How does childhood trauma affect why we daydream and what we daydream about?

Childhood Trauma and Maladaptive Daydreaming: Fantasy Functions and Themes in a Multi-Country Sample (Eli Somer, Hisham M. Abu-Rayya & Reut Brenner) Journal of Trauma and Dissociation; DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2020.1809599

Somer et al outline a couple of reasons why people who have experienced childhood trauma might be drawn into maladaptive daydreaming. On the one hand, the daydreaming could be a means of escape – the real world is a difficult place filled with traumatic memories, so the daydreamer flees at every opportunity into a daydream world where everything is OK. Alternatively, the daydreaming could provide an opportunity to re-experience difficult emotions and thereby attempt to process them and lessen their real-world impact. In addition to why survivors of childhood trauma are drawn to daydreaming, the authors also looked at what they daydream about. They were interested in whether the themes that occur in their participants’ daydreams link back to the trauma they experienced.

The authors recruited 539 maladaptive daydreamers by posting calls for participants online. Participants completed the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale, so the authors could be certain that everyone participating in the study met the criteria for MaDD. Participants also completed a questionnaire about their experiences of childhood trauma and a questionnaire about their daydreaming, where they were asked to indicate what purpose their daydreaming serves for them, e.g. “distraction from painful memories”, as well as what they daydream about, e.g. “an idealised version of your family”. The authors do not know the identities of the participants and were therefore unable to follow up with individual participants to seek further clarification or understanding. The authors analysed the participants questionnaires to see whether experiencing certain types of childhood trauma made it more likely that someone would daydream about a particular topic or for a particular reason.

The authors found that the participants who had experienced childhood trauma were more likely to report that they daydreamed to escape difficult feelings or memories and they were slightly more likely to daydream about an idealised version of their family. There was also a tendency for survivors of childhood trauma to daydream about darker subjects such as death, physical violence or taking revenge, with some participants reporting that they daydreamed to fulfil a need to experience emotional suffering. Most of the effects reported by the authors were slight to moderate, indicating that many other factors likely affect why we daydream and what we daydream about. In particular, whether someone has experienced childhood trauma does not appear to strongly predict whether they will develop MaDD.

It seems logical to me that if someone’s need for safety and emotional fulfilment in childhood was not met by their immediate family, that person will strive to get those needs met in their adult life, and if real life doesn’t provide the safety and support that they need, they are more likely to turn to their daydream characters to meet their needs. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that those who were deprived of a safe and loving environment in childhood will seek to create that environment through daydreaming about an idealised family or idealised current life.

But what about those whose daydreams fulfil a need to experience emotional suffering? Somer et al. state:

By repeating the scripted reenactments, survivors may slowly gain better control and eventual desensitization.”

In other words, by daydreaming about things that provoke the same negative emotions as the original childhood trauma, the daydreamer’s mind may be consciously or subconsciously trying to process those emotions and find a way to come to terms with them. However, the authors go on to note that in many cases, this doesn’t work, and the daydreams only serve to keep the daydreamer trapped in the negative emotions they are trying to escape from.

The authors’ note that one limitation of this study was “the possibility of measurement errors of the MD themes and functions due to binary coding”. When the participants were asked whether particular themes appeared in their daydreams, they were only given the option to answer “yes” or “no”. There was no way for the researchers to know whether a negative theme was always present in every daydream, or just something that cropped up from time to time. I sometimes describe my MaDD as like having a movie playing in my head. And in all the best movies, the main character suffers at some point. Their journey through that suffering is what makes for a good plot. I deliberately created one of my daydream worlds to be an idealised version of my life – they way my life would have turned out if the cosmic dice had fallen in my favour every time. I don’t spend much time in that world for the simple reason that nothing interesting ever happens. We need challenge and suffering in our lives to help us grow, and I think that applies in our daydream lives just as much as in our real ones.

In summary, if you experienced childhood trauma, I don’t think there is anything in this study that should concern you, unless your daydreams are constantly focussed on negative themes related to your trauma. It’s OK to occasionally use your daydreaming to escape from painful memories by retreating to a world where the trauma never happened. But if you are trapped in a daydream world where you constantly relive the traumatic event, or have plots that provoke similar emotions, that may be a sign that you would benefit from therapy to help you process the original event(s). If you are able to come to terms with what happened to you and process the emotions in a healthy way, you might find that both your urge to daydream and the topics you daydream about become more manageable.

%d bloggers like this: