Daydreaming can be a pleasant pastime, but people who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming are trapped by their fantasies.
James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" follows its mild-mannered protagonist through another mundane day of thankless chores. But Mitty is a daydreamer. He spices up his humdrum existence—and, thankfully, the story itself—through fantasies. Real-world events cause Mitty to imagine he's an ace hydroplane pilot, a brilliant surgeon, and an assassin on trial.
Thurber's character fits many readers like a driving glove because, as science has discovered, we all have a little Walter Mitty in us.
Research suggests that our minds wander close to 50 percent of the time, and we use these mental getaways to imagine our lives in all manner of fun and fanciful scenarios. We fantasize about the perfect meet-cute, or starting an exciting new career, or what we'd do with superpowers, or unbridled sexual encounters. Mostly it's sex.
And despite admonishments from our Victorian-styled teachers and supervisors, a mind in the clouds comes associated with a bevy of cognitive benefits. These include greater creativity, improved productivity, better problem-solving, and progress toward goals. Daydreaming is, in short, a virtue.
Except when it isn't, and here the darker undertones of Thurber's story come into play. It's hinted that Mitty may not be enjoying playful escapism but suffering from an uncontrollable urge to disassociate from his life, his responsibilities, and his relationships. Today, psychologists are researching whether such a Mittyesque existence may be the result of a new disorder known as maladaptive daydreaming.
One maladaptive dreamer spent hours a day dreaming he was a powerful man who could solve the world's problems.
Daydreaming is an indulgence of the mind and imagination, one provided courtesy of the default mode network, a network of interacting brain regions that is active even when the conscious mind is not. But like so many of life's indulgences—wine, steak dinners, video games, and even exercise—too much daydreaming can be harmful to our well-being. When daydreaming crosses that threshold, it can be considered maladaptive.
This disorder was first identified by Eli Somer, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa, School of Social Work, in a 2002 paper. That paper looked to six patients in a trauma center whose daydreaming habits replaced human interactions or interfered with their standard life functions, such as going to school or holding down a job.
Since then, other case studies have looked at maladaptive daydreamers and compiled a list of potential symptoms. These include vivid, richly-detailed daydreams; abnormally long daydreaming sessions; daydreams triggered by real-life events; daydreaming sessions that interrupt sleep; and repetitive motions or whisperings while daydreaming. On average, one study reported, maladaptive daydreamers spend four hours a day housed in their imaginations.
"This is not like rehearsing a conversation that you might have with a boss," Somer told CNN. "This is fanciful, weaving of stories. It produces an intense sense of presence."
While such symptoms are common, though not comprehensive or guaranteed, how maladaptive daydreams manifest are naturally individual to the dreamers. In one case study, researchers analyzed the diary of a man codenamed "Peter." Peter described investing as many as 14 hours a day online. The news and images he happened upon would trigger related fantasies. For example, he may envision himself as a multimillionaire genius who could prevent bad news from occurring or self-insert himself into the power fantasies of superhero movies or police procedurals for hours at a time.
"When I felt this pain as a child, I started imagining how things could be different. I created stories which never happened. To suppress that pain I would hug my pillow or quilt, thinking I was being comforted by someone else," Peter wrote.
In an interview with CNN, Cordellia Rose described her maladaptive daydreaming like a drug and noted that her daydreams developed into intricate storylines that could last for years. These stories proved so distracted that she was unable to complete everyday tasks such as driving lessons.
"You get hooked on it, because it can be like an action movie in your head that's so gripping that you cannot turn off," Rose told CNN. "This [condition] needs to be public, because these are people suffering, and badly."
To be clear, maladaptive dreaming is not a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. Daydreamers such as Peter and Rose are aware that their fantasies are as unreal as they may be unrealistic. Because of this, many maladaptive dreamers understand the difficulties they face and the real-life losses they have endured for the sake of their fantasies.
More research needed
Researchers don't have a standard diagnosis or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming because they aren't yet sure it's a unique psychological condition. Maladaptive daydreaming has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—blessedly abbreviated as the DMS-5—the definitive book on mental disorders. To date, there isn't enough evidence to determine if maladaptive daydreaming is a separate condition or a manifestation of an already listed disorder.
Somer has developed a 14-point scale to help people determine whether they are experiencing maladaptive-daydreaming symptoms, but the results only indicate whether an individual should seek help. They provide no formal diagnosis.
Also, maladaptive daydreaming is often expressed alongside other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, attention deficit disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. And the researchers of Peter's case study noticed a striking similarity between his condition and those with behavioral addition response—including analogous responses with preoccupation, mood modification, tolerance, and withdrawal. It may be that maladaptive daydreaming is an expression of these, or other, disorders.
It's worth noting that similar empirical hurdles exist for other well-known, though not formalized, disorders. Orthorexia, sex addiction, misophonia, internet addiction, and parental alienation syndrome are all likewise absent from the DSM-5. For maladaptive daydreaming and these other conditions, it's simply a case of more evidence and research needed before a determination can be made.
A growing understanding of maladaptive daydreaming
The question of labeling is a tricky one—not only from a medical point-of-view but also a prosocial one. Some people find having a recognized condition validating; they feel it promotes social acceptance and makes seeking treatment easier. Others find such labels stigmatizing and restricting.
But the question of how to label something is an academic one. It isn't to say that the experience doesn't exist. It does, and whether maladaptive daydreaming ultimately enters the DSM-5 or not, awareness is growing. Online communities now exist to give support and spread awareness. And regardless of a condition's presence in the medical literature, if symptoms disrupt work, school, or social lives, help should be sought.
Thanks to the efforts of psychologists and the community, maladaptive daydreaming, unlike Thurber's literary creation, is no longer "inscrutable to the last." And those who suffer it are no longer relegated to a firing-squad of their own mind but can find they help the need.
The ability to speak up and ask will give these future leaders a much needed boost.
- As the head of an all-girls school in Pennsylvania, Marisa Porges has dedicated her life to educating young women and preparing them for the future.
- Two things that parents can do at home to build confidence and nurture girls' ability to speak up according to Porges are to have them practice ordering for the family, and to encourage them to develop a pitch when making a request. Providing feedback on the pitch becomes more meaningful and memorable than simply saying yes or no.
- While this advice is great for parents of boys and girls, it is especially important for parents of young women. A recent study showed that 75 percent of high-performing women executives say they have felt imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. The ability to speak up, ask for what they want, and to use their voices confidently will be valuable skills for these future entrepreneurs and CEOs.
The results of this study showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence, declining in early adulthood and then climbing back up again into one's early 30s.
- A 2020 Michigan State University study examined the link between teen social networks and the levels of depression later in life.
- This study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, specifically targeting social network data. The results showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence and declining in early adulthood, then climbing back up again into one's early 30s.
- There are several ways you can attempt to stay active and socially connected while battling depression, according to experts.
The study suggested that teenagers who have a smaller social circle showed higher rated of depression later on in life.
A 2020 Michigan State University study examined the link between teen social networks and the levels of depression later in life. The results of this study suggested teens who have a larger number of friends in adolescent years may be less likely to suffer from depression later in life. These findings were especially prominent in women.
This study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, specifically targeting social network data. This data asks students to select up to 5 male and 5 female friends and indicate how often they felt depressive symptoms.
MSU Sociology Assistant Professor Molly Copeland and lead author Christina Kamis (Sociology doctoral candidate at Duke University) published the study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in September.
Female teenagers may struggle more with depression during their teen years but show fewer depressive symptoms later in life.
For female adolescents, popularity can lead to increased depression during their teen years. However, this ultimately may lead to lasting benefits of fewer depressive symptoms later in life. "Adolescence (is) a sensitive period of early life when structural facets of social relationships can have lasting mental health consequences," Copeland wrote, adding that "compared to boys, girls face additional risks from how others view their social position in adolescence."
Throughout this study, men showed no association between popularity and depressive symptoms, however, they did show benefits from naming more friends. As for why this is, Copeland has a theory: perhaps the expectations on young girls (compared to young boys) as well as the roles that lead to popularity can create a kind of stress and strain felt more prominently by girls than boys.
While this does create more difficult teen years for young girls, the stress and strain may lead to giving these girls a psychological skillset that benefits them later in life, allowing them to deal with stressful situations more easily.
The study also suggested that teenagers who have a smaller social circle showed higher rates of depression later on in life.
Results from both men and women followed a U-shaped trajectory of depressive symptoms.
The results showed depressive symptoms being highest in adolescence and declining in early adulthood, then climbing back up again into one's early 30s. This was particularly more noticeable in women, who showed a steeper decline in symptoms between the ages of 18-26, followed by a more rapid increase in symptoms in their early 30s.
How to stay social while battling depression
Attending support groups, planning activities with family or even just a weekly phone call to a friend can help alleviate depression.
Credit: Mascha Tace/Shutterstock
Although maintaining relationships can help you cope, it can also be one of the most difficult things to do when you're experiencing depression.
As Dr. Jennifer L. Payne (an assistant professor/co-director of the Women's Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore) tells Everyday Health: "One of the common symptoms of depression is social isolation."
Payne goes on to explain that you can "soak up some energy" by simply being around other people, moving around, and staying active.
Creating a daily schedule and planning activities ensures action.
While it may be easy to turn down last-minute plans, it's more difficult to cancel plans you've already committed to with friends and family. While it's important not to overwhelm yourself with a packed schedule, creating a minimal daily schedule that involves seeing friends and family or doing activities that you've previously enjoyed can ensure you stay active and often makes you feel more accomplished at the end of each day.
Support groups and social networking with people who understand.
While depression can very easily make you feel isolated and alone, surrounding yourself with others who may be struggling with depression as well can help in multiple ways. You will have peer support from people who relate to how you're feeling plus the added benefit of being around people, which can raise your spirits.
Keeping a journal (and setting goals) can help you feel accomplished.
Keep a thought journal and detail certain daily or weekly goals (such as a plan to call a friend on Monday or to visit your local coffee shop for a change of scenery on Thursday). These small, achievable goals not only get you out of the house and/or interacting with others, but they also provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction once they are complete.
Random acts of kindness, such as volunteering, will make you feel good.
Being kind is good for your health in many different ways. Doing something nice for others can boost your serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Similar to exercise, kindness, and altruism can also release endorphins, creating a temporary sense of euphoria that can help combat depressive symptoms.
In order to gain more from spending time alone, it is important to be open to the benefits that solitude can bring.
Solitude has become a topic of fascination in modern Western societies because we believe it is a lost art – often craved, yet so seldom found.
It might seem as if we ought to walk away from society completely to find peaceful moments for ourselves. Yet there is a quote I really like from the book Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (2017) by the Canadian journalist Michael Harris:
I don't want to run away from the world – I want to rediscover myself within it. I want to know what happens if we again take doses of solitude from inside our crowded days, along our crowded streets.
Steadily, slowly, research interest in solitude has been increasing. Note, solitude – time alone – is not synonymous with loneliness, which is a subjective sense of unwanted social isolation that's known to be harmful to mental and physical health. In contrast, in recent years, many observational studies have documented a correlation between greater wellbeing and a healthy motivation for solitude – that is, seeing solitude as something enjoyable and valuable. But, by itself, this doesn't prove that seeking solitude is beneficial. In science, to make such a causal statement, we'd need to isolate 'solitude' as the only variable, while holding other alternative explanations constant. That's a difficult challenge. In daily life, we spend time alone while also doing other things, such as working, grocery shopping, commuting, taking a walk, learning a hobby or reading a book. Arguably, with so many variations in the ways that people spend time alone, it is difficult to make a definitive statement that it is solitude per se that enhances our wellbeing.
By conducting experimental studies – in which volunteers spent time in controlled conditions in solitude or with others – a team of researchers, led by the clinical psychologist Netta Weinstein, now at the University of Reading, and me, overcame the shortcomings of the correlational research, shedding light on what solitude is really good for.
In one series of studies, we looked at how people's emotions changed after spending time alone. We measured positive emotions associated with high arousal, such as excitement and energisation, and positive emotions that are low in arousal, such as calmness and relaxation; we also measured high-arousal negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, and low-arousal negative emotions, such as loneliness and sadness. By covering both poles of what psychologists call 'affective valence' (positive vs negative) and 'affective arousal' (high vs low), we demonstrated that time spent alone offers a unique opportunity for 'arousal regulation' – that is, both positive and negative forms of high arousal drop lower when we spend time alone. We called this the 'deactivation effect'.
While the deactivation effect was consistent across all the solitude and alone conditions that we devised, changes in low-arousal positive and negative affects depended on how motivated a person was to spend time alone. If volunteers embraced and enjoyed solitude for its benefits, they tended to experience an increase in positive low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel more relaxed and calm afterward – but if people didn't value spending time alone, they were more likely to experience an increase in negative low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel sad and lonely.
This means that, in order to gain more from spending time alone, it is important to be open to the benefits that solitude can bring. For many people now experiencing restrictions on their movements and their social lives, it will be a lonely time; for some of us, it might be a chance to try experiencing the benefits of unexpected solitude. While it might not improve our life as a whole, it can make momentary bouts of negative emotions more bearable.
If we can benefit from the deactivation effect (that is, lowering our levels of arousal) simply by spending time alone, does it matter whether we go on social media, during that time, or do something else? I get asked that question often. The evidence we've gathered suggests that browsing on your phone doesn't cancel out the deactivation effect. However, it takes away a different benefit of spending that time alone without an occupying activity: the opportunity for self-reflection.
In our studies, we define self-reflection as the act of attending to one's thoughts and feelings. In two experiments, we found that those who were in complete solitude, without a secondary activity, self-reflected more than those who read alone. Those who were alone, browsing on social media, were the least reflective. In fact, if you are someone who tends to be self-reflective, our research showed that time alone is most enjoyable if you allow yourself to sit in solitude rather than reading or using your phone.
Of course, this is not a new insight. It has been widely suggested in popular books and philosophical texts that time spent alone is good for self-reflection. Yet, not all self-reflection during time spent alone is qualitatively the same: it can be insightful or ruminative. In our current experiments, when Weinstein and I ask participants to describe a time when they were alone and felt inauthentic or 'not true' to themselves, this is characterised by the ruminative variety of self-reflection, filled with negative thoughts and regrets from which they couldn't get away.
When self-reflection turns sour and rumination takes over, mindful practices might be an effective strategy for some people to calm their repetitive negative thoughts. However, this suggestion should be taken with caution as mindfulness doesn't work for everyone and might be best practised in moderation. So, alternatively, it might not be a bad idea to break the solitude and reach out to a trusted friend, even if by a phone call or message. If you have a choice, it's never advisable to remain in solitude when it's no longer fruitful, particularly if you feel that rumination and worry are causing you distress.
Time alone is an opportunity for us to hit the reset button, to calm our high-arousal emotions. During the time we spend alone, we also have the option to seek complete solitude, to drop our daily activities and find a space to attend to our thoughts and emotions. Yet, if daily solitude is a lost art, as Harris suggests, how do we find the motivation to harvest it?
The answer depends on the individual but, surprisingly, not so much on whether you are an introvert or an extravert. Instead, our research shows that a healthy motivation for spending time alone is linked to a personality characteristic called 'dispositional autonomy', which describes people's capacity to regulate their daily experiences at will. Essentially, this means that embracing solitude is more about having the ability to self-regulate your emotions than about how introverted you happen to be.
People with an autonomous personality feel that they have chosen to do what they're doing, instead of seeing themselves as pawns at the mercy of the external environment. Having this approach to life is also about taking interest in every bit of your experience, trying out new experiences and exploring how you feel about them. Indeed, when we created a manipulation in the lab where some people were forced into experiencing solitude (thus reducing their sense of autonomy) and others were invited to take interest in it and try it out (fostering their autonomy), those who were forced into solitude saw less value in experiencing it and, in turn, derived less enjoyment from it.
It is important to note that all the volunteers tested in these studies were university students in the United States. Thus, these findings from 2017-19 tell us about the daily experiences with solitude of young adults in societies that offer easy access to many entertainment options and flexible working hours. In a culture fuelled by fast-paced lifestyles and convenient technologies, we are easily pulled by our devices and our obsession with productivity. When we are alone, we find ourselves working, and when we have a free moment, we want to catch up with what other people are doing by picking up our phones. This can be true even when people are in lockdown and unable to socialise in person. Such a mindset, in which we actively seek to avoid solitude, only increases the chance that we'll find the experience unpleasant when it arises. Conversely, by seizing the opportunity for relaxation and reflection afforded by moments (or even stretches) of solitude in our busy lives, we can reap the benefits. Time when we are unexpectedly alone can be difficult but, at least for some of us, it can also be a blessing in disguise.
What causes people to retreat into their homes indefinitely?
Hikikomori is a dark term that describes people who stay holed up in their homes, or even just their bedrooms, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years.
The phenomenon has captured the popular imagination with many articles appearing in the mainstream media in recent years, but, surprisingly, it isn't well understood by psychologists.
The condition was first described in Japan, but cases have since been reported in countries as far apart as Oman, Indian, the US and Brazil. No one knows how many hikikomori exist (the term refers both to the condition and the people with it), but surveys suggest that 1.79 per cent of Japanese people aged 15-39 meet the criteria. However, while some assumptions about risk factors have been made, based largely on reports of specific cases, there has been a lack of population-based research. A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, plugs some of the knowledge gaps.
Roseline Yong and Kyoko Nomura analysed survey data from 3,287 male and female participants aged 15-39, who were randomly selected from 200 different urban and suburban municipalities all over Japan, representing a cross-section of Japanese society.
The participants answered questions about how often they left their home (and for those who didn't, how long they'd remained inside). Researchers classified as hikikomori anyone who, for at least the past six months, never or rarely left their home, unless they had a practical reason for staying in, such as being pregnant, being busy doing housework (yes, really), they were a homemaker, or they had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The respondents also answered demographic questions and questions about their mental health.
It has been suggested that hikikomori is primarily an urban phenomenon. But that's not what Yong and Nomura found. Based on the survey data, 1.8 per cent of the respondents were hikikomori, but they were just as likely to live in a village as in a big city. The condition has also been considered more common among men, and this study provides the first epidemiological evidence to back this up. Still, 20 of the 58 hikikomori were female.
Yong and Nomura found no relationship with country region, number of family members or social class. But one local demographic variable did stand out as being protective: living in an area filled with businesses and shops.
The hikikomori in the sample were more likely to have a history of psychiatric treatment, to have dropped out of school and to have a tendency towards violence to themselves (self-harming, for instance), but not to others. However, the most significant and strongest factor was a high level of interpersonal difficulties, as measured by the degree of agreement with questionnaire items like "I am anxious about the possibility of meeting people that I know", "I am anxious about what others might think of me", and "I cannot blend into groups".
Yong and Nomura write: "These anxieties may be related to a sense of humiliation, which suggests that they are afraid of being seen in their current situation….Unlike anxieties found in social phobias or generalised social anxieties…. our finding of an association between hikikomori and interpersonal difficulties indicates that hikikomori fear people and the community that they know."
This does suggest a possible route to treatment: "By carefully assessing the types of fears that they may have, our data suggest the possibility that improving communication skills and managing expectations may be helpful for combating hikikomori." They note that this type of strategy has in fact already been tried, with some success.
But if these anxieties are keeping people inside their homes, what's prompting them to retreat there in the first place? The survey also revealed that hikikomori are more likely to have dropped out of high school or university. Perhaps finding ways to keep young people in education may, then, reduce the risk.
The data also showed that a very high percentage – 37.9 per cent – of the hikikomori had a previous history of psychiatric treatment. "The higher proportion of hikikomori who are dependent on medication is also alarming," the researchers add.
How all these factors may inter-relate, as causes or perhaps results of hikikomori, is far from clear. As the researchers stress, further studies are clearly needed. However, this new work does provide some good pointers to the research avenues most worth exploring.