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Is it “psychosis” or just “maladaptive daydreaming?”

The article “Living in a Dream World: The Role of Daydreaming in Problem-Solving and Creativity” recently published in Scientific American Mind, explores both the positive functions of daydreams, as well as the hazards of getting too deeply immersed.  A related article looks a great scientific achievments made while daydreaming, “Delivered in a Daydream: 7 Great Achievements That Arose from a Wandering Mind [Slide Show]”  Finally, the first article mentions a website devoted to those with “maladaptive daydreaming” – Wild Minds – it has lots of ideas and discussion.

What is the difference between daydreaming and psychosis?  Not too much it turns out – just mainly that the daydreamer keeps track of the fact that all the content is produced by one’s own mind, while the person likely to get diagnosed with psychosis usually has lost track of that at some point, or doesn’t want to believe that the content is from one’s own mind.  Why might a person not want to think that a daydream is produced by one’s own mind?  There are two likely reasons.

One is that the person may find that by imagining that the daydream is not a daydream, but is real, the person can get more deeply into it.  Given that we are talking about people with a tendency to dream too intensely, this is just another way to up the intensity.  Of course it also has real hazards!

Another reason is that the person may be having negative daydreams, and want to avoid or disown them in some way.  When they intrude anyway, they seem to be coming from somewhere other than the “self.”

Of course, many people labeled “psychotic” do believe, or at least do believe a lot of the time, that the mental content they experience, be it voices or whatever, is coming from their own mind.  So at that point, it really is just an intense involvement in daydreaming. 

Just in my brief look at the Wild Minds website, it seems that a lot of the coping ideas also apply to working with voices and such.  So it would be good to explore more the continuum between daydreaming and experience that gets called psychosis – this could help us learn how to moderate the experience so people can learn to take advantage of the positive aspects of it while minimizing the hazards.

7 comments… add one
  • I just noticed this blog. Thanks for the link! If anyone has any questions about Maladaptive Daydreaming, feel free to contact me at ohsweetgoodnight [at] Please put Maladaptive Daydreaming or something in the subject, so I won’t think it’s spam. I get a lot of spam at that email.
    We’ve got a great, nonjudgmental group of people at Wild Minds. It’s geared at Maladaptive Daydreaming, but anyone can join.

  • To take this a little further, it would be interesting to know more about the connections between dreaming and intense daydreaming. This would help us integrate and normalize what we already know about the connections between dreaming and psychosis. It makes sense to guess that as daydreaming gets really intense, and especially as the person loses track of the fact it is coming from one’s own mind, it can move closer to having the qualities of actual dreaming. And their already is a lot of study of the connections between dreaming and psychosis (which has often been described as “dreaming while awake”).

    One great summary of what is known about the connections, the many similarities and some dissimilarities, between dreaming and psychosis, is contained in a chapter of the book I am reading now, Unshrinking Psychosis, Understanding and Healing the Wounded Soul by John Watkins. I won’t even try to summarize what he writes in that chapter, or in the book as a whole (which I am really enjoying so far) but if curious you might get the book yourself, just $10 for the ebook at Amazon.

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  • Hi Ron,
    I thought you’d be interested to know my story. I’ll have to share this on Wild Minds too, thanks for the link. I’m diagnosed Schizoaffective. My diagnosis was changed from Bipolar a few years back because of symptoms that could be described as “maladaptive daydreaming”.

    My excessive daydreaming, often combined with pacing, hand movements, or vocal noises/mouthing words is considered to be a psychotic symptom by my psychiatrist. However, I don’t hear any voices, and I always know that my fantasies are not real.

    It’s strange how my symptoms work. My daydreaming exists even when my mood is stabilized, so it’s not manic psychosis. The only medications that help keep it under control are antipsychotics. Without antipsychotics I have trouble even sitting down to watch a 1-hour movie without having to go fantasize and pace. At the same time, my daydreaming is reactive to my mood; if I am stressed or manic it gets worse.

    I have read other people’s daydreaming stories and while many also pace, I don’t know that the root of their symptoms are the same as mine or that they are as acute as I am. My psychiatrist has suggested that my daydreaming behaviors are a combination of both psychological factors (like a need to escape) and psychotic tendencies that are more biological.

    • Thanks for telling your story! It sounds like one thing worthy of trying to figure out is what is pushing you to “fantasize and pace” when otherwise you might want to watch a movie. If it’s just that the movie is more boring than your own thoughts, that would be one thing, but it’s another if you somehow feel compelled to do it (which then might induce your psychiatrist to see it as a “symptom.”

      One way to study what is pushing you to do something is just to not do it when usually you would, and then just see what happens, what emerges. You might find that you are using the fantasizing to solve a problem that really could be solved some other way. Such as, handling stress.

      While psychiatrists love to fantasize that people with psychosis have biological differences from people who don’t, there are reasons to think that the biological differences that have been found on average are just a result of psychological differences over time, such as a response to stress, trauma, bullying, and stuff like that. Finding better ways to handle stress and past trauma might very well eliminate the problem completely.

  • I have maladaptive daydreaming and also have experienced severe psychosis due amphetamine use. I consider them very different from my experience. With psychosis my brain subconsciously creates the “dream world” while when I daydream I’am in complete control. Daydreaming lacks the hallucinations, that comes with psychosis. When I experience psychosis I know that it’s caused by amphetamines, thus try to ignore it, but when I first experienced it, I had no clue I was hallucinating. Sometimes I lose track of reality because the hallucinations are too intense or the duration is too long that my mind “gives up”. One thing with psychosis which is scary, is that you do not hallucinate random things, it’s things that are stored in your memory. For example, I had abusive parents when growing up, and when I experience psychosis I hallucinate my father yelling, running up the stairs to my room, and beating me.

    • Hi macc88, it sounds like your daydreams are very compliant with your intentions, and not scary, while your experience with amphetamine use has involved out of control stuff that can be scary and negative.

      Some people though do have daydreams that include elements that get out of their control – like imaginary friends that turn mean! See which includes the quote “Taylor and her colleagues found that about one third of children with invisible friends complained that their invisible friend didn’t always come when called, didn’t leave when asked, talked too loudly, didn’t share, or did annoying things like “put yogurt in my hair.”’

      Recalling really bad memories and feeling like they are happening in the present is of course all too common and terrifying for people who have experienced trauma – often we have parts of us that don’t want to recall those events at all, while to other parts of us contemplating those events seems absolutely essential, and they may be recalled or imagined as though they are happening right now or even as though they are mixed in with current events. For some, drugs may break down some of the barriers against this happening everyday – but good trauma therapy can help put these events into better perspective, so they become less haunting.