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Excessive daydreaming a medical concern

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-08-26 09:31
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Daydreaming is something we all do, whether it be idly in the classroom, at work, or during our commutes. It can help focus our aspirations and work toward goals, both professionally and in the personal realm.

However, too much daydreaming is associated with lower achievements in everyday functioning and with life goals. So called "maladaptive daydreaming" has been pushed by a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology to be classified as a mental health disorder, where immersing oneself in unachievable fantasies replaces real-life progress. It is estimated that up to one in 10 of us may cross this boundary in our minds every day. However, there are signs we can spot in our thoughts that allow us to identify and separate innocent imagination from harmful fantasy.

Psychologists estimate that maladaptive daydreaming has taken off since the COVID-19 pandemic, with indoor isolation leaving us pondering over our lives. If daydreaming does not distress or cause the individual perceived issues, then there is no issue. However, problems arise when the habit begins to cause loneliness, difficulties in concentration or in creating relationships.

It is often more rewarding in the short term, and easier, to simply imagine, rather than make positive change. This can lead to a vicious cycle. The time wasted on unachievable fantasy can lead to a kind of hangover when the individual "wakes up" from the daydream and comes back to their reality. The gap between the imaginary life and their own existence can bring feelings of depression, shame, and problems with attention.

It has also been suggested that the condition can develop as a coping mechanism, say, for example, in response to social anxiety. The majority of those who suffer from this mental health state wish to build positive, confident interactions and relationships with people. An unhealthy response to social anxiety-related trauma, maladaptive daydreaming can severely hinder personal progression.

The condition is also associated with gaming and gambling addictions, where similar difficulties in life can shift a person inward toward fantasy. This link with video gaming and gambling also suggests that obsessive daydreaming can become addictive, where reliance on the habit releases dopamine in the brain, the chemical that produces euphoric reward effects in the body. This suggests that there may also potentially be a genetic component to maladaptive daydreaming, as addictive personality traits tend to be a mix of nature and nurture.

Therapy for maladaptive daydreaming is becoming more widespread. Treatment can involve identifying triggers that set off spiraling imaginations, with techniques such as cognitive behavior therapy able to aid in identifying and stopping toxic thought processes.

Many psychologists have stated that music is often a trigger for day dreaming, inspiring the brain with emotion and creativity that can fuel fantasies, whether they be problematic or not. Recognition and research into the mental disorder is still growing, and no drug yet has been officially cleared to treat it. It has been suggested that the antidepressant drug fluvoxamine, used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, may help ease symptoms, although more research is needed.

As we move toward a post-lockdown world, medical professionals may need to be more aware of this previously under-recognized mental health disorder.

An Italian study published last year, which surveyed 6,000 people, showed as many as 17 percent of participants showed signs of maladaptive daydreaming. Opportunities to be successful are slowly coming back in a post COVID-19 world, meaning that recognizing this disorder and treating it will become more important than ever.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily

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