‘I just go in my head and enjoy it’: people who can’t stop dreaming

Every day, Kyla* travels through a fictional universe with advanced space travel. It’s not real, of course, but an incredibly vivid daydream, centered around a protagonist with a detailed story. “It covers 79 years of my main character’s life,” she says. “I know how everything is going and I can immerse myself in it any time I want to live.”

Today, this habit is pure entertainment, which she limits to one hour a day. “It’s like watching Netflix,” she says. “I just go in my head and enjoy it.” In the past, however, she had felt that her fantasies had become all-consuming. “There was a time when it was like an addiction.”

Karina Lopez tells a similar story. Her daydreams center on conversations with different characters – some real, some imaginary. She’ll replay the same script, tweaking the details – a process she finds incredibly enjoyable. “As soon as I wake up, I want to dream.”

In college, she became so lost in these fantasies that she forgot to study for her exams or run errands. “I’ve put off so many things – but in the moment it feels so good,” she says. On average, she now spends about three hours a day immersed in daydreams, but on bad days in the past, she could spend up to six hours locked in her inner world.

Such reports are of growing interest to psychologists, who have begun to identify a subset of the population marked for their unusually immersive daydreams. At best, these vivid and compulsive fantasies can be a source of pleasure and comfort, but they can also be a serious cause of procrastination and distraction, and can prevent people from maintaining social connections, taking care of their health or even eating regular meals. .

With research revealing that up to one in 40 people may experience these problems, it seems increasingly likely that ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ will soon be officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder. So what is it? And how can it be treated?

Prof Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, was the first to identify the phenomenon. In his practice, he met six patients who described entering into vivid fantasies as a way to soothe their psychological pain.

Following a breakup, a patient simply continued the relationship in his head; another, faced with extreme loneliness, would imagine the conversations he wished he could have had. “It’s an escape from what’s happening here and now,” a third patient told her. “There are many circumstances in everyday life that scare me. Daydreaming helps me not to feel fear.

Somer recognized their intercourse as a form of dissociation that had not previously been described in the scientific literature, and so, coining the term maladaptive dreaming, he wrote a paper describing the phenomenon for the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

It was immediately apparent that these intense fantasies were very different from the kind of mind wandering the average person might experience. “Mind wandering can be fleeting thoughts,” says Dr. David Marcusson-Clavertz, a psychologist at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden. “You may be reading a book and spontaneously thinking of an old friend.” Although people with maladaptive daydreams may also be prone to these distractions, their fantasies are complex, detailed, and compulsive.

Consider the experiences of a misfit dreamer named Michelle. Her daydreams have involved international travel, working as a journalist in a disaster area and conducting significant Covid research. The story she constructs is often so complex that she can spend hours finding the exact details on the internet to fuel the fantasies. “In my head, I see it very clearly – as if imagining what I did yesterday.”

Many maladaptive dreamers report being enticed by regular movement – ​​and they may even use rocking or pacing movements to get into the right mental zone, much like self-hypnosis.

Despite the detail of their fantasies, immersive dreamers don’t confuse their fantasies with reality, and they don’t tend to come out of nowhere. “It’s intentional – it’s not intrusive,” says Somer. This differentiates it from psychosis, in which a person is less aware of their mental state, and daydreaming is not – in itself – harmful to someone’s mental health.

The problems come when it is taken to excess. As Somer’s original article noted, many people use their daydreams to escape negative emotions. This may offer short-term relief, but it may prevent the person from dealing with issues that may be causing their distress. Along these lines, a recent study by Somer and Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev asked participants to keep a daily diary of their feelings and behaviors over a two-week period. They found that negative emotions often rose after a particularly excessive day of daydreaming.

A study by Professor Alessandro Musetti of the University of Parma in Italy, meanwhile, looked at people’s reactions to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He found that maladaptive dreamers were particularly likely to experience higher levels of depression and anxiety, again suggesting that escaping to an alternate reality does not resolve the actual distress someone is facing.

For many maladaptive dreamers, fantasies are so rewarding that they override real-life experiences. Consider the words of Pietra: “Nothing else is so pleasant.” She says there was a time in her life when she couldn’t go 10 minutes without going into a daydream. “I would go into them no matter what I did.” It interfered with his college studies, his relationships, and even his regular meals. “I postponed my meals for two or three hours while I was starving,” she says. “And the food was there to be eaten.”

Such reports have led some psychologists, including Somer, to consider maladaptive daydreaming an addiction, similar to compulsive gambling or alcoholism. “The immersive daydreaming could be like drinking a glass of superb wine,” he says. “But drinking a bottle of vodka every day is not good.”

Despite the severe difficulties they face, many maladjusted dreamers find it difficult to share their experiences with the people around them. “I only talked to three people about it and they had similar reactions: they looked like they wanted to laugh,” Karina Lopez tells me. Michelle agrees that, from the outside, the issues may seem superficially insignificant. “It sounds like something you can control very well,” she says. “But believe me: I tried.” Because of this, she says, it has been harder to disclose her maladaptive dreams than her anxiety and depression, even with the stigma surrounding these mental illnesses.

DDespite our lack of awareness and understanding, such experiences are surprisingly common. In a survey of over 1,000 Israeli Jewish participants, Soffer-Dudek found that about 2.5% of the population met the criteria for maladaptive daydreaming. That’s one in 40 people, which would mean the condition is more common than anorexia nervosa or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and similar in prevalence to generalized anxiety disorder. While further studies will need to establish prevalence among larger, more global samples, it seems likely that at least one of your acquaintances will struggle with an urge to escape into their immersive fantasies.

Curiously, maladaptive daydreaming appears to be much more common in people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with a recent article reporting a prevalence of around 20%. (Furthermore, 77% of people with maladaptive daydreaming have been diagnosed with ADHD.) The constant desire to slip into daydreaming, it seems, contributes to difficulties with concentration and attention—and this group can require different forms of treatment compared to other sufferers. ADHD.

Given these findings, Somer believes that maladaptive daydreaming should be officially recognized as a disorder by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “We have accumulated a body of evidence to show the reliability of this construct, and that it cannot be better explained by any other psychiatric condition,” he says, adding that he has already received positive feedback for the proposal.

Musetti agrees that we need more awareness among health professionals. He says there is a rapidly growing number of people online describing maladaptive daydreams, but these bloggers often hit a wall when trying to get professional help. “They often find no recognition of their suffering, nor an appropriate treatment,” he says.

Exactly how maladaptive daydreaming should be treated is an open question – although there are promising signs that people can learn to control the habit. In 2018, Somer published a case study about a 25-year-old college student named Ben who spent about three hours a day in his fantasies. Ben was initially diagnosed with ADHD and given a course of Ritalin, which only increased his tendency to daydream.

Working with Ben to find a potential solution, Somer suggested cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training. Ben noted circumstances that seemed to be associated with his maladaptive daydreaming, for example, and made careful plans for each day to try to lessen the temptation. And when he fell into his fantasies, he tried to interrupt the plots of daydreams with unsatisfying endings. By the end of the six months, he had cut his habit by about 50%.

Based on this success, Somer has since conducted a clinical trial with hundreds of participants. Although the study has yet to be published, he says the results are “very encouraging”.

Somer and Musetti agree that in many cases it may not be possible, or even desirable, for people to completely eliminate their daydreams; instead, the goal should be to allow them to regulate their habit and find other ways to process their negative emotions. “Maybe they could limit it to certain times of the day,” says Somer.

Kyla, for her part, would be reluctant to completely lose her daydreams. While her fantasies had once been maladaptive, they no longer dominate her life. Rather than using daydreams simply to escape negative feelings, she says she can use conversations with her characters to gain perspective on issues. During a mental health crisis, she thinks it even saved her life. Completely suppressing daydreams would be impossible, she thinks. “It’s just the way your brain works – you can’t just turn it off.”

*To preserve their privacy, Kyla, Michelle and Pietra have asked the Observer not to print their last names

  • The Expectancy Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life by David Robson is published by Canongate (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

‘I just go in my head and enjoy it’: people who can’t stop dreaming

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