although there are promising signs that people can learn to control their habit. In 2018, Somer published a case study of a 25-year-old student named Ben who spent about three hours a day in his fantasies. Ben was initially diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin, which only increased his tendency to daydream.
While working with Ben to find a potential solution, Somer suggested CBT and mindfulness training. For example, Ben wrote down circumstances that seemed to be related to his inadequate daydreams and prepared careful plans for each day to try and lessen the temptation. And when he caught himself immersing himself in his fantasies, he tried to interrupt the plot of the dreams with an unsatisfactory ending. By the end of six months, he had reduced his habit by about 50%.
Building on this success, Somer has since run a clinical trial with hundreds of participants. While the study has yet to be published, he says the results are “very encouraging.”
Both Somer and Musetti agree that in many cases it may be impossible or even undesirable for people to get rid of their dreams entirely; instead, the goal should be to empower them to regulate their habit and find alternative ways to process their negative emotions. “Perhaps they could limit it to certain times of the day,” says Somer.
Kayla, for example, wouldn’t want to completely lose her dreams. Although her fantasies were once inadequate, they no longer dominate her life. Instead of using daydreaming just to avoid negative feelings, she says she can use conversations with her characters to gain insight into issues. She credits it with saving her life during one mental health crisis. It’s impossible to completely suppress dreams, she thinks. “It’s just how your brain works – you can’t just turn it off.”
* To maintain confidentiality, Kayla, Michelle and Pietra have asked the Observer not to publish their last names.
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