Maladaptive Daydreaming.



We all dream.  We all have fantasies. Our world is made up of dreams and fantasies, made more mysterious by the virtual landscapes of the modern media. Where then do we draw the line between normal and abnormal dreaming? When are dreams and fantasies acceptable and when are the maladaptive?

Maladaptive dreaming is not classified as a mental illness. It does not appear in the fifth and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSMV), but is can be a problem to those who take fanciful dreaming to another level of compulsion and addiction and this in turn can lead to anxiety, addiction, loneliness and alienation.


We all have a mental repository for vision and wishful thinking, but fantasies and daydreaming need to be distinguished from simple reverie as they can cause pain, trauma, loss, and feelings of sexual inadequacy. Dreaming and fantasies can also give rise to sexual arousal at times when it may n0t be appropriate.  So, what is maladaptive dreaming, what does it do and how should we treat it? We do not yet know exactly what precipitates maladaptive  draming, we do there are similarities between  maladaptive dreaming and Obsession Compulsion Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, there are areas where symptoms overlap.

We know that maladaptive dreaming is highly scripted, there is usually a plan or a plot. We know that there is an extensive emotional component and we know that there is movement attached to the maladaptive dreaming practice. We also know there is a degree of fantasy.  The fantasy is structural and the fantasiser is secretive for fear of embarrassment or losing the dreaming.

The biggest problem of maladaptive dreaming is that, like any addiction, it can be enjoyable (fun) to begin with, but then it prevents a person from living in reality and appreciating real life situations, plus it undermines the ability to achieve real goals.  People who experience maladaptive daydreaming say that they love their characters so much, it makes it impossible to relinquish them for a real life.  For example if I were to engage in an elaborate plan to meet someone and I take time to plan the perfect meeting, the moment that meeting becomes a reality the dreaming, upon which the dreamer depends for stimulation, is lost.

Sometimes them maladaptive characters are fictional, at other times they are real, There are also occasions where the dreaming and fantasies are about someone real, but the real character cannot be brought into the real world without the same feeling of loss. This can cause pain to the party who in not controlling the dreaming or fantasies.

The capacity to fanaticise raises a number of questions. To begin with, we live in a society that is so bound by rational thinking that fantasy and daydreaming become a soothing escape. In the book By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives, Dr. Ethel S. Person discusses how fantasies can affects us.  She tells us that the terms daydreaming and fantasy are often used synonymously, but there are differences we need to be aware of. “Daydreams are building castles in the air, taking time out for a reverie. They are idiosyncratic and repeating, you concoct a daydream that becomes a favourite and at will you can call it up again”.[1]  These fantasies and daydreams are normal, we all experience them.  The shift beyond normal is manifest in the fantasy prone personality (FPP) which is a disposition or personality trait where a person experiences a lifelong extensive and deep involvement in fantasy.[2]

American psychologists Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber first identified FPP in 1981, and it was said to apply to about 4% of the population.[3]  Besides identifying this trait, Wilson and Barber reported a number of childhood antecedents that likely laid the foundation for fantasy proneness in later life, such as, “a parent, grandparent, teacher, or friend who encouraged the reading of fairy tales, reinforced the child’s … fantasies, and treated the child’s dolls and stuffed animals in ways that encouraged the child to believe that they were alive.” They suggested that this trait was almost synonymous with those who responded dramatically to hypnotic induction (people who are easily hypnotised). Interestingly, susceptible  subjects are not necessarily those who have had traumatic childhoods, rather they are those who identify fantasy time mainly by “spacing out”. [4]   Exposure to abuse, physical or sexual, can be a cause of fantasy whereby it provides a coping or escape mechanism, but physical or sexual abuse is not the only cause, exposure to severe loneliness and isolation, can also lead to fantasizing, which provides a coping or escape mechanism from boredom. Creativity can also be predicated on extreme forms of fantasy whereby the thing created offers the escape. Here we see Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder playing a part.  None of these findings are conclusive.

Sigmund Freud stated that “unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind fantasies, every separate fantasy contains the fulfillment of a wish, and improves an unsatisfactory reality.” This shows childhood abuse and loneliness can result in people creating a fantasy world of happiness in order to fill the void.  [5]

Maladaptive dreaming which incorporates fantasy sits in a category of its own.  Not yet classified as   psychological disorders, they probably will be as the imaginary activity is not just obsessive, it replaces human interaction and interferes with work, relationships and general activities. Those who suffer from this condition experience excessive fantasies where they take on characters and roles in scenes and landscapes that they find appealing.    People who suffer from excessive dreaming are aware that the scenarios and characters of their fantasies are not real and they have the ability to recognize what is real, this makes their practice of fantasizing and dreaming different to that of the   schizophrenic who loses all touch with reality. [6]

A 2011 study reported on 90 excessive, compulsive or maladaptive fantasizers who engaged in extensive periods of highly structured immersive imaginative experiences found that fantasizers often articulated distress stemming from three factors: difficulty in controlling their fantasies that seemed overwhelming; concern that the fantasies interfered in their personal relationships; and intense shame and exhaustive efforts to keep this “abnormal” behaviour hidden from others. [7]  The secretive behaviour of fantasizers is also a precipitating factor in acute anxiety and debilitation.     The loss of will to act, especially in a discontent person is supplemented by the fantasy contained in the dreaming. The habit is difficult to break because we are not used to telling others about our fantasies and daydreams.  We are permitted these traits as children, but the general rule is, we grow out of them.

When does fantasy and day dreaming become a real problem?

Maladaptive dreaming is forms of dissociative absorption, which uncontrolled can interfere with normal functioning and cause immense distress.  Any maladaptive behaviour can separate people from their daily social activities and cause them to live in alternative worlds where the love, attention and security they have been missing are seemingly replaced by a story, scene or comforting imagery. Once the love is experienced the dreaming must be maintained.  Feelings of sexual inadequacy are commonly placated with maladaptive dreaming and/or fantasy.  What is more this situation can go unnoticed if it is acted out alone. When this behavior involves other people it can be read as deception, but the dreamer is unable to see it tis way.

Maladaptive dreaming or fantasy is not classified as a mental illness because it is not a psychosis. The psychotic is unaware of what s/he is doing. Conversely, the maladaptive dreamer is fully cognoscente of what s/he is doing.  This does not mean the action should be judged or punished.  The maladaptive dreamer has an addiction. can, however be an addiction and anti-social behaviour can still have serious consequences, including at include an increased proclivity to continue the addiction.

Normal to abnormal daydreaming and fantasies.

Many human experiences range between the normal to the abnormal. Fantasies and dreaming are a forms of normal dissociation associated with absorption, which is a highly prevalent mental activity experienced by almost everyone, [8]  to the extent that it is thought to encompass almost half of all human thought, with hundreds of dreaming sequences experienced daily. [9]

Some individuals possess the ability to dream so vividly that they experience a sense of presence in the imagined environment , this kind of visualization has often been used as therapy to lift self-esteem and to reduce the impacts of trauma.  When this happens in a controlled clinical setting it works to alleviate pain.   Our instincts can use fantasy and dreaming in much the same way. This experience is reported to be extremely rewarding to the extent that some of those who experience it develop a compulsion to repeat it, over and over again, like a drug addict with a needle of heroin.[10]

The scientific literature suggests that a portion of people with maladaptive dreaming can spend up to 60% of their waking time dreaming, and could, therefore, be classified as suffering from a behavioral disorder. [11]

Maladaptive dreams and fantasies are so prevalent diagnosing the problematic incidence is difficult, especially in today’s virtual worlds of the mass media.  We recreate places and events, that have come from wishing thinking, but which have also been grounded in a virtual world of media and daytime dramas that bode with the accounts of our own personal experience.  The “symptoms” are also numerous.

The overall condition of dreaming and fantasies is also extremely animated and vivid with storylines and histories that are rewritten to suit individual needs.   Media sources, such as movies, video games and music can be major influences in a maladaptive dreamer’s life, they can be serialized or one-off events.   These fantasies are often shaped like a book or movie. The emotional component involved in their fantasies, causing them to react physically by talking, laughing or engaging in acts of sexual gratification.

A better understanding of maladaptive dreaming.

In Israel, maladaptive dreaming is considered a psychiatric condition that was identified by Professor Eliezer Somer of the University of Haifa. [12]  The following description has been reproduced from Healthline. Somer can also be found on Youtube.[13]  Somer writes:

This condition causes intense dreaming that distracts a person from their real life. Many times, real-life events trigger day dreams. These events can include:

  • topics of conversation
  • sensory stimuli such as noises or smells
  • physical experiences

This disorder does not have any official treatment. But some experts say it is a real disorder that can have real effects on a person’s daily life.

What are the symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming?

A person who is purported to have maladaptive daydreaming may have one or more symptoms of the disorder, but not necessarily all of them. Common symptoms include:

  • extremely vivid daydreams with their own characters, settings, plots, and other detailed, story-like features
  • daydreams triggered by real-life events
  • difficulty completing everyday tasks
  • difficulty sleeping at night
  • an overwhelming desire to continue daydreaming
  • performing repetitive movements while daydreaming
  • making facial expressions while daydreaming
  • whispering and talking while daydreaming
  • daydreaming for lengthy periods (many minutes to hours)

[1]Dr. Ethel S. Person By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives,

[2] Lynn, Steven J.; Rhue, Judith W. (1988). “Fantasy proneness: Hypnosis, developmental antecedents, and psychopathology”. American Psychologist. 43: 35–44.

[3] Wilson, S. C. & Barber, T. X. (1983). “The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena.” In, A. A. Sheikh (editor), Imagery: Current theory, research and application (pp. 340–390). New York: Wiley. ISBN 0471 092258. Republished (edited): Psi Research 1(3), 94 – 116.

[4] Barrett, D. L. The hypnotic dream: Its content in comparison to nocturnal dreams and waking fantasy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1979, Vol. 88, p. 584 591; Barrett, D. L. Fantasizers and dissociaters: Two types of high hypnotizables, two imagery styles. In R. G. Kunzendorf, N. Spanos, & B. Wallace (Eds.) Hypnosis and Imagination, NY: Baywood, 1996 (ISBN 0895031396); Barrett, D. L. Dissociaters, fantasizers, and their relation to hypnotizability. In Barrett, D. L. (Ed.) Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy (2 vols): Vol. 1: History, theory and general research, Vol. 2: Psychotherapy research and applications, NY: Praeger/Greenwood, 2010.

[5] Mackeith, S. & Silvey, R. (1988). The Paracosm: a special form of fantasy. In, Morrison, D.C. (Ed.), Organizing early experience: Imagination and cognition in childhood (pages 173 – 197). New York: Baywood. ISBN 0895030519.

[6] Rhue, Judith W.; Jay Lynn, Steven (1987). “Fantasy proneness: Developmental antecedents”. Journal of Personality. 55: 121–137. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1987.tb00431.x.

[7] Novella, Steven (2007-04-03). “The Fantasy prone personality”. NeuroLogica Blog. Self-published. Retrieved 2011-11-13.

[8] Singer, J. L. (1966) Daydreaming. New York, NY: Random House.


[9]   Killingsworth, M., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. Science. 330 (6006): 932.  And  Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of imagination and mental simulation (pp. 225-239). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

[10] Somer, E. Somer, L. & Jopp, S.D (9 June 2016). “Parallel lives: A phenomenological study of the lived experience of maladaptive daydreaming”. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. 17 (5): 561–576.

[11] Kelly, Jon Kelly (5 October 2017). “The daydream that never stops”.

[12] Professor Eliezer Somer of the University of Haifa. Retrieved 10th December, 2019.

[13] Retrieved 10th December, 2019.