Maladaptive daydreaming: What is it and are you suffering from it?

This pathological form of daydreaming leads sufferers to spend a large part of their waking hours daydreaming to an extent that impairs their daily functioning.

 The brain (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
The brain (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

A “groundbreaking” intervention program integrating mindfulness techniques, self-monitoring and tools to enhance personal motivation offers help for people suffering from maladaptive daydreaming, according to researchers at the University of Haifa.

This pathological form of daydreaming leads sufferers to spend a large part of their waking hours daydreaming to an extent that impairs their daily functioning. The results of a new study were published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology under the title “Mindfulness meditation and self-monitoring reduced maladaptive daydreaming symptoms: A randomized controlled trial of a brief self-guided web-based program.”

“Since this phenomenon has not yet been officially recognized as a disorder in the medical handbooks, sufferers often feel a sense of shame and guilt and find it difficult to pursue an effective therapy for their condition. We believe that the results of the new study, and the fact that it was published in a leading journal in the field of clinical psychology, will raise awareness of this phenomenon among professionals and thereby help many sufferers,” explained clinical psychology Prof. Eli Somer of the University of Haifa – one of the authors of the study and the researcher who discovered and defined this daydreaming disorder in 2002. Somer is the former president of both the European and International Societies for Trauma and Dissociation.

Since then, other researchers have taken an interest in the phenomenon and joined the International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming (ICMDR) school of social work.

Where to turn for mental health? (credit: PRISCILLA DU-PREE/UNSPLASH)Where to turn for mental health? (credit: PRISCILLA DU-PREE/UNSPLASH)

What is maladaptive daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming involves deep immersion in vivid fantasies featuring elaborate plots rich in characters and action. In later studies, Somer and his colleagues found that maladaptive daydreaming impairs social, family and employment functions. Experts estimate that about two percent of the population suffer from this condition, which is based on an innate trait and is linked with adverse life circumstances such as childhood trauma.

There is a link between maladaptive daydreaming and other disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Since maladaptive daydreaming has not yet received official recognition as a psychiatric disorder, physicians and therapists are often unaware of the problem. Sufferers often find it hard to obtain a precise diagnosis and an appropriate therapeutic response, Somer said.

The current Israeli study, led by Dr. Oren Herscu of the University of Haifa under Somer’s direction, in cooperation with Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek of Ben-Gurion University and Dr. Asaf Federman of Reichman University in Herzliya, marks a further step in the understanding of this condition and ways to treat it.

In the first part of the study, the researchers collected information about coping techniques among people suffering from the condition. Based on their findings, they developed an eight-week, self-directed, Internet-based therapy program that included mindfulness meditation techniques that helped sufferers improve their non-judgmental awareness of their surroundings and bodies. The participants were also asked to regularly monitor the length of time they spend daily in fantasy.

Another key component of the program was enhancing the participants’ motivation to participate in daily exercises. A total of 353 people with high levels of maladaptive daydreaming were exposed to weekly online video and text lessons involving daily homework tasks. The participants were divided into three groups – one completed the entire intervention program; the second was exposed only to mindfulness training; and the third group received no intervention but was asked to do its best to reduce maladaptive daydreaming.

The study results showed a significant improvement in both treatment groups. A significant positive change was noted in 80% of the participants. The improvement presented itself almost immediately among individuals who completed the entire program, while the process was more gradual among those who received the partial program. However, the two groups showed equal significant gains at a six-months follow-up.

Around one-fourth of the participants who finished the entire intervention program completely recovered from the condition after eight weekly sessions; all their indices measuring daily functioning were normal.

An additional 40% significantly reduced the severity of their maladaptive daydreaming symptoms, improved their daily functioning, and showed a reduction in other symptoms such as anxiety or depression, along with a substantial rise in measures of well-being. The participants in the control group who did not undergo any intervention showed no improvements in any aspect, and their maladaptive daydreaming remained unchanged.

This is the first study describing the development and efficacy of an intervention program for this under-researched condition,” the authors wrote.

“In the absence of any evidence-based therapy, our data offer real hope for those who suffer from the condition. The study’s publication by the leading clinical Journal of the American Psychological Association is a milestone in raising professional awareness of the phenomenon and developing an evidence-based treatment for sufferers. We hope that this clinical trial will also move us closer to the inclusion of this disorder in the leading mental health handbooks, such as DSM and ICD,” the researchers concluded.