Maladaptive Daydreaming (Disorder)

Recently, compelled by the interests of one of the women I follow on twitter, I partook in quite a bit of reading about my Myers-Briggs Type, a psychometric typology test designed by psychologist Carl Jung, the result of which is for me is INFP. In digging through information about INFPs, I came across a page that mentioned we are inclined to something called maladaptive daydreaming, and I stopped breathing when I read it. From Wikipedia:

Maladaptive daydreaming (Compulsive Fantasy) is a term first proposed by Eli Sómer, Ph.D., to describe a condition in which an individual excessively daydreams or fantasizes, sometimes as a psychological response to prior trauma or abuse. This title has become popularly generalized to incorporate a recently-described syndrome of immersive or excessive daydreaming which is specifically characterized by attendant distress or functional impairment, whether or not it is contingent upon a history of trauma or abuse, as introduced in 2009 by Cynthia Schupak, Ph.D. and Jesse Rosenthal, M.D. of New York City. Dr. Schupak and her colleagues published the results of a follow-up study based on an email questionnaire in 2011.

The daydreamers experience very vivid and intricate fantasies and may become emotionally attached to the characters in their fantasies or express emotions they are feeling through vocal utterances or changing facial expressions, although most keep such behavior hidden from others.

A study of 90 individuals who self-identified as having excessive daydreams found that 79% had a kinesthetic repetitive movement accompany their daydreaming, such as pacing, rocking, tapping, or shaking an object. Listening to music while daydreaming is common and hearing music may trigger a fantasy. A repetitive movement may be articulated to music while daydreaming.

There is a term for me. For people like me. And in its severity it is considered a disorder.

When I came across the descriptions and the symptoms I truly felt my heart break after the shock passed. My daydreaming, and my imagination, is actually something I really value about myself (except when it’s most intense and impedes on my ability to function) and I’m just really frustrated that it’s claimed to be the result of “childhood trauma” instead of being an integral part of my personality like I know it is, because I feel like that is being taken away from me…

Everything is a disorder these days! I thought bitterly, partly to assure myself this isn’t something that needed to be… fixed.

In January of last year I’d written, “The assumption that I was not in control of my own thoughts, that I could not be held accountable for my own behavior, that I could never contribute anything significant to the world, and that my ideas and passions were driven by anything but my own will and should be immediately discredited was the most belittling sentiment anyone had ever expressed in my regard.”

Of course, MD(D) isn’t mainly or necessarily the result of childhood trauma. E. Somer writes in “Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry” from the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy that “although MD seemed to have been preceded by a normal childhood propensity for creative imagination, aversive circumstances were seen to have contributed to the development of MD.” I was always like this naturally, since I was a very small child; I have often suspected however, that it has intensified as a device mechanism against abuse, to the point where I daydream compulsively, without realizing I have submerged into a daydream or even being cognizant of what that daydream is. Regularly I am daydreaming even while fully aware of my surroundings and the conversation in which I am engaged. Music often triggers long detailed and elaborate episodes and I will find specific songs and repeat them over if they end before I’ve finished the fantasy (changing the song will change the fantasy.) To a great extent, the daydreaming is fully under my control, even if it is excessive.

“It’s important to note at this point that people with this problem are not psychotic; we DO NOT confuse fantasy and reality,” writes one woman with MD, “We are quite aware (sometimes painfully aware) of the difference between the two. We know what is real and what is not.”

I never had imaginary friends. I knew when I made someone up and was too practical at least to interact with xir as my present self and only engaged with xir in indulgent daydreaming or from the perspective of a writer. When interrupted in the midst of thought, I would frequently become irritable (a sign of an addiction.) Occasionally I even feel a very real thrill in knowing I would have time to daydream, as though something tangible is going to transpire—and, when I was younger, I would cry because the characters I read about in books weren’t real and I had grown that attached to them. “People suffering from this know the difference between daydreaming and reality, and do not confuse the two,” she continues in the list of symptoms.

All the times I’ve had to convince others that I could not be discredited because of having been abused as a child, that I don’t even consider myself a survivor of anything, and that I am no one’s victim. That I shouldn’t be dismissed as hysterical. It is a grating task, to convince the world you aren’t insane. But it is less difficult of a task to take on than what you should be convincing the world: that even if you were, you should not be discredited. And MD for me is mild. Mild. This is absolutely nothing. As mentioned, this is only a disorder when it begins to interfere with my life, and it is not a visible one—I can’t even imagine…

But otherwise, though it doesn’t succeed in interfering with my life (I get everything done that I need, and more) it does consume me to some extent and constrains my personal relationships. Somer E. defines Maladaptive daydreaming (MD) as an “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.” Or—as one of my friends observed earlier—“Nahida, you keep yourself away from everyone and then you wonder why you’re so alone.” I will actually miss calls from friends just to continue daydreaming.

This is characteristic of the introvert. We typically expend energy when interacting with others, as opposed to the extrovert, who accrues it. And so we need to recollect after these encounters and have time to ourselves. (Although, I am very good at coming across as an extrovert and have been informed that I come across as incredibly confident.)

I daydream to procrastinate. Sometimes I put off meals, or wait until the last minute to apply my makeup because I am swaying to a song.

For years I read book after book after book to the point at which I was reading close to 90 books a month. There was something so unsatisfying with reality… I could not cope with it. In the midst of reading I’d stop to daydream, twirling around in my room. By the eighth grade, I forced myself control my reading habits. I would not, I promised, fall in love with imaginary things again. My reading has come to moderation.

The daydreaming has not stopped.

I spend most of my time in a state of reverie, wishing that I could learn a piece on the piano without falling in love or becoming comfortable with the sound and beginning to daydream halfway through the melody to end up losing my place and awaken sharply at the first misplaced note. Or read a book without pausing to dwell gently at the loveliness of the language or excitedly twirl at the suspense. Is it possible to be aware at a deep level while not even awake at the surface? I sink into watching the color of life instead–something like a glass of cranberry juice appears attractive–admiring the passionate red of it, the depth of its translucent consistency. It seemed like another world. I imagined being made of it, of hearing muffled smells and tasting color as sharp and beautiful as stargazer lilies. I imagined it was a metaphor for my soul, the thick color and the light that pushed through and made a breaking dawn, an entire universe. What are you thinking? someone asks. I’d actually forgotten that very second. And in the times I do remember, I’m far too tired to explain. My fingers stumbling across the keys for a pen in the middle of the night. In the morning the result will look foreign, overly passionate. I pace to fall asleep.

For the time being, I truly don’t believe this is a result of any trauma, but it makes me wonder if we all return to our nature, our natural disposition, or if even the loveliest of things is a result of rough forging of character; or maybe, the most poignant theory, that they are a defense mechanism, the way hope upsurges more strongly in the face of oppression, like antibodies to a virus.

Or if I will ever be okay.

What is left is to seize myself. All the material exists in the channels through which I employ myself, and what needs to be practiced is a focus—a set of thought that will force structure and routine to my unruliness, so that I may fully apply my work to one purpose necessary for functioning in this world rather than to what moves me to dream and struggle through my passions.

It used to work in my favor, falling in love with being alone. But now I’m drowning in myself again with a different result. Sometimes I feel genuinely that I am not reconcilable with this world, that a part of me will have to be taken away as I continue here—a power struggle with immediate, apparent reality–and I wonder if it is arrogance. But surely, there must be something more. Until then, we will recover.

25 responses

  1. I had a similar reaction to finding out about Delayed Phase Sleep Disorder. It described me so well it was like a punch to the gut. I finally realized that I wasn’t lazy, wasn’t immature, because I stay up late and sleep past noon. It’s not entirely a choice for me, and that was somehow truly liberating to realize. It gave me a little more courage to speak up for myself when people constantly expressed their incredulity and disapproval. Even though I still don’t think what I do is disordered, it’s somehow relieving to know that it’s a real thing and that it’s partially biological, in my case.

  2. Nothing wrong with dreaming, thinking and reflecting. The world needs its dreamers and thinkers or else there would be such a miserable imbalance with all the alpha ‘get things done yesterday’ types.
    Now a days it seems like (according to shrink types) just about every personality quirk is supposedly shaped by some trauma, its getting ridiculous. Some people enjoy their own company and thats great–much healthier than people who feel they have to immerse themselves with the company of others and endless rounds of activities so they are not alone with their own thoughts.

  3. People would connect this to trauma if the child, while experiencing the trauma, ‘dissociated’ or ‘retreated’ into fantasy or daydream when unable to physically escape. This is especially true with girls and women. Some kids take this coping skill into adulthood where it becomes ‘maladaptive’ by becoming a response to stress. Some survivors talk about spending hours in their fantasy or dissociative states, to the point they prefer the fantasies over reality and feel their fantasies are more real than their reality – even though they ‘know’ it is fantasy. It would be considered on the same level as drugs, or alcohol, sex, or shopping. A way to cope with reality. Many women I worked with called their dissociation their best friend.

    Anyways, my take on these things is this: if you feel it is a problem, then it is a problem – and if you don’t then it isn’t. If you aren’t sure, then it is something worth exploring. Only you know, and have the power to say, whether or not this is connected to trauma. Ultimately it is about knowing yourself more than anyone else, even the shrinks, researchers, and whoever ever else makes a career of labeling others. Even if someone came up to you and said “yup, you are a maladaptive daydreamer” it would still be about your honest introspection and whether it feels like a fit, or not, to you.

    I am so sorry you feel you have been ‘discredited’ by being perceived as a survivor of trauma. It hurts me in my gut that being perceived as a survivor is a source of stigma.

    I like this Buddha quote:
    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

  4. I am going with your comment about “everything is a disorder these days.” I have always been a daydreamer too, just because I have sometimes let it interfere with what other people consider “normal” does not mean it is wrong or a disorder, in my opinion. I also think introversion has been painted as something “wrong” by extroverts, when I don’t believe it is wrong, it is different than the majority is all. I think I crave and appreciate real contact more than those to whom it comes easily, but most people assume I have no interest in people and this is why I am isolated. Some of the differences have names (I have many more than these)… some differences receive less understanding from others. Not every difference is a “disease” or needs to be fixed. If you feel something wrong with it or it’s causing a problem from your perspective, you can always try to balance it, but I wouldn’t do so based on the fact that someone’s come up with a disorder along these lines. It’s like the delayed sleep thing dawnofthenerds mentioned (also a category I likely fall into)… yes, it requires adaptation if you want to fit into what other people consider a “normal” schedule, you can either choose to adjust it and shortchange yourself or you can find something more accommodating, or a middle ground between. What I don’t understand are the people who consider it a downright insult that you aren’t raring to go at the crack of dawn like they are. People are different. It doesn’t mean the ones who don’t fall into the average are “wrong.”

  5. hi! I actually am the same as you. INFP. I love day dreaming too. I wasn’t even aware that this was a condition. I try not to speak too loudly though of certain fantasies. But I’ve been caught twice by my mother and friend who asked with whom I was conversing with. (gulps) I used to be an avid reader too when I was young, a form of escapism from the difficult childhood in the clashes of culture beyond my young’s mind grasp.
    It also makes me realize that I cant concentrate on my work too long as my mind would wonder off somewhere, a thought to procrastinate from my tiring job. And I shan’t start on my crushes with anime characters. Yes. Anime characters. =)
    Sigh~ We shall recover indeed.
    Great post for helping me realize this!

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  7. I’m an INFP too :)
    I think what we need in life to thrive is a certain balance. A balance between our outer and inner world. Too much of something can harm us. Of course, everyone decides for her/himself what that balance consists of, according to one’s needs. For example, introverts need more alone time than extroverts, as you pointed out.
    Fantasies can be potentially harmful, although that’s certainly not always the case. In my eyes, they become harmful when we are always dreaming about something we want to achieve, but never take the necessary steps in the outer world. This will cut us off from reality completely and can also lead to frustration and depression. It’s also a sign of a weak animus, that inner power that manifests our inner ideas in the outer world.
    In any case, this world values extroverts much more, and seems to always look for ways to make introverts feel inferior. I also read that in 1992 they were thinking of classifying feeling happy as a disorder, so that says it all really.

  8. I once diagnosed my grandmother with the exact opposite condition, known in Freudian lingo as a “defect in ARISE” (Adaptive Regression in the Service of the Ego)… which incidentally, is what daydreaming is. Freudians tended to think daydreaming was adaptive and good. My grandmother seemed literally unable to daydream and I think it hastened her decline due to Alzheimers. She was very literal-minded, religion was the only “imaginative” outlet she had.

    One cause of the “defect of ARISE” is given as: growing up in very cramped, deprived, overcrowded conditions, as she did. This inhibited the development of consistent daydreaming as a habit. There were just too many people around. She came from a family of 13 children, with 11 surviving to adulthood. They all lived in one cramped little barn until she got married at age 15.

    So, reading that daydreaming can be maladaptive is a little odd to me. I think it is good, even when it is extreme. Maybe because I grew up with a person who could not, and I felt the bluntness, the “lack” in her personality… it made her unhappy with no way to free herself from it. She had no escape. I believe it also later fueled her prescription drug abuse.

    I am ENFP, your extroverted counterpart, and maybe that’s why I feel like DEFENDING daydreaming as good, is what we ought to be doing. ;)

    Great post, fun reading, glad to meetcha.

  9. Do you have the actual disorder though? Is it a burden, uncontrollable/difficult to control, & do you have ALL they symptoms. It should be a problem in your life like any other disorder. I sure have it & cried when I finally came across the answer to what I have.

  10. hi guys, i m suffering from MD too.
    sometimes it scares me, coz, its is messing with my academics, i procrastinate everything..
    that makes me unprepared for exams..
    if i dnt daydreams i feel depressed…
    i get really irritated when someone interrupts my daydreaming..
    i get scared when offered a job..

    i really dnt know whats going on but its really freaking me out…

    i dnt wanna end up an unsuccessful person..
    but this daydreaming thing is getting out of my hand…
    i day dream all the time, while i’m bathing, walking, reading, listening music, even dancing…

    some people say you should avoid the triggers, but with me everything triggers some or other fantasy or day dream..

    what should i do????

  11. Wow.. . I always wondered why I would make up these little soap operas in my head all the time. I do enjoy writing sci fi stuff and have tons of short stories . I always chalked it up to my having a ”creative imagination’ but it recently started up again when my husband started working longer hrs due to heavy job demands.
    I was totally bored most evenings when he was away at work and out of the blue he surprised me with an ipod to listen to while I walked the dogs.
    The more I listened to music the more I fantasized about a completely different life from the one I was living!
    My husband is actually a really awesome, hardworking, really good-looking caring man who is 15 years younger than me. We met in the church parking lot. I had been praying to actually get up the nerve to witness to someone and his battery died on his old Ford truck that he used to drive. He had on a really worn T-shirt and blue jeans but he had the most gorgeous blue eyes and thick light brown hair. Once he stood up he towered at 6’2″ and I’m only 5 feet! I offered to help him jump start his vehicle and invited him to church. He had lost his wife and child not even a year and a half and he needed spiritual counseling. He reluctantly came in (embarrassed because of his cowboys boots and worn clothes) but he renewed his faith we went to church together every Sunday and eventually got married.
    Ok now let me tell you about my REAL husband…

  12. I have only recently discovered this and am extremely intrested. Like one of the above posts everything is a ‘trigger’ and there is no getting away from my own mind, which is fine with me, because without my charecters and worlds I would be bored out my mind.
    In relation to what you can do though, I know I don’t know precisely what goes on in your worlds but I found that tying my imagination in with what I’m doing at the moment has helped enormously, e.g. If I’m watching tv, then so are they. For me, that works.
    I have no idea if it works for everyone, but that’s one way of ‘keeping it grounded’.
    Also, why don’t you try seeing if you can link your charecters/worlds to anything? Example one of my charecters kept popping up, I noticed he seemed familiar, looked over everyone I have ever known and concluded he reminded me of my grandad, who died when I was 7, so that was that mystery solved!
    I mean, he hasn’t disappeared and to be perfectly honest I don’t want him to, or any of my other charecters for that matter.
    Having to much imagination may have been made a ‘thing’ now, but if it doesn’t bother you, live with it, I have.

  13. I have definitely struggled with this like “all” my life. I’m 20 now. My mom noticed that I was a daydreamer when I was young, and seemed concerned at first. Then I think she thought I was just pretending because I’m really sneaky or something. All this time I’ve felt so alone in this like I was the only one in the world who made up stories (like books, movies, etc) in my head. And I’d daydream about them so much to where I was consumed with them. I would put my favorite movie stars in my movies. In my extremely personal daydreams, I would make myself popular with a lot of friends and I would defeat bullies. I was homeschooled all my life so I never had any friends. I made myself everything that I want to be in the real world. Still to this day, I struggle with it and I’m trying so hard to break free. Nobody knows about this because I know they will never understand. I can’t even tell my parents because they’ll just say, “Oh, just snap out of it. You can control it. It’s just your mind. You can’t snap out of it because you just don’t want to. You’re just lazy.” I’ve been hoping that they would catch on and see that something’s wrong with me. I mean, it’s not my fault I can’t stop. But they haven’t. They keep criticizing me like I’m normal. And it hurts so bad. I can’t even stay focused or be aware of my surroundings because my mind keeps drifting off. And I’m very forgetful and misplace things. My mom had to take my credit card away because I’m “not responsible enough to keep up with it.” So, feeling alone and depressed, I started sneaking and googling daydreaming stuff and found this! It’s good to know I’m not alone. But the only way I could get my parents to believe that I have a disorder is for them to hear it come from a doctor. And I DO NOT have the money for a doctor at all so that might take a few years. But I feel as if I’m losing my mind sometimes like The Twilight Zone or something because I’m the only one who knows I struggle with this and it may take years before I can prove I have a disorder. Pray for me!

    • I will keep you in my prayers. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through so much because of this problem, with your parents and just in general. I’m young like you are, and I’ve always been so afraid that I will never go anywhere with my life because my daydream world makes me unmotivated and uninterested in doing things in the real world.
      I have a mother that acts pretty much the same way about my problem, or any abnormal problem that I have for that matter. If I ever tell her that I might have a disorder, she completely denies that anything is wrong with me, even when it’s clear that there is. I hate that your parents don’t realize that you need help and aren’t more supportive. Do you have any siblings you can talk to about this or any other close relatives?
      I actually don’t have money to go to a doctor either, and it kind of stinks not to be able to get any proper treatment. But someday, I hope that you and I both have enough money for that. I guess, for now, we both just need to find support from each other, if not from family or friends, and join all the online forums we can about this. I actually found some to join from this site and found helpful tips to reduce the daydreaming on here, http://daydreamingdisorder.webs.com/ . You should check it out.

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  15. To everyone with MD

    I want to encourage you to continue to pray and the only other advice I can offer that helps me deal with this is writing. The “stories” I create in my head, I now write down and writing helps me to get it out of my system.
    In my previous post, I described my “husband”.my real hubby is perfect. He gives me flowers every 2 weeks and buys me whatever I want. He has a great deal of money and I don’t have to work unless I want. He has a killer British accent and loves spending time with me
    There are times I wish I could tell him about MD but I can’t so I just allow him to read my stories if he wants. I feel like I’m cheating on him sometimes because I am truly in love with my “other husband character”too
    I did discover I had MD when he bought me my iPod. The music was and still is my major trigger. Problem is music was my profession for a while in my early years …I can’t let go of what I love.
    I do believe traumatic events cause this because I have had so many in my life when I actually look back.
    I am praying for each of us the deal with and be able to handle MD. I have come to realize though that because I pray God does listen and I am blameless.
    BTW.. The scripture I use in prayer is Romans 12:1-3

    • That’s what I’m doing, too! I’m writing down all of my daydreams in what I call my “daydream diary,” so I can have it all down on paper instead of in my head. Writing is my biggest passion, so I can relate when you said that you don’t want to give up music as your passion. I wouldn’t give it up. Just be careful of making your passion an idol, though. I did that with writing recently, and it was one of the things that distanced me from God because I became so consumed with daydreams about my story that I forgot about putting God first. And as a result, my idol deadened me and hardened my heart. Thankfully, I am finding a way to manage my obsession in a way that it doesn’t consume me. And the way that I’m doing that is by prioritizing my day to read scriptures and pray in the morning and at night, and focus only on my obligations (like cleaning and school and finding a job and exercise) during the day, and only leaving 30 minutes to write by the end of each night. Just a suggestion if music does happen to be an idol for you.
      As for telling your husband about MD, ask God for strength to talk to your husband about it if that’s what you feel is right. Even if it is technically considered adultery, at least it’s not you are not having feelings for an actual person. I’m sure your husband would be more understanding with the MD problem and help you with it. He sounds like a great guy that is lucky to have you as his wife :)

  16. @Sarah’s post

    Your post was so uplifting and encouraging Sarah!
    I will definitely work on continuing to pray daily and incorporate “putting God first” in my life.
    I am praying that God gives my sweet and wonderful hubby a ‘heart of understanding’ as well so that when I tell him about MD, he will be ready to receive it. I feel he is quite understanding and will love me no matter what.
    I am considering making the switch back to Christian music as well, I used to sing and perform Christian pop music but after a series of ‘snakes in the Christian industry ‘and a lot of heartache, I procured and lost 2 record deals due to others greed. I gave up on Christian music and secular music started to fill the void.
    I notice when I do listen to Christian music, I don’t daydream as much because my mind stays on being in God’s presence.
    So thanks again for the advice on not making music an idol.
    BTW, you sound like a great person as well! ;)

    • Well, I’m glad it was, and I hope the conversation goes well with your husband. I will be praying that he has a heart of understanding, too. I’m sorry about what happened with the Christian industry. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, but I guess I could compare it to how I’d feel if someone were to steal my story and my characters. Heartbreaking. But don’t give into despair! Like 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 says, “…We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven into despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Don’t let others discourage you from your passion. I think it’s great that you sung Christian songs, and if you do ever go back and they end up on Air 1 or another Christian station, I look forward to hearing them. :) I love Christian music, and I find that I daydream less too when I listen to it. It’s like I’m listening to the message of the song, more than just getting carried away with the beat.
      And no problem. Just try to arrange your schedule for each day in a way that works for you, so that music doesn’t become an idol. Try to mediate on God’s word day and night (There’s a really good video about mediation here that explains it better than I can, http://www.fotw.org/media/8 and also a great video about keeping focus on what’s most important, http://www.woodlandschurch.tv/weekly-message ) , of course, and through out the day, maybe try to spend more time on things that wouldn’t turn into a idol and reserve working on your passion for a special time of day each day. Something like that. Like I said, whatever works for you. God will lead you in the right direction, He’ll know what to do.
      Aw, shucks. Well, I try to be :) I admire you for sharing on here, it’s inspiring to see another Christian encouraging others to pray. I don’t have that kind of courage and strength to encourage others to pray since they are so many unbelievers who might ridicule or scoff at me for it. So, I thank you for your post. It reminds me to work on standing up for what I believe in no matter what people think.

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