The Connection Between Maladaptive Daydreaming and Neuroticism

Maladaptive daydreaming is something searched for by millions each month, but yet something that very little research has been conducted on.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, because maladaptive daydreaming is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) those who provide grant funding for researchers are a bit hesitant to fund research into maladaptive daydreaming. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it's incredibly hard to objectively judge someone's dreams and whether or not they are (or are not) maladaptive. 

Part of what the maladaptive daydreaming test is trying to do is get the individuals themselves to determine if their daydreams are maladaptive by having them answer how disruptive their daydreams are to their "real" life.

As you may already know, the most popular and widely used psychological test is called the Big Five Personality Test. This test is comprised of a series of statements. You then answer how much you agree (or disagree) with the statements and this will determine how much you adhere to certain personality traits. These traits are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and extraversion.

One line of research that hasn't been pursued much, but that really should, is whether or not those who claim to be maladaptive daydreamers tend to be high or low on the five personality traits that this test determines.

My personal results show that I am very high (99th percentile) on neuroticism, which is believed to be the personality trait that makes one most susceptible to maladaptive daydreaming. Likewise, results show that I am quite low (9th percentile) on extroversion, which makes sense. Those who are very extroverted tend to spend much less time inside their own head than introverts, presumably because they find it more boring and less fulfilling to be alone with their thoughts than around other people.

In this post we'll spend a bit of time walking through neuroticism, because despite it being one of the five major personality traits it's widely misunderstood.

The definition that the NIH gives for neuroticism is as follows:

Neuroticism is the trait disposition to experience negative affects, including anger, anxiety, self‐consciousness, irritability, emotional instability, and depression. Persons with elevated levels of neuroticism respond poorly to environmental stress, interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and can experience minor frustrations as hopelessly overwhelming. Neuroticism is one of the more well established and empirically validated personality trait domains, with a substantial body of research to support its heritability, childhood antecedents, temporal stability across the life span, and universal presence.

Put in layman terms, those who are high on neuroticism tend to highly value having a stable external environment. When things do not go according to plan in the external environment - whether that's getting a pop quiz in school or having an unexpected deadline at work - they tend to quite anxious and disturbed (more so than others who are less high in neuroticism). 

Why High Neuroticism Can Lead to Maladaptive Daydreaming

Different people value different ways of living. Some people want nothing more than a stable 9-5 job - perhaps with the government - and to live well within their means. Some other people want a life of adventure and aren't overly concerned about planning for the future, having money in the bank, or keeping a close knit group of friends or family around them.

Those who are high in neuroticism tend to be very risk adverse and to value security above all else. These are the kinds of people (myself included) who would never speculate on some hyped up stock or move across the country to try out a new career. 

I believe that those who are high in neuroticism and ultimately end up maladaptive daydreaming are doing so because they are seeking control of not only their external world, but also their internal world. Perhaps they are doing this because - for whatever reason - they can't fully control their external world so through maladaptive daydreaming they can at least control and stabilize their internal world of daydreams. 

No matter what your maladaptive daydreams are, they by definition will never surprise you or disturb your sense of control because you. This stands in contrast to the external world where surprises can always happen no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

How Worry is Connected to Neuroticism 

Another characteristic of those who are high in neuroticism are those who worry a lot. This is perhaps best characterized in pop culture by Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. She is constantly worried - to the point of almost being hysterical - and wants nothing more than to control her daughters and ensure they end up with suitable husbands that can give them stable lives.

Another characteristic of those who engage in maladaptive daydreaming is that they worry a great deal about the external world. This allows for them to create a more stable internal world through their maladaptive daydreams as they never have to worry about what will happen next, because they per se are in control.

How to Handle Neuroticism and Maladaptive Daydreaming

After taking the Big Five Personality Test and the Maladaptive Daydreaming Test, you may find that you have both neurotic tendencies and maladaptive daydreams.

If so, you join a long list of others. While there is little academic research on this particular topic, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of maladaptive daydreamers are high in neuroticism. 

This shouldn't make you concerned. As I explain in my book, one of the key steps to stopping maladaptive daydreaming is understanding why you're doing it in the first place.

One of the ways in which you can leverage a neurotic disposition is to try to use coping mechanisms to lower how much you're affected by your neuroticism in the real world. Proven strategies include meditation, deep breathing exercises, and putting yourself into situations in which there will be some level of spontaneity (a form of immersion therapy). 

Finally, all the techniques and tricks in the book are entirely applicable to those who have maladaptive daydreams and are more neurotic than average. After all, this described me and what I discuss in the book is the exact process by which I overcame my maladaptive daydreams.

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