Fighting dragons, visiting different planets, or just rehashing arguments in vivid replay action – daydreaming is an escape from reality and, though often hated by teachers and parents alike, it's generally harmless. Maladaptive daydreaming (MD), however, can consume a person’s attention at the expense of everyday functioning.
MD is still not recognized as a formal psychiatric syndrome. However, Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is conducting rigorous research into MD to make it distinct from ADHD – with which it shares some similarities – and to get MD added to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM VI). Soffer-Dudek and co-authors have published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
"Some individuals who become addicted to their fanciful daydreams experience great difficulty in concentrating and focusing their attention on academic and vocational tasks, yet they find that an ADHD diagnosis and the subsequent treatment plan does not necessarily help them. Formally classifying MD as a mental disorder would enable psychological practitioners to better assist many of their patients," Soffer-Dudek said in a statement.
Previously conducted work found that people presenting with MD often have high levels of ADHD and this led to scientists wondering whether MD was separate from ADHD. In the study, there was a cohort of 83 ADHD-diagnosed adults with symptoms of MD, loneliness, lowered self-esteem, inattention, and depression.
When this cohort was further analyzed, only 20.5 percent met the diagnostic criteria for MD. Interestingly, this 20.5 percent also had higher rates of the other symptoms previously described, compared to those ADHD adults who did not meet the MD criteria. This suggests that while people with MD may have high rates of ADHD, people with ADHD will not have similarly high rates of MD.
"Our findings suggest that there is a subgroup of those diagnosed with ADHD who would benefit more from a diagnosis of MD," said Soffer-Dudek.
ADHD-associated daydreaming may be better described as "mind wandering", which is the spontaneous shift of attention to task-unrelated thoughts, compared to MD which is more vivid, complex, and intentional.
“If someone has fanciful immersive daydreams but does not experience them as a problem, then that would not count as MD, and is not a problem,” Soffer-Dudek told Psypost. “Our aim is not to pathologize normal daydreaming. MD describes a situation where the person feels that their addiction to daydreaming is impairing their lives (e.g., loneliness, difficulties concentrating due to daydreaming, or difficulty creating or maintaining relationships because it is easier and more rewarding in the short run to daydream them).”
The authors of the study suggest that rather than an attention issue, MD may be more of a behavioral addiction or a dissociative disorder. The distinction between ADHD and MD is important because they may have different underlying mechanisms and require different treatments.
For those that have MD, fear not – you are not alone! There are many MD communities online (on Facebook and reddit) that can offer peer support.