Is "Maladaptive Daydreaming" a Mental Disorder?
Some psychologists think it's pathological. Others remain "Daydream Believers."
Posted May 5, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Pathologizing daydreaming reflects the "DSM-ing" of everyday life.
- Daydreaming is adaptive and meaningful, even when it's distressing or we do it more than we want to.
- Even if "excessive daydreaming" has biological correlates, it's important to remember that difference doesn't equal dysfunction.
A new article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (Theodor-Katz et al., 2022) recommends adding “maladaptive daydreaming” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Proposed criteria for maladaptive daydreaming focus on “persistent and recurrent fantasy activity that is vivid and fanciful” with “intense absorption/immersion that includes visual, auditory, or affective properties” (Somer et al., 2017, p. 180). “Maladaptive daydreamers” drift off when bored or upset, when listening to music, and when by themselves. They often feel unable to cut back or stop daydreaming and “would rather daydream than engage in daily chores, social, academic, or professional activities” (Somer et al., 2017, p. 180). Critically, they are distressed by their daydreaming, or it is deemed to significantly impair functioning.
"DSM-ing" of Everyday Life
This proposed new disorder epitomizes the “DSM-ing” of everyday life, in which any upsetting or problematic experience is readily assimilated into the lexicon of mental disorder. Surely there are people who daydream more than they would like, and some of them might even encounter relational or work difficulties as a result. However, this is true for lots of things. Many of us work long days and don’t exercise sufficiently. Do we have “work-focused lack of exercise disorder”? Others of us stream television shows more than we’d like. Are we suffering from “Netflix preoccupation disorder”? How about those of us who don’t eat as balanced a diet as we should and find ourselves with less energy to accomplish goals? Are we afflicted with “dietary self-sabotage disorder”? The list of prospective mental maladies is endless.
The "DSM thinking" undergirding the maladaptive daydreaming proposal allows for the infinite creation of new disorders because DSM is descriptive, not etiological. It doesn't define disorders based on identifying underlying causes; it simply clusters behaviors deemed problematic into descriptive categories. To make a case that something is a disorder, we don't need to show that a mechanism inside the person is broken. We just need to convince people it causes distress or negatively affects social or occupational functioning (i.e., it’s “maladaptive”). But is maladaptive necessarily disordered—and what exactly do we mean when we say something is maladaptive? Usually, we don’t mean that a behavior is exclusively maladaptive. Most of us recognize that even problem behaviors have adaptive elements. “Work-focused lack of exercise” can be synonymous with productivity, just as “dietary self-sabotage” can be deliciously indulgent, and “Netflix preoccupation” can relieve stress and be a whole lot of fun.
Adaptive Aspects of Daydreaming
Thus, it seems short-sighted to pathologize daydreaming while overlooking its adaptive aspects. Why do people daydream? Sometimes, they do it just for the pleasure it provides. Other times, they do it to escape or avoid things. If you “would rather daydream than engage in daily chores, social, academic, or professional activities” (Somer et al., 2017, p. 180), then perhaps the activities on your docket call for reevaluation. So, if you want to stop daydreaming, you might begin by considering what you’re daydreaming about because “symptoms” we don’t like are often sources of valuable information. That’s why, in the classic horror film "The Sixth Sense," the solution for the boy who sees dead people is to listen to them rather than avoid or eliminate them. What we resist persists. Listening to intrusive daydreams might be key to reducing their influence.
But what about when unpleasant experiences like "excessive" daydreaming are grounded in physiology? Yes, there are probably brain correlates to "too much" daydreaming, but this is true for all human experiences. As biological organisms, every experience has biological underpinnings. Sure, we might identify where daydreaming occurs in the brain (and how the brains of those who do it more differ from those who do it less), but we must be careful not to fall into the classic trap of conflating difference with dysfunction. The former is often easier to discern than the latter.
One last point for now. In our modern, DSM world, we too often presume that unpleasant experiences reflect disorders within the people reporting them. This is how we extrapolate from “She is distressed that she’s daydreaming too much” to “She has maladaptive daydreaming disorder.” But other interpretations are worth considering. If she daydreams because she’s bored, maybe the things she’s doing bore her. If she mentally drifts off while listening to her favorite playlist, maybe she’s highly musical. If she daydreams when alone, maybe she’s got an active and creative imagination. Can being bored, being musical, and being imaginative sometimes be a drag? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean they’re disordered.
And for all those "Daydream Believers" readily carried away by music, click here to end with a song.
Please read a response to this post—Why We Should Take “Maladaptive Daydreaming” Seriously—by Nirit Soffer-Dudek Ph.D.
Somer, E., Soffer-Dudek, N., Ross, C. A., & Halpern, N. (2017). Maladaptive daydreaming: Proposed diagnostic criteria and their assessment with a structured clinical interview. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(2), 176–189. https://doi.org/10.1037/cns0000114
Theodor-Katz, N., Somer, E., Hesseg, R. M., & Soffer-Dudek, N. (2022). Could immersive daydreaming underlie a deficit in attention? The prevalence and characteristics of maladaptive daydreaming in individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.23355