The Subtle Effects of Trauma – Living in a Fantasy


When we are children, and our needs go unmet, our environment is painful, or we have emotional wounds, we may have a fantasy our situation, environment, or relationships will change and we will feel better. For example, a child living in an unsafe home may imagine a character from a television show coming to their house and rescuing them from their situation. Essentially, we daydream about escaping our reality. Living in a fantasy or always daydreaming about positive change is one of the more subtle effects of trauma, but it can be toxic to our health and lead to:

  • Strained relationships
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Behavioural addictions
  • Substance use disorder
  • Dependence on others
  • Anxiety and depression

Daydreaming itself is not problematic. We all do it, and it can help us exercise our imagination and explore our private responses to life and its events. However, as is the case with any trauma symptom, and any substance or behavioural addiction, daydreaming and fantasy is problematic when it becomes a compulsion and interrupts our normal daily well-being and functioning.[1]

When you are only daydreaming about a different future but not doing the actions or tasks that will get you there, then daydreaming is maladaptive. Below are some common ways in which we fantasise or daydream about our lives changing for the better.

Wanting to Save/Be Saved 

Many of us engage in rescue fantasies, particularly in romantic relationships, where we believe we can be a knight in shining armour for our romantic interest and save them from their situation, to be praised and seen as a hero in our fantasy world.[2] Alternatively, we may imagine that we will be rescued by someone – a person will come along and make us happy by changing our current situation.

Both types of rescue fantasy can be harmful and counterintuitive to authentic, healthy intimate connections. The fantasy may seem to come true in the short-term. Still, over time as our situations change we may continue to place these heroic expectations on ourselves or on our partners – these are often unrealistic or impossible to live up to. Over time, the need or desire to replay that fantasy returns, and the person we once believed we saved, or saved us, seems to change and we seek other people to play these characters in a vicious and destructive fantasy cycle.

Hoping Others Change

As children, we are virtually powerless. We don’t have a wide range of choices available to us to make changes in our environment or our living situation because we are dependent on the adults in our lives. This sense of powerlessness may be appropriate for the child but becomes a problem if we carry this perceived sense of powerlessness into adulthood, feeling like you can’t do anything to make your life different. Many of us seek out ways to make others change so that we can feel better, and feel hopeless or helpless when we realise we can’t change anyone else. The reality is that as adults, we need to take responsibility for our own needs – we need to recognise what we need for ourselves and show up differently in ourselves of our own accord.

Seeking External Validation

In childhood, seeking validation from others is a regular aspect of development, and as we grow up we do move through many environments in which external validation is normalised, such as in school, in sports, in our family – we get praise or criticism externally. As an adult, our responsibility to ourselves is to internalise the feeling of validation, that we are good enough in the absence of external validation. This is so that we can feel good when it seems the world does not show up for us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t feel good when we achieve something in the outside world, such as a promotion at work or a compliment from our partner, but when those types of validation are not happening that we don’t sink into a depression or believe that we are unworthy.

Seeking Quick Fixes

As children, we do not usually have much patience regarding the desire to feel good or not to feel bad. We want results immediately. When we carry this into adulthood, we continue to seek quick fixes that can be destructive to our health, such as unhealthy relationships or the use of substances for the sake of any kind of connection, or to escape our thoughts and feelings. We need to cultivate an acceptance of delayed gratification so that we can make responsible and mature choices that help us reach our long term goals.

The Importance of Healing from our Emotional Wounds

Early emotional wounds can disconnect us from reality[3] and cause us to seek out alternate universes and situations in which we are happy or in which we had never experienced our deep pain. Understandably, people seek relief from their pain, especially if that pain has been carried into adult life from childhood. However, continually fantasising or daydreaming about a better life can distract us from any real, present opportunities to make a positive change. If we want to come back to reality and live our lives in the present moment – the only place where we can experience real joy and fulfilment – then we must seek help and treatment for our emotional wounds.

Various therapies are available to help survivors of trauma build the strength and resilience to face, reframe, and integrate their past traumatic experiences into the present life so that they no longer need to escape. Trauma can be effectively approached through therapies such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy[4] (TF-CBT), in which therapist and client explore the ‘cognitive triangle’ – the thought, feelings, and behaviours that characterise our life and our personal outcomes. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help clients heal from their trauma by supporting them in staying present and grounded in the moment as they explore their trauma memories and narrative.[5] Somatic Experiencing (SE) is also a popular trauma-healing approach, as it supports clients in reconnecting with and exploring the physical sensations associated with their traumatic memories.[6]

Recovery from trauma is not an overnight journey. It takes time and conscious effort, as well as compassionate care and support. However long it takes, beginning the healing journey yields far better personal outcomes than not taking the journey at all.


If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).





[1] Soffer-Dudek, Nirit, and Eli Somer. “Trapped in a Daydream: Daily Elevations in Maladaptive Daydreaming Are Associated With Daily Psychopathological Symptoms.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 194. 15 May. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00194

[2] Farrell, Kirby. “Love, Loss, And Heroic Rescue”. Psychology Today, 2016, Accessed 11 Nov 2020.

[3] Lahousen, Theresa et al. “Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma-Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 10 914. 12 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00914

[4] Cohen, Judith A, and Anthony P Mannarino. “Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 24,3 (2015): 557-70. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2015.02.005

[5] Shapiro, Francine. “The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences.” The Permanente journal vol. 18,1 (2014): 71-7. doi:10.7812/TPP/13-098

[6] Brom, Danny et al. “Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study.” Journal of traumatic stress vol. 30,3 (2017): 304-312. doi:10.1002/jts.22189

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