Is “maladaptive daydreaming” a mental disorder?
A new article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (Theodor-Katz et al., 2022) recommends adding “maladaptive reverie” 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 whimsical” with “intense absorption/immersion that includes visual, auditory, or affective properties” (Somer et al., 2017, p. 180). “Maladaptive dreamers” fall asleep when bored or upset, when listening to music, and when they are alone. They often feel unable to reduce or stop dreaming and “prefer to daydream rather 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 considered to significantly impair their functioning.
“DSM-ing” of everyday life
This proposed new disorder embodies the “DSM-ing” of daily life, where any upsetting or problematic experience is easily assimilated into the lexicon of mental disorders. Surely there are people who dream more than they would like, and some of them might even encounter relationship or professional difficulties. However, this is true for many things. Many of us work long days and don’t get enough exercise. Do we have “work-oriented exercise withdrawal disorder”? Others of us stream TV shows more than we would like. Do we suffer from “Netflix preoccupation disorder”? How about those of us who don’t eat as balanced a diet as we should and end up with less energy to achieve our goals? Do we have “eating self-sabotage disorder”? The list of potential mental illnesses is endless.
There “DSM thought” underlying the proposition of maladaptive reverie allows the infinite creation of new disorders because DSM is descriptive and not etiological. It does not define disorders based on the identification of underlying causes; it simply groups behaviors considered problematic into descriptive categories. To prove something is a disorder, we don’t need to show that some mechanism inside the person is broken. We just need to convince people that it is causing distress or negatively affecting social or occupational functioning (ie, it is “maladaptive”). But is the misfit necessarily messy – and what exactly do we mean when we say something is misfit? Usually, we don’t mean that a behavior is exclusively maladaptive. Most of us recognize that even problematic behaviors have adaptive elements. “Lack of work-oriented exercise” can be synonymous with productivity, just as “food self-sabotage” can be deliciously indulgent, and “Netflix preoccupation” can be stress-relieving and great fun.
Adaptive aspects of daydreaming
Thus, it seems myopic to pathologize daydreaming while neglecting its adaptive aspects. Why do people dream? Sometimes they just do it for the fun of it. Other times they do it to escape or avoid things. If you “prefer to daydream rather than engage in daily chores, social, academic, or professional activities” (Somer et al., 2017, p. 180), then perhaps the activities on your record call for reassessment. . So if you want to stop dreaming, you could start by thinking about what you’re dreaming about, because the “symptoms” we don’t like are often sources of valuable information. That’s why, in the classic horror movie “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 could be the key to reducing their influence.
But what about when unpleasant experiences like “excessive” daydreaming are rooted in physiology? Yes, there are probably brain correlates to “too much” daydreaming, but this is true of all human experiences. As biological organisms, every experience has biological underpinnings. Of course, we can 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 have to be careful not to fall into the classic trap of to confuse difference with dysfunction. The former is often easier to discern than the latter.
Source: Miguel A. Padriñán/Pexels
One last point for now. In our modern, DSM world, we too often assume that unpleasant experiences reflect troubles in the people who report them. This is how we extrapolate from “She is upset from dreaming too much” to “She has maladaptive daydreaming disorder”. But other interpretations are worth considering. If she’s daydreaming because she’s bored, maybe the things she’s doing are boring her. If she’s mentally drifting while listening to her favorite playlist, maybe she’s very musical. If she daydreams when alone, she may have an active and creative imagination. Can boredom, music and imagination sometimes be a hindrance? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean they’re messy.
And for all those “Daydream Believers” carried away by the music, click here to end in song.
Please read a response to this post—Why We Should Take “Maladaptive Daydreaming” Seriously—by Nirit Soffer-Dudek Ph.D.