What is daydreaming? What is escapism? And are these symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
These are questions set for me by Spark, one of the readers of this blog.
The words “escapism” and “daydreaming” have strong moral overtones, especially “escapism.” Our society, based on Puritanism, frowns on all things that can’t be termed “productive.” To waste time in escapism and daydreaming are looked down upon as “lazy” or “sinful,” whether the terms are used in a secular or religious sense.
What exactly is escapism? Is it always a bad thing? And similarly, daydreaming: Is it mere escapism? Does it provide something useful to humans? Is it laziness? What is the nature of the flashbacks experienced with PTSD? Are they a type of daydreaming, or just escapism?
These are the important issues explored in this post.
This is the first post of a series in which I answer readers’ questions. If you would like to ask a question, please feel free to leave your question in a comment or use the Contact tab to email me. I answer all questions, whether or not you agree to have it be the subject of a post. If you do agree, you will not be identified by name.
Spark asked the following questions:
I’ve lived with daydreaming/escapism ever since I was four. My escape mechanisms work in daydreams. It’s mostly fantasy, or the life I want to live. I believed my life wasn’t exciting, so my daydreams would reflect what’s lacking. They showed the opposite of my life. If I felt unsuccessful, I was über-successful in my fantasies.
I do see a recurring theme of my sadness there. I always dreamed of becoming a dancer, and my daydreams show my dance success, but the sadness of my reality somehow seeps into those daydreams.
I am a creative person, and quite a few people told me my daydreaming/escapism is a gift of many writers and storytellers.
I’ve had traumatic events happen in my life that intensified this behavior. I’d like to know if daydreaming/escapism has any relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition to traumatic events, I didn’t have much of a social life and many friends. Could this contribute to that condition?
Actually, Spark has asked are several questions:
- Is my daydreaming escapism or merely daydreaming?
- Is my daydreaming a bad thing?
- Is my daydreaming/escapism related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
- Can my social life contribute to PTSD?
What is escapism and is it bad?
The Oxford dictionary defines escapism as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”
Almost all leisure activities are escapism
Broadly speaking, then, almost all forms of leisure activities could be termed escapism. They take our minds off the problems and stresses of the workaday world. In previous times, this could have been dancing, singing and storytelling. In modern times, escapism can take the form of vacations, sports, tv, video games, books, hobbies, and playing with the kids.
So escapism is not a bad thing in itself. Despite the pejorative tone cast put upon it in recent times, it is a necessary recreation that restores us so that we can once again go out into the big, bad world.
But like anything, escapism taken past moderation can become a problem. It can become addictive, excessive and injurious. For example, playing video games for days on end, or getting so immersed in the internet that you have no time for your family.
So the morally wrong sense of the term “escapism” should be reserved for those who take excessive time away from real life to the point at which they seem to be trying to escape from it.
Answer to Spark’s question: Your daydreaming is the bad form of escapism only if it interferes with the other activities of your life. If moderate escapism is one of your “recreations,” like watching tv, then I see nothing wrong with it.
What is daydreaming and is it bad?
Another definition from the Oxford dictionary: Daydreaming is ” a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.”
Daydreaming was long held in disrepute in society and was associated with laziness. Sigmund Freud felt that only unfulfilled individuals created fantasies, and that daydreaming and fantasy were early signs of mental illness. In the 1950′s some educational psychologists warned parents not to let their children daydream, for fear that the children may be sucked into “neurosis and even psychosis.” In the 1960′s, textbooks used for training teachers provided strategies for combating daydreaming, using language similar to that used in describing drug use.
Everybody daydreams, whether they admit it or not — or are even aware of it. Psychologists estimate that one-third to one-half of a person’s thoughts while awake are daydreams. Most psychologists consider daydreams a natural component of the mental process for most individuals.
A recent study, set up by Malia Mason of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, found that when people are busy on a task, one part of their brain lights up in brain scans. As soon as the task is completed, another part of the brain lights up: the daydreaming part. Mason said,
There is a network of regions [of the brain] that always seems to be active when you don’t give people something to do. … It’s daydreaming. … In the absence of a task that requires deliberative processing, the mind generally tends to wander, flitting from one thought to the next with fluidity and ease.
[This] kind of spontaneous mental time travel lends a sense of coherence to ones’ past, present and future experiences. Although the thoughts the mind produces when wandering are at times useful, such instances do not prove that the mind wanders because these thoughts are adaptive; on the contrary the mind may wander simply because it can.
So, daydreaming is a natural, normal thing that happens to all of us all the time.
Daydreaming in childhood
Daydreaming first occurs for most people during childhood, sometime before age three. These early daydreams set the pattern for adult daydreaming.
Daydreaming starts in childhood
Children who have positive, happy daydreams of success and achievement generally continue these types of mental images into adulthood. These daydreamers are most likely to benefit from the positive aspects of mental imagery. Daydreams become the impetus for problem-solving, creativity, or accomplishment.
On the other hand, children whose daydreams are negative, scary, or visualize disasters are likely to experience anxiety, and this pattern will carry over into adulthood as well. A child’s daydreams may take a visible or public form: the daydreaming child talks about his mental images while he is experiencing them, and may even act out the scenario he is imagining. After age ten, however, the process of internalizing daydreaming, rather than acting them out, begins.
Daydreaming as a creative activity
Daydreaming can be a creative activityIt is not unusual for a daydream, or series of daydreams, to precede an episode of creative writing or invention. Athletes, musicians, and other performers use a form of daydreaming known as visualization. As the individual prepares for a competition or performance, she forms a mental picture of herself executing and completing the task with the desired successful outcome.
There are numerous examples of people in creative or artistic careers, such as composers, novelists, and filmmakers, developing new ideas through daydreaming. Similarly, research scientists, mathematicians, and physicists have developed new ideas by daydreaming about their subject areas.
The bottom line is the same as it is for escapism: Do the daydreams take over your life, do they go beyond the bounds of moderation? Do the daydreams interfere with your normal functioning to the point where you are impaired?
Answer to Spark’s question: Daydreaming is not bad in itself, if done in moderation. It can lead to creative ideas and actions. They can become the impetus for problem-solving and accomplishment. They are not mere escapism or laziness; they are a positive, entirely normal human activity that can be “productive.”
Daydreaming, escapism and PTSD
Flashbacks are not daydreams
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is unique among psychiatric disorders in that it is identified not only by symptoms, but also by the precursor of the illness — the traumatic event. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which they were threatened with death or serious physical injury, and the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror.
Some of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD go far beyond daydreaming. The traumatic event is re-experienced over and over by:
- Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions.
- Recurrent distressing dreams of the event.
- Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring
The social life of a person with PTSD can be severely hampered by other symptoms caused by the trauma:
- Efforts to avoid conversations associated with the trauma
- Efforts to avoid people that arouse recollections of the trauma
- Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
- Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
- Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings)
- Sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)
Answer to Spark’s question: Daydreaming cannot be a symptom of PTSD, nor can escapism. The flashbacks of PTSD are always of a traumatic event, and never daydreams of simple fantasies. A restricted social life may be a symptom of some other Anxiety Disorder, but as a symptom of PTSD, it must be related to the traumatic event. Remember that PTSD always has a precursor to its development: the traumatic event. Remember also that restrictions to a person with PTSD’s social life are always a result of that traumatic event.
What do you think?
Despite the facts, society still frowns upon daydreaming and escapism. I consider it a product of denial and non-thinking!
It is important to note that this post constitutes my opinion and should not be considered as a qualified medical diagnosis. Please read my disclaimer!
- What do you think of daydreaming and escapism? Can they be positive, or are they always negative?
- What is the role of daydreaming in your life?
- Have you ever experienced going beyond moderation in daydreaming or escapism?
As always, your comments are welcome!
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Resources used in this post:
BNet: Health Care Industry. (2008). Daydreaming. Retrieved August 1, 2008 from BNet Web site: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2699/is_0000/ai_2699000083
The Neurocritic, (2007, January 23). Daydreaming and Thought-Sampling. Retrieved x from The Neurocritic Web site: http://neurocritic.blogspot.com/2007/01/daydreaming-and-thought-sampling.html
Mason, Malia; Norton, Michael L.; Van Horn, John D.; Wegner, Daniel M.; Grafton, Scott T.; Macrae, C. Neil. (2007, January 19). Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought. Retrieved August 1, 2008 from Science Magazine Web site: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/315/5810/393
MSNBC. (2007, January 19). Caught Daydreaming? Blame Brain’s Settings. Retrieved August 1, 2008 from MSNBC Web site: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16709755/
wiseGEEK. (2008). What is Escapism?. Retrieved August 1, 2008 from wiseGEEK Web site: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-escapism.htm
A Head in the Clouds: Daydreaming could bring benefits – LSU Daily Reveille
Daydreaming improves thinking - Cosmos
Escape from the Insipid: Our Brains May Be Wired for Daydreaming – Scientific American