The Intersection Between Maladaptive Daydreaming and Escapism
As you perhaps already know, maladaptive daydreaming isn't in the DSM-5, which is a large manual that seeks to categorize and define all psychiatric maladies.
While there have been efforts for over a decade to have maladaptive daydreaming included - and those efforts are making headway - the reality is that many clinical psychiatrists look at maladaptive daydreams as being a manifestation of something else. Or, in other words, a side effect of something deeper.
While arguments can be had back and forth as to whether this is right, it is unequivocally true that daydreaming can be an entirely rational response mechanism to challenges one has in one's life. However, for some reason there are many out there who take this daydreaming - which can be an entirely rational response - to irrational lengths, which ends up disrupting their life.
As written about in the maladaptive daydreaming book, it can be a healthy exercise to begin deconstructing the kinds of maladaptive daydreams you have. Because a central irony about maladaptive daydreams is that while one spends hours each day within them, most never write them down or begin thinking critically about why they could be occurring.
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Both escapism and daydreaming are closely related, and both are perfectly adaptive things to do in moderation.
The reality is that everyone's life is stressful and the way in which all people manage their stress is by forcing themselves to temporarily forget their troubles via dissociation. Simply put, this can be done by getting absorbed in something in one's exterior or interior world (which one of these you choose is largely down to your innate disposition).
So, for example, some get absorbed into the exterior world by engaging in sports where they entirely lose themselves by watching or playing a game and temporarily forget about the outside pressures in their life.
For those that are more introverted and potentially have a more creative disposition, the way in which they dissociate from themselves is not by getting absorbed in the exterior world, but rather by entering further into a more abstract interior world via daydreaming.
Daydreaming is a perfectly adaptive thing to do, because most people daydream about things loosely related to their own life (but not so related as to directly compound their level of stress).
So, for example, it's very common that when one is in college, and stressed out about exams, they'll daydream about what it would be like to date a certain individual or work in a certain occupation. These daydreams are adaptive both because they provide a temporary reprieve from your real life, but also because thinking through - via your daydreams - how you would get along with someone or a certain career choice can help inform what you do in the real world.
With that being said, there is a danger in indulging in escapism by entering into your interior world as opposed to the exterior world. Namely, that in the exterior world there are certain limits; you can only play so many games or listen to so much music. However, in the interior world its much easier to get engrossed for increasingly long periods of time into increasingly abstract or immersive daydreams. This is when daydreams tip from being adaptive to being maladaptive.
Since its perfectly healthy to engage in escapism - as otherwise we'd almost certainly burnout even if we have only moderate stress in our lives - the question then becomes how to recognize when you're engaged in an excessive amount of escapism.
Whether your escapism manifests itself by dissociating in the exterior or interior worlds, it all comes down to whether the way in which you're manifesting your escapism is negatively impacting your life.
For example, let's imagine that someone escapes the daily pressures of life and gets a temporary reprieve by playing video games each day. You can't say that playing anything under an hour a day is good, but anything over an hour is bad. That'd be entirely arbitrary and subjective. Instead, what each individual must determine is whether they feel their playing of video games is actively harming their life. In other words, if what they're getting out of playing video games (enjoyment and escapism) is, on balance, better than what they're giving up (spending time with family, studying, working, etc.).
Likewise, let's imagine that someone escapes the daily pressures of life and gets a temporary reprieve by daydreaming each day. Whether or not this daydreaming moves from the realm of adaptive to maladaptive hinges on whether or not you honestly feel that the time you're spending in your daydreams is actively harming your life. This is at the core of what the maladaptive daydreaming test is designed to help you figure out.
So, how you recognize excessive escapism is by looking at the ways in which you escape from the real world and whether or not you're getting more from it than it's taking up in time or not. If this sounds like it needs to be a subjective judgement made by yourself, that's because it is!
If you've identified excessive escapism as a likely issue for you, there are two general ways in which you can think about stoping it.
First, you can try to rectify the source of the escapism. Of course, while identifying the reason why you're engaged in escapism can be quite easy that doesn't mean that rectifying the underlying source is easy or even possible. For example, if you find that the reason why you engage in escapism is due to the pressures of your job, then you could potentially find a new job with a better work-life balance or a better culture. However, if you know the reason for your escapism is due to a stressful home life then that's much more challenging to try to rectify.
Second, you can try to make the ways in which you engage in escapism less appealing. For example, almost everyone who engages in maladaptive daydreaming - at least during the first few months - finds it incredibly enjoyable. However, by making your maladaptive daydreams less appealing - by using some of the tricks and tips I've written about elsewhere - you can begin to slow or fully stop your maladaptive daydreams and thus make engaging in escapism itself less appealing.
So these two ways of stopping excessive escapism hit at the same goal, but they follow two entirely separate paths. One starts at the core issue that's causing the escapism, while the other starts at the way in which the escapism manifests itself.
Ultimately, it's always a good idea to try to look deeply at the reasons why you're engaged in maladaptive daydreaming, which could be escapism due to difficult circumstances in your life. However, practically speaking your aim - if you're engaged in maladaptive daydreaming - should be to slow it or stop it as soon as possible. So, often it's better to do that and then worry about the issues that gave rise to your maladaptive daydreams later (if possible).
Ultimately escapism and maladaptive daydreaming are closely linked together and in this post I've tried to flesh out why they are linked together.
Interestingly many who engage in maladaptive daydreaming don't immediately recognize it. It somehow tends to creep up on you until one day you realize that you spend an excessive amount of time daydreaming each day. While nearly everyone who engages in maladaptive daydreaming will eventually reach a point at which they wish to stop, in some respects recognizing that you are engaged in maladaptive daydreaming is a blessing. This is because it can be a sign of deeper issues that simply manifest themselves through maladaptive daydreams.
So as you approach experimenting with ways to lessen or entirely stop your maladaptive daydreams, think about it as embarking on a journey. While it's not necessarily fun while you're on the journey, once you overcome your maladaptive daydreams you'll likely look back having realized that you learned quite a few things about yourself, and how to improve your real life, along the way.