Abuse Effects Moving Forward

Maladaptive Daydreaming: What It Is, Why We Do It, & How to Manage It

Maladaptive Daydreaming | Hopeful Panda

I didn’t know what maladaptive daydreaming was when I was still doing it. And now that I know what it is, I feel less alone and a little less crazy.

Back then, I had this whole alternate “reality” I would often immerse myself in just to get away from my actual reality.

This “reality” felt so vivid, so real to me. It felt like real emotions, real relationships, almost real life. It was just hard to fully immerse myself when real life was getting in the way sometimes.

So I’d go out of my way to be alone. I avoided school and going out if I could. I holed up in my room for the most part and lived out my daydreams. It can go for hours on end.

A part of me knew it was maladaptive. But I didn’t care. It was better than real life. It was keeping me alive.

I didn’t know there was a name for what I was experiencing until my husband came across it online and told me about it. It is something I was and still am extremely ashamed of.

I only told my husband and siblings about it. And I only mentioned it vaguely because I feel like I’ll look crazy if I include too many details.

I understand now that it was my form of escape from my abusive environment. It’s something my siblings claimed they kind of did, too, but maybe to a lesser extreme than me.

However, it’s important to note that not all people who experience maladaptive daydreaming experienced early abuse and not everyone who experienced early abuse develops maladaptive daydreaming.

This post discusses what maladaptive daydreaming is, why child abuse survivors may do it, and ways to manage it. I also share a lot of my own experiences about how and why I started daydreaming and how it stopped.

What Is Maladaptive Daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming refers to a psychological phenomenon characterized by excessive, intense, and immersive daydreaming that interferes with daily life, functioning, and overall well-being.

It goes beyond typical daydreaming and becomes a compulsive, time-consuming, and intrusive activity that can significantly impact various aspects of your life.

While maladaptive daydreaming, individuals often create detailed and elaborate worlds or scenarios in their minds. They may spend hours or even days lost in these daydreams, often pacing, gesturing, or talking to themselves as they engage with the vivid content of their fantasies.

Certain stimuli such as solitude, jogging, driving or riding in a car, certain music, books, shows, or even random thoughts can trigger these daydreams.

It may feel challenging to control or stop daydreaming even if you want to. And this feeling of compulsivity is what distinguishes maladaptive daydreaming from normal daydreaming.

In a nutshell, maladaptive daydreaming consists of the following characteristics.

It’s important to note that the characteristics of maladaptive daydreaming can vary among individuals. Not everyone with it may exhibit the same traits or the same severity.

  • Experiencing an intense sense of immersion including seeing, hearing, or feeling sensations while daydreaming
  • Feeling distressed or bored often triggers daydreaming
  • Daydreaming occurs more often when alone
  • Feeling annoyed when unable to daydream or daydream is interrupted
  • Would rather daydream than engage in real-life activities or tasks
  • Exposure to music or repetitive movements (e.g. pacing, rocking, hand movements) triggers, maintains, or enhances daydreaming

Maladaptive Daydreaming Test

There is no official diagnosis or treatment for maladaptive daydreaming. However, there is an assessment developed in 2016 called the MDS-16 to help determine if someone may be experiencing maladaptive daydreaming and to what level.

The MDS-16 is not made for self-diagnosis. It’s mostly provided as a tool to help those questioning their daydreaming behavior get a sense of what may or may not be considered probable maladaptive daydreaming.

The assessment includes questions such as:

  • When a real-world event interrupts your daydreaming, how strong is your need or urge to return to daydreaming as soon as possible?
  • How often are your current daydreams accompanied by vocal noises or facial expressions (e.g. laughing, talking, or mouthing words)?
  • How distressed are you when you have trouble finding time to daydream?
  • How much does your daydreaming interfere with your ability to get basic chores done?
  • How distressed do you feel about the amount of time you spend daydreaming?
  • When you have something you need to pay attention to or finish, how difficult is it for you to stay on task and complete the goal without daydreaming?
  • How much do you feel that your daydreaming interferes with achieving your overall life goals?
  • How difficult has it been for you to keep your daydreaming under control?
  • When the real world interrupts your daydreaming, how annoyed do you feel?
  • How much does your daydreaming interfere with your academic or occupational success?
  • To what extent would you rather daydream than engage with other people, social activities, or hobbies?
  • When you first wake up, how strong is your urge to immediately start daydreaming?

The Impact of Maladaptive Daydreaming

While engaged in maladaptive daydreaming, you may become detached from your immediate surroundings and lose track of time. You may also neglect your responsibilities, relationships, and real-life activities and interactions.

This excessive daydreaming can lead to social isolation, difficulty concentrating, impaired productivity, and strained interpersonal relationships.

And finally, some people may develop a reliance on daydreaming as a way to regulate their emotions or cope with stress. As a result, they have trouble developing healthier coping mechanisms or facing real-life challenges.

My maladaptive daydreaming played a role in my dropping out of high school, resulting in me being even more distanced and eventually losing friends at the time. It also made it harder for me to get into college when the time came.

Because of the daydreaming, I also avoided going out with my family a lot of the time. While I “enjoyed” being in my world, I would also feel left out or annoyed if I found out they did something I would’ve enjoyed.

While my made-up world seemed better at times, I probably missed out on a lot while stuck in it. I missed out on things I would’ve enjoyed doing, which just exacerbated my depression and feelings of isolation whenever I’m not “in” that world.

Why Do We Engage in Maladaptive Daydreaming?

How and why someone may engage in maladaptive daydreaming varies from person to person. And the exact causes of maladaptive daydreaming are still being researched.

However, it is often linked with other conditions like anxiety, depression, dissociative disorders, OCD, and PTSD – which are common effects of childhood abuse. And people most likely engage in maladaptive daydreaming because it provides an escape.

It’s oftentimes a coping mechanism for stressful circumstances in life, unresolved trauma, and/or overwhelming or uncomfortable feelings such as loneliness and emptiness.

I loved creative writing back then. So I think my daydreaming started when I got a little too invested in my stories. At some point, it wasn't even about the stories anymore.

While my daydreamed life wasn't perfect, as in, it was still full of trauma and tragedies, I was a "better" version of myself. 

I was still flawed. But I was also smart, successful, and beautiful. And most importantly, I was loved, admired, desired, and cared for. Unlike real life, I was somebody and I was worthy.

If you have abusive parents, you probably had to constantly walk on eggshells, always alert and on edge. And your self-esteem and sense of self-worth, like me, might be debilitatingly low as a result of the abuse.

You may also struggle to be yourself, do what you want, and live life how you want to. Or like me, you constantly struggle with feeling unlovable and unworthy, deeply yearning for affection, companionship, and validation.

So as a way to cope with those difficult emotions and the hell you were in, you may have escaped into a reality where things were just better.

Maybe it’s where you can be yourself and do what you want without having to worry about the backlash. Maybe it’s the only place where you can feel better about yourself and about life. Or like me, maybe it’s the only place where you can experience any love or affection.

Understanding how maladaptive daydreaming may be linked to the abuse you faced is the first step in learning how to manage and eventually overcome it.

To Cope & Escape

Parents are a child’s first-ever relationship and introduction into the world. And when they’re abusive, not only is the child getting hurt, but they are getting hurt by the very people that are supposed to protect them.

Needing to rely on the very people who are hurting you with no one to stand up for you, especially as a child, is one of the most isolating, terrifying, and helpless things anyone can experience.

So the child has no choice but to mentally escape (or dissociate) from their immediate surroundings to a more pleasant and controllable place.

And the habit to escape to your imaginary world that you learned as a child may carry onto adulthood where maladaptive daydreaming may continue even when you’re no longer in an abusive environment.

To Regulate Emotions

Your new world and reality through maladaptive daydreaming may give you a sense of control, comfort, and relief from the overwhelming emotions you likely feel as a result of the abuse and its effects.

Abusive parents can create an environment of fear, anxiety, and constant stress. Maladaptive daydreaming may serve as a way for you to regulate your emotions, self-soothe, and find a sense of safety within your own world.

And again, because it’s something you learned while you were dealing with abuse, it likely continued as a way for you to deal with difficult or uncomfortable emotions that come up.

I was extremely depressed at a certain period in my life. I’d say maladaptive daydreaming played a huge role in keeping me alive. It allowed me to take a break from the things in real life that was making me dread my existence.

To Receive Love, Support, Affection, & Validation

People who have abusive parents often lack the love, support, affection, and validation they deserved and needed as a child to properly grow and thrive.

So as a way to get that, they may resort to maladaptive daydreaming. Their fantasy world may have provided a way for them to experience the love, acceptance, and nurturing relationships that were missing in their real life.

Even children with “normal” childhoods often have imaginary friends. So this practice may be exacerbated with a whole imaginary world with imaginary relationships because the child couldn’t get that in real life.

Ways to Manage Maladaptive Daydreaming

Like me, you might feel like you’re “crazy” for maladaptive daydreaming. But given your history, it makes sense.

As crazy as I might feel about having daydreamed excessively back then, I learned to forgive myself for it.

I was so utterly alone and miserable back then. To me, real life was unbearable. In order to keep myself going, I did what I had to.

Maybe it was “maladaptive”, but it kept me going and gave me feelings of comfort, love, pleasure, and relief that I couldn’t get from real life. So I tell myself it’s okay.

But once real life started improving, I knew I had to start letting go of that imaginary world. I learned to slowly replace that one with the real one.

If life is absolutely intolerable for you and there’s nothing you can do about it, then maybe some immersive daydreaming is okay. But it’s important that you still try to do something to improve your actual situation if you can.

And if maladaptive daydreaming IS getting in the way of a possible better life for you, then you should absolutely do something about it.

Here are some approaches that may help in managing and decreasing maladaptive daydreaming.

Address underlying issues

Maladaptive daydreaming is likely an outlet for coping with underlying issues – whether that’s mental health conditions, unresolved trauma, emotional distress, or unmet needs.

Try to explore and address the underlying issues that may be driving the maladaptive daydreaming.

Begin healing from your childhood trauma and learn various methods to cope with some of the long-lasting effects it might’ve caused.

Consider seeking professional help for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

Working to actively better your mental health and resolve your trauma may reduce symptoms that trigger you to daydream maladaptively. It can improve how often and how intensely you daydream.

Set specific goals

Try to set specific goals for reducing your daydreaming like setting aside time each day to daydream or reducing the duration of daydreaming gradually.

Doing this will be tough because a huge part of what makes maladaptive daydreaming so intrusive is how compulsively we want to do it. But these goals can help keep your daydreams in check.

Try to practice some restraint and reserve your daydreaming to your scheduled time. Treat it like a hobby or “treat” you should only indulge in moderation.

Practice mindfulness

The opposite of daydreaming is possibly focusing on the present moment. And the best way to practice focusing on the present is through mindfulness.

Learning how to practice mindfulness can help you increase your awareness of your body, your thoughts, and your immediate surroundings.

It can help you understand and become more aware of when and why you engage in maladaptive daydreaming.

Try to notice what thoughts or external stimuli seem to trigger your daydreaming or the urge to. Being able to notice the triggers and underlying reasons can help you develop strategies to address them.

Create and maintain meaningful relationships

For me, the biggest trigger and factor for how I ended up maladaptive daydreaming is because of how much I yearned for love and affection.

So while I engaged in daydreaming a lot back then, I was still reaching out to different people online trying (and hoping) to form meaningful relationships.

As much as I enjoyed and found meaningful relationships in my daydreams, I still wanted real life to be better. I still wanted to feel loved for real. And because I was still “trying” in real life, I was able to meet my now-husband.

Social support is invaluable. Meeting my husband was the catalyst that eventually ended my maladaptive daydreaming.

Having that friendship with him initially made the real world more tolerable. As our relationship developed, the amount of time I spent daydreaming became less and less frequent. Soon, my relationship with him was enough to keep me going that I didn’t need to resort to daydreaming anymore.

It will be difficult, but try to form actual real-life relationships, even if it’s only online.

You may be resorting to daydreaming because you don’t have that in the real world. And of course, real life is difficult. But reach out to people. Try to put yourself out there.

And when you do meet people, please keep your expectations realistic and do not rely on them to make you happy. And please remember that they are not and will not be like the people in your daydreams. They are real people.

If you want to be cared for, loved, and supported, then you’ll need to put in the work (along with them of course, relationships are a two-way street) to get the relationship to that level.

Find alternative outlets

Try to find and engage in activities that can provide a healthy outlet for creativity, imagination, and self-expression. Pursue hobbies, arts, or writing that can allow you to channel your imaginative energy more constructively.

For instance, rather than immerse yourself in a daydream, try to express that daydream in a form of art like poetry or painting.

It may also be helpful to simply write about your daydreams. Writing can help you better understand the content of your daydreams and lead to self-expression, self-exploration, and eventually, self-discovery.

Stay busy

Boredom can be a trigger for maladaptive daydreaming. So staying busy can help keep you from that.

Perhaps you can create a daily schedule. Plan your day with specific activities and allocate time for focused tasks, hobbies, and social interactions.

A structured routine can provide a sense of purpose and engagement. It can reduce your tendency to drift into daydreams.

Another big reason I stopped daydreaming altogether was how much I was dealing with at the time. I was finishing college while dealing with court and foster care stuff, trying to get custody of my siblings. It took up a LOT of my mental space and physical time.

I didn’t have time or the energy to daydream. I had real responsibilities I had to focus on, so it kind of made me leave behind that world. It wasn’t even intentional, I think. It just happened.

And because I was so caught up in all of that, I barely even had time to be depressed. Anxiety completely took over, and so did real life.

Conclusion

Daydreaming still comes up for me from time to time like when I’m listening to music or zoning off into space doing some mundane chore. But it’s no longer maladaptive. I no longer have the urge to avoid people or activities just so I can be alone and daydream.

Of course, I have my husband to thank for that. But being away from my abusive mother and having some big responsibilities also gave me a reason to actually participate in real life, even if it may be hard at times.

Maladaptive daydreaming was likely a form of escape and coping mechanism for you from your abusive environment. And that’s okay. It’s not your fault and you’re not alone in resorting to that just to feel some kind of happiness, freedom, love, or comfort.

But unfortunately, it is not a healthy or sustainable solution. If you have no other choice, then maybe it’s okay for now. But there are likely steps you can be taking to improve your real-life situation.

You don’t have to completely forgo that world. It’s hard to leave behind what you’ve become so attached to. Even if it isn’t technically real, it’s real to you. But you should start taking the time to slowly acclimate yourself back to reality if you can.

Maybe like me, your situation can improve. And it won’t if you’re busy lost in your world, not spending any moment trying to fix the real one.

Maybe real life can never be as good as your daydreams. But real life can be better. And you don’t have to fully say goodbye to that world. You can still visit it from time to time through normal, healthy daydreams if that’s what you want.

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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