Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders To Daydreaming

With blossoming fantasy people flee into a dream world. That doesn’t have to be anything bad. But researchers have now been able to show that they can be a warning signal for a mental disorder.

Do you constantly think about whether the stove is really out although you have already looked five times? Or are you sometimes unsure whether you can trust your memories? At first glance, fantasy and obsessive-compulsive disorder are not necessarily connected. But on the second, as researchers around the psychologist Frederick Aardema from the University of Montreal have found out.

If someone strongly trusts his own imagination and often confuses the dream world with reality, this can be a warning signal for the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the researchers report in the “Journal of Clinical Psychology.

An obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness in which unpleasant thoughts and actions are imposed on those affected. Patients cannot resist it, although they often know that their thoughts are absurd or irrational.

Fantasy plays a role

Some have a pathologically exaggerated need for symmetry and cleanliness. Others hoard objects or feel the need to control things repeatedly. However, little is known about the underlying mechanisms that trigger these typical symptoms.

An indication that fantasy might play a role in the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder was found in a 2011 study, which found that healthy people who often daydream and rely heavily on their imagination are also more likely to show compulsive symptoms.


Although they had no obsessive-compulsive disorder in the morbid sense, they tended to control the stove more often than others. Aardema and his colleagues have now taken a closer look.

They submitted questionnaires to 75 people affected by an obsessive-compulsive disorder, measuring how often they deviate from reality, whether they often mistrust their own senses or consider themselves perfectionist.

How do daydreams become real?

For example, they should indicate how often it happens to them that they drift away in a conversation and no longer know what their counterpart has said. Or whether it happens more often that they sink into a daydream so much that it feels like it’s real.

Above all, the psychological phenomena of dissociation and inferential confusion were coincidentally strongly related to the manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. One example of dissociation is daydreaming: one briefly separates oneself completely from reality, sensory impressions are faded out and one lives in one’s own world of thought.

This is typical for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “These people tend to sink very deeply into their obsessions. They no longer pay attention to reality,” says Aardema.

Inferential confusion means that someone confuses his imagination with reality and then draws conclusions from this imagination. For example, people with a washing compulsion imagine that there are invisible germs on their skin.

As a result, they then have the pathological urge to wash their hands constantly. The basis of the patients’ behaviour is their imagination – although they know that their hands are not really dirty, they have to wash constantly.

Special therapy necessary

The psychologists are now developing a special form of cognitive behavioural therapy to help those affected on the basis of the study. It aims to make patients realise that they are drawing wrong conclusions and that their behaviour has no basis in reality.

In developing the therapy, the psychologists now also want to take into account the tendency of those affected to dissociate. Therapists should help the patients not to get too far into their ideas and, if necessary, to get them out of their daydreams.

According to Frederick Aardema, the study should not lead to a condemnation of fantasy. “Imagination is something wonderful,” he says. “Without them, many inventions would not exist, not to mention their significance for literature and art.

Fantasy becoming reality

Fantasy only becomes dangerous when people believe that it tells them something about reality. Although patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder often know that the scenarios in their imagination cannot happen in reality, they still believe that they pose a threat.

However, science still has to clarify whether persons with dissociation and inferential confusion are actually more likely than others to develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

After all, it is not certain in which direction the found connection goes. It may well be that people who often daydream are more likely to develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it is also possible that someone first develops an obsessive-compulsive disorder and then gets lost in his fantasy more often.

Mark C. Beaver

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