Dear Maladaptive Daydreamers,

A glimpse into a lesser-known mental health condition and why it is not recognised

Author: Hannah Balane
Artist: Irina Pirvu
Editor: Monet Ishimaru

We’ve all experienced daydreams to a certain extent – from staring off into space in the lecture hall and wishing we were somewhere else, to pretending we are world leaders speaking giving public speeches, to even reimagining a discussion from several years ago in the shower (but this time with a better argument). Daydreams are so common, in fact, research suggests that we spend about 47% of our waking hours distracted by our daydreams.

However, maladaptive daydreaming (MD) is sometimes referred to as a “daydreaming disorder” and it describes a condition where a person regularly, whether intentionally or not, experiences vivid complex daydreams from hours to days at a time. These are often so intense and sometimes addictive that they can disrupt daily life. For some people, these daydreams can be relatively harmless and are triggered as a form of entertainment in the safety of their home, using stimuli such as music, recent events or even books. For others, it can strike when they least expect it: halfway through a conversation, walking on the way to work but somehow getting lost or in the silence of a funeral perhaps.

The daydreams often start small. From personal experience, it starts with one group of characters with a singular plot. They then start to develop their own personalities, make their own decisions, and live their own lives and before you know it, you’ve created a second (or third or multiple parallel) universe in your head, and you are unable to write it down because it would be akin to writing down the whole of human history from start to finish. While you can control some aspects of the ‘plots’ or ‘actions’ of your characters, I generally prefer to watch how things play out and let them decide how they live. I can make that life (quite literally) everything I have ever dreamed of.

But that is not everything MD is. It is not as wonderfully fanciful as it may seem. No one fully understands the causes of MD, though experts and community members alike have agreed that it may be a coping strategy in response to trauma or stress where it is ‘safer’ to be in an imaginary world than to deal with the reality of things. All the hours spent away from reality means hours away from developing core life skills such as socialising, career or academic progression or simply adapting to living with an undetermined future. An unfortunate truth for many people is that these daydreams start to control their real lives; where weeks may have passed but they still choose to live their daydreams. Although we may be aware of our dreams and their consequences, the temptation of it all can be far stronger.

It has only been recently proposed as a psychological disorder yet has not been officially identified in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11) – the current and approved standard list of clinical diagnoses in England. Upon review of the limited literature on MD, there are indeed reported shared traits with other psychological conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Symptoms (OCSS) including repetitive movements like pacing, unconscious facial expressions and whispering. It can include features of behavioural addiction; where habit becomes an obligation like an unstoppable urge to daydream. These acts could provide evidence that a separate diagnosis for MD is necessary as it does not fully align with more common types of neurodivergence such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder. 

A proposed diagnostic tool called the “Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS)” has been studied in Italian and Turkish populations, with both studies concluding that its use is suitable in their respective populations. The MDS was developed to differentiate between MD and non-MD using three key factors: yearning – the need or urge to spend time daydreaming; impairment – how much disruption and distress it causes; and kinaesthesia – how movement facilitates daydreaming. Naturally, more structured clinical studies would be required to form a proper diagnosis, which in turn could lead to more specific treatment options to be explored. 

Overall, there is a distinct lack of formal studies into this condition (perhaps due to its recent emergence) and like other psychological conditions, it is complex and affects a spectrum of people. Maladaptive daydreaming is an escape for many, a hobby for some and a unique experience for each individual.

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