Understanding the root cause of maladaptive daydreaming

There are two components to Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder (MaDD) – firstly, you have an innate capacity for immersive daydreaming, and secondly you have lost control of that ability, such that your daydreaming has become an addictive behaviour that negatively affects your life.

I have yet to come across anyone who explains addiction better than Dr Gabor Maté. The quotes in this post are taken from his article Beyond Drugs: The Universal Experience of Addiction. I highly recommend you read the original article, especially if you are feeling shame or embarrassment about your daydreaming addiction, or don’t quite believe that daydreaming can be a “real” addiction. Here, I attempt to explain what Dr Maté’s view of addiction means for sufferers of MaDD.

Dr Maté defines an addictive behaviour as “any behavior that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up”. By that definition excessive daydreaming that negatively impacts your life by taking your time and focus away from other things, is most definitely an addiction, and maladaptive daydreamers are no less deserving of compassion, support and help than any other addicts. Because, as Dr Maté goes on to say: “addiction is neither a choice nor a disease, but originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self. … The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.

I think many maladaptive daydreamers can relate to this. We daydream to escape – either from the stress of our current lives or from traumatic memories in our past. Or, alternatively, we may daydream to experience a sense of connection, love or worthiness that is missing in our real lives. We may be trying to escape loneliness or a sense of not being good enough. Either way, something in our real life is not the way we want – or need – it to be, and that causes stress. And so we retreat into an alternate reality where the source of that stress (whether it’s something bad that happened, or something we needed that didn’t happen) isn’t there. To understand why we daydream excessively, we first need to understand what it is that we are trying to escape from.

Dr Maté makes a very important point: “to treat the addiction, which is a symptom, without treating the pain that underlies it is to deal in effects rather than in causes, and therefore dooms many to ongoing cycles of suffering”. In other words, just trying to stop daydreaming, without understanding and addressing why you daydream isn’t going to work. Most likely, you will simply relapse. But more worryingly, if you were successful in stopping daydreaming while the underlying pain is still present, you open yourself up to all kinds of other addictions. You could end up swapping daydreaming for gambling, alcohol or worse – because you will still have that same need to escape the pain.

So it’s vital, before you try to break your daydreaming addiction, that you take steps to understand and address what caused it in the first place. Dr Maté believes that “the source of pain is always and invariably to be found in a person’s lived experience, beginning with childhood. Childhood trauma is the template for addiction—any addiction. All addictions are attempts to escape the deep pain of the hurt child”. For some maladaptive daydreamers, that may be self-evident. Professor Eli Somer’s original publication on MaDD reported six patients with excessive daydreaming – all of them had experienced moderate or severe childhood trauma.

But many maladaptive daydreamers don’t immediately identify as having had a traumatic childhood. However, Dr Maté goes on to say “trauma is not restricted to horrific experiences. It refers to any set of events that, over time, impose more pain on the child than his or her sensitive organism can process and discharge”. In other words, trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be an out-of-the ordinary horrible event; it just has to be more than you can cope with at the time.

In this context, it’s worth considering that Professor Somer has reported that over three-quarters of maladaptive daydreamers may have ADHD. And nearly everyone with ADHD has Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), which means we experience rejection and negative experiences far more intensely than other people. So, for example, if your parents were emotionally unavailable due to over-investment in their careers, mental health problems or multiple caring responsibilities, or if you were constantly in trouble at school because you were perceived as lazy or too easily distractible, that might have sent you a very powerful signal that you weren’t loved, or weren’t good enough. And for someone with RSD, that’s more than enough to qualify as childhood trauma.

In summary, maladaptive daydreaming is an addictive behaviour that represents, on some level, an attempt to escape the pain of your current or past life by retreating to an alternate reality where the painful event(s) did not occur. It isn’t a sign of weakness and it doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that at some point in your life, your basic human needs, for love, connection, stability and safety, were not met. To have any chance of breaking free from maladaptive daydreaming, you first need to understand and process the pain that led you into the addiction in the first place. If you need help with that, I’d advise you to seek out a psychotherapist or counsellor who specialises in helping people recover from childhood trauma – it isn’t necessary to find a therapist who is familiar with MaDD, because MaDD is a symptom of the underlying problem, and not the root cause.

Five tips to maintain healthy daydream habits

I want to begin this article by saying that everyone’s experience of daydreaming is different. And for some maladaptive daydreamers it can be impossible to maintain healthy daydreaming habits without support. If your daydreaming is having a significant negative impact on your life, you might benefit from seeing a counsellor or other therapist. But for many on the less-severe end of the daydreaming scale, it is possible to manage your daydreaming yourself through increased self-awareness and setting yourself a few simple ground rules.

1. Deal with past traumas

Many of us daydream to escape from painful events in our past or from a difficult current reality. For us, daydreaming is a coping mechanism. It’s the way we deal with the problem, rather than the problem itself. By taking steps to deal with the underlying problem – whether that’s by seeking counselling, removing yourself from a toxic situation, or learning to manage your emotions in a more positive way – you may find that the amount of time you need to spend daydreaming automatically reduces.

2. Use mindfulness to stay present

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”. Mindfulness helps you to become aware of your thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you. By learning to accept and manage your negative emotions, you lessen the need to take refuge from those emotions in your daydream world. Also, by learning to live in the present moment, you start to notice and appreciate the little things that bring beauty to life. When you find something, no matter how small, to be grateful for in the real world, it makes the daydream world less compelling.

3. Give yourself a break

If you are an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer, your daydream world is never going to leave you completely. It’s just the way your brain is wired. Some people fear that overcoming maladaptive daydreaming will mean they have to say goodbye to characters and worlds that they care very deeply about. That’s not the case. Healthy daydreaming is about bringing your daydreaming down to a level where it doesn’t negatively impact your life. It’s OK to give yourself a little bit of daydreaming time each day – perhaps on your evening commute, or while you’re doing housework, or when you’re out jogging. Set yourself limits, and congratulate yourself when you stick to them.

4. Never daydream when other people are present

To succeed in anything, you have to make it a priority in your life. If you want to enjoy real life, then real life has to come first. When you are with another person, that person deserves your full attention. Real-life relationships need tending and nurturing in a way that daydream relationships don’t. You can’t take your real-life friends for granted; you have to show up for them. Your characters won’t mind if you put them off until later.

5. Work towards inspiring real-life goals

Most of us daydream when we’re bored. You may find you can lessen the urge to daydream by keeping yourself busy with rewarding real-life experiences. Notice the things that make you happy and do more of them. Set yourself a challenge. Take up a new sport or hobby. Work on a project that is meaningful to you. Whatever you choose, if you can, enlist the help of friends or family to keep you motivated. Having an accountability partner can do wonders for keeping you on track.

Finally, it may be helpful to keep a diary, or at least a mental tally, of how long you spend daydreaming each day, so that you can quickly spot any early signs that your daydreaming is starting to get out of control. If you spot any lapses early on, there is a much better chance that you’ll be able to manage the situation yourself before your daydreaming starts to damage your relationships or career.

With effort and commitment, it is possible to thrive in both the real world and your daydream world. You just need to find a harmonious balance between the two.

What are immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming?

Everyone daydreams. But not everyone daydreams in the same way. For most people (normative daydreamers), daydreaming involves reminiscing or replaying things that have happened in the past or planning for the future. Topics range from the mundane, such as what to have for dinner, to the more substantial, such as where you’d like to go on your next holiday or how your family is going to celebrate Christmas. Normative daydreamers switch topics frequently, daydreaming about one thing for a few minutes before shifting to something else.

But some people daydream about things that have no relation to their real life. You might daydream about dating your favourite celebrity or saving the world from an alien invasion. You might return to the same theme, or a variant of it, every time you daydream. Over time you construct an elaborate and detailed daydream world, with a whole cast of characters. These characters may be based on people you know in real life, or on people you have never met, or they might exist only in your imagination. You might replay certain scenes over and over again, or your daydream plot might progress and evolve in real time. Your daydreams may be vivid and detailed, like a memory in the present tense. At times it might feel as though a movie is playing in your head. This is immersive daydreaming.

Immersive daydreaming can be a lot of fun. You can meet people and go to places in your head that you’ll never be able to do in real life. You can be someone else, explore the world from a different perspective, even rewrite history. And therein lies the problem. For some immersive daydreamers, daydreaming can become addictive. This can happen if you experienced something traumatic in the real world that made you want to run away, or if your emotional needs were not being met in real life, so you created imaginary friends to meet those needs. When you compare your difficult and perhaps painful reality with your idealised daydreams, it’s not surprising that you prefer to spend your time in your daydream world. But if you are spending so much time daydreaming that it causes you distress or makes it difficult for you to function in the real world then you may have maladaptive daydreaming disorder.

Throughout this site, I use the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder (MaDD) to refer to an addiction to immersive daydreaming. MaDD is a mental health condition that negatively impacts the sufferer’s life in countless different ways. It makes it hard to study, progress in a career or maintain relationships. Sufferers of MaDD are frequently lonely, underemployed and feel as if life is passing them by. It can be every bit as debilitating and difficult to overcome as an addiction to drugs or gambling. In some ways, it’s worse, because there are no barriers – our poison is always only a thought away.

Everyone daydreams. If you have MaDD, it’s unrealistic to think you will ever stop daydreaming completely. But I honestly believe that with the right support and therapy, sufferers of MaDD can break the addiction. It is realistic to hope that one day you will be able to control your daydreaming, rather than your daydreaming controlling you. You can break free from MaDD, and become an empowered daydreamer who uses your immersive daydreaming to help you live your best life and achieve your full potential.