Considering Escapism

Do you enjoy reading, or watching movies? Are you more of a TV shows person? It doesn’t matter: tell me about a time where you fell deeply into the lore of the story you were reading, hearing, or watching. You found a way to momentarily escape reality and your own life constraints, into a much more interesting world.

J. R. R. Tolkien built a new world, filled with various creatures, new lands, and adventure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or how much I daydreamed about its lore, its meanings, or even imagined how would it look like if I was to participate in such wild but fulfilling adventures.

If you’re more of a sci-fi person, you might have felt the same watching Star Wars. The Good versus Evil, wild new planets and civilizations, and — yes, I know it, you know it, c’mon — LIGHTSABERS. Who wouldn’t love to take part in that story?

Okay, you don’t enjoy either of these genres. But as a kid, have you ever lay down on the couch after a long day at school, and lost track of time playing videogames? So immersed in that world that you didn’t even hear your parents calling you at dinner time?

This is what we call escapism. We use media to become immerse in a different reality, with the help of our own imagination.

What is escapism?

When we’re refering to escapism, we’re usually talking about an intentional detachment from our own reality. This can be achieved through reading, listening to music, playing your favorite videogame, or watching your favorite TV show at the end of the day, for example. It’s a casual and natural activity all of us participate in — just like we did when we were kids, and played with our friends at school.

Daydreaming about what we’re reading or watching can also be considered escapism. For example, imagining what would happen if you were a part of such story; thinking about a certain character, and how they will develop throughout the book or the show.

While these are natural behaviors we engage in daily, we tend to escape more into these different worlds and stories as our life gets more stressful. Events like paying taxes, dealing with unpleasant work tasks, or facing trouble at home can trigger more of these behaviors. We tend to become more involved in a story that brings forth a new world, a new reality; somewhere completely different, or a timeline where we feel we can contribute differently to the world somehow.

Is escapism good or bad?

As a coping mechanism, escapism can help us prevent highly anxious situations and even burnout.

Activities like meditating, reading, gardening, or even dancing can be seen as escapism. Even religion can be considered escapism, as it provides one certain perspective of reality and a sense of community as well. All of this can act as extremely protective of one’s mental health.

When it comes to escapism, the line between good and bad starts precisely when it impacts our functionality as social human beings. When we start losing ability to deal with everyday issues (such as going to work, or communicating with other people) and instead avoid them by retreating into another reality, some line has been crossed. What could once be an adaptive behavior, designed to protect oneself, is now damaging- and can even be linked with increasing depression symptoms.Moreover, addictive behaviors (drug or alcohol consumption) can also start as escapism. This may often lead to addictive disorders.

To quote a comment I saw on reddit about the topic, asking whether escapism is good or bad is “like asking if water is bad, it depends on whether you’re parched or drowning”.

Escapism is useful. It helps us avoid large anxiety levels; it can help us channel our imagination and creativity, and even get some inspiration from some of our favorite fictional characters. Wandering around on Tolkien’s Middle Earth whenever I’m facing trouble times helps me to better navigate uncertainty, and have a clearer sense of duty and strength. When it turns into a mechanism that shuts you out completely, it stops being useful and starts consuming you.

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Rita Oliveira

HR professional, Psychologist, and writer. Also a musician in training. Seeking to communicate and learn about Human interaction — especially in the workplace.