Living in parallel lives: when daydreaming is a psychiatric condition

For most people, daydreaming is a fun little pastime but some people experience frequent and intrusive daydreams. When daydreaming becomes an extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with one’s job, studies or interpersonal relationships, we talk about maladaptive daydreaming [MD] (Somer, 2002). MD is not formally identified by diagnostic manuals yet but it is a clinically well-defined phenomenon.

What does a typical universe of a maladaptive daydreamer [MDer] look like? Generally, dreams are consistent, their universes are whole and there are often recurrent characters. The sagas can last for months or even years. It’s like a long and elaborated scenario of a TV show. The dreamer has mostly a first role where he/she/they is often a hero·ine, an incredibly talented character who always finds a way to save the situation. They are two main themes in MDers plots: (1) relationships and family life and (2) social status (success, recognition, power & fame; Somer et al., 2016). 

MDers often report having sensory components associated with their daydreams, their senses are stimulated even in the absence of external stimuli such as imagery, smells or noises (Somer et al., 2016). It feels like external reality, they are really living in the story they are creating. MDers also report affects during their daydreams: they can make themselves cry, laugh, and feel all kinds of emotions. However, they are fully aware that they are creating stories so it’s not similar to hallucinations. 

The activation of MD requires solitude. Most MDers also report activating daydreaming with kinesthetic activity or music which helps to get immersed in the imaginary world. MDers can get really deeply absorbed in their daydream world, which seem to be one of the main differences with non-MDers who can’t completely immerse themselves. 

MD is an impediment to life functioning: MDers report spending on average 57% of their waking hours in fantasy activity (Bigelsen et al., 2016)! As MDers are deeply immersed in their imaginary world, they get emotionally involved and can get very attached to their characters which makes it difficult to get out or limit daydreaming. However, they seem to be able to reduce daydreaming when they absolutely have to, for example when they are in public (Bigelsen et al., 2016). MD is still a time-consuming activity that interferes with achieving life goals and completing everyday tasks and in the end causes distress.

MD is yet an under-researched disorder and MDers are often misdiagnosed because this disorder is little known. Psychiatrists may think they are schizophrenic but MDers are fully aware that they are creating daydreams. They are also often diagnosed with ADHD as they have difficulties to stay focused – when they are bored, they easily start daydreaming. They are also often suspected to have a dissociative disorder as they are living in two (or more) worlds with different roles.

  • Bigelsen, J., Lehfeld, J.M., Jopp, D.S. & Somer, E. (2016). Maladaptive daydreaming: evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 254-266.
  • Somer, E. (2002). Maladaptive Daydreaming: a Qualitative Inquiry. Journal or Contemporary Psychotherapy, 32 (2). 
  • Somer, E., Somer, L. & Jopp, D.S. (2016). Parallel lives : A phenomenological study of the lived experience of maladaptive daydreaming. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(5), 561-576.
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Author : Johanna Henry