Daydreaming can be a fun, momentary escape from reality and could also enhance brain performance, according to recent research. But excessive daydreaming could signal the onset of a psychological disorder, Israeli researchers warn.
Researchers from Israel’s University of Haifa, Fordham University in New York, and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, have found that people who spend an average of 60 percent of their waking time in an imaginary world could have a disorder they call “Maladaptive Daydreaming.” The newly discovered disorder involves creating an imaginary world while realizing it is a fantasy, and without losing contact with the real world.
“Daydreaming usually starts as a small fantasy that makes people feel good, but over time the process becomes addictive until it takes over their lives. At this stage, the disorder is accompanied by feelings of shame and a sense of lack of fulfillment, but because until now the disorder has been unknown, when they come to receive treatment, therapists usually dismiss their complaints,” according to Haifa University’s Prof. Eli Somer, who’s considered the first to identify the disorder and describe it in a series of studies.
Wandering of thoughts, fantasies and daydreams are part of the inner world of almost everyone, and they are depicted in popular culture – in literature and film (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one example). However, until now science has not addressed the pathological aspects of this otherwise normal mental activity.
Now, a series of studies published recently in leading journals in psychology and psychiatry shed light on this psychological disorder.
In 2002, Somer was treating adults who had been sexually abused as children. He identified six survivors who used to escape regularly into a world of imagination, where they fantasized compensatory empowering stories in which they enjoyed traits and life experiences that were missing in their real lives.
Since then, Somer and his team conducted additional studies and interviewed dozens of individuals who claimed to be suffering from the phenomenon. The researchers discovered that although maladaptive daydreaming first started as a positive experience providing pleasure and relaxation, it quickly developed into an addictive habit that took over their lives and impaired their functioning.
“Maladaptive daydreaming naturally necessitates isolation from others and is almost always accompanied by repetitive body motions, such as pacing or rocking,” Somer said in a statement. “About a quarter of these individuals had endured childhood trauma and many suffered from social anxiety.”
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One of his most recent studies reported the development and validation of a maladaptive daydreaming scale (MDS) using a large sample of 447 individuals. The MDS was shown to differentiate between normal and maladaptive daydreaming and offered diagnostic and research instruments for the newly discovered disorder.
An ability to feel fully present in a self-directed imaginary plot
In another study, 340 participants ages 13–78 from 45 countries were tested. The data showed that individuals affected by the disorder spent about 60 percent of their waking time daydreaming, and more than half said that the disorder disrupted their sleep and that the first thing they are aware of when they wake up in the morning is their urge to daydream.
Respondents reported having rich fantasy worlds with complex story lines. They tended to daydream significantly more about fictional tales and characters, in contrast to the daydreaming among the control group, whose members’ daydreams were anchored in reality (e.g., the desire to earn more money, to find an attractive partner, etc.). Of the participants with MD, 97 percent reported different levels of distress.
“People with this disorder have developed an extraordinary ability to become completely immersed in daydreaming, to such an extent that their daydreams can make them laugh or cry,” Somer explains. “This ability to feel fully present in a self-directed imaginary plot is not only a powerful source of the attraction, but it also makes it difficult to disengage from it, creating a mental addiction. When people spend about 60 percentof their waking time daydreaming, it’s no wonder that they feel frustrated that they can’t achieve their goals in life.”
The next step in his research will focus on developing an effective treatment for sufferers.
Somer conducted the studies with Jayne Bigelsen and Jonathan Lehrfeld of Fordham University in New York City, along with Prof. Daniela Jopp from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and Liora Somer from the the Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.