science of us

Excessive Daydreaming Might Be a Form of Mental Illness

Photo: Victor Tongdee/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most people are prone to daydreaming now and again (especially if you have a crush), and in most of those cases, it’s a healthy (even beneficial, in moderation) practice. But for some, daydreaming can become so intrusive a habit that it becomes a form of mental illness. Though not yet recognized by standard mental-health diagnostic manuals like the DSM, “maladaptive daydreaming (MD),” or “daydreaming disorder,” is an increasingly popular diagnosis online. People who say they suffer from it complain of vivid, hours-long episodes of daydreaming which often interrupt their waking lives, and can negatively impact their abilities to work and maintain relationships.

Research on MD is still scant, but a new study examined 77 self-diagnosed subjects, and found that many shared symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, which makes sense, as many MD sufferers describe their extended daydream as compulsory, or outside their control — on average, the subjects of the aforementioned study reported spending four hours a day daydreaming. The researchers, Nirit Soffer-Dudek and Eli Somer, suspect that low levels of serotonin may thus play a role in MD, as is also the case with OCD. There is some evidence that MD may also be linked to childhood abuse or trauma, and that extended daydreaming might allow those individuals to enact hero and/or revenge fantasies.

Because MD is still little understood, many “MDers,” as they call themselves, find support in online communities like the Wild Minds Network. Some who experience MD want a way to stop it, while others find the prospect of life without their daydreams to be frightening. As one woman told Somer, one of the study’s authors, “I am torn between the love of my daydreams and the desire to be normal.”

Still, while daydreaming might feel like an enjoyable, even productive way to pass the time, evidence suggests that it makes people less happy in the long run, particularly when used as a means to escape the present. Somer and his colleagues say more research is needed, and that treatment might be possible in the form of response-prevention technique similar to those used in treating OCD.

Excessive Daydreaming Might Be a Form of Mental Illness