Immersed: Maladaptive Daydreaming

I’m often daydreaming, and it’s because I’ve always liked the idea of there being something more than the normal world.

Samantha Shannon

Maladaptive daydreaming. It sounds sort of scary, doesn’t it? I’m not a big fan of the word, “maladaptive,” but I get it. By the time we get done today, I hope you get it too.

Over the last year, I have learned so much about myself; so many things that I thought were just parts of my personality. Turns out, they were part of my many disorders. MD was one of those things.

I knew from the beginning of starting this blog that daydreaming was one of the things that I wanted to write about. It’s a huge marker of ADHD-I, especially in girls and women.

Truth is, daydreams are a normal part of life that everyone experiences. They even offer some benefits such as planning, relieving boredom, and helping you to find the meanings within your story. We all indulge in a little bit of daydreaming from time to time.

Maladaptive Daydreaming

Maladaptive daydream, sometimes referred to as daydreaming disorder, is a psychiatric disorder (though not listed in the DSM V as a diagnosable disorder and there is no treatment) in which a person regularly experiences daydreams that are intense, vivid, and highly immersive. They can be intense and a person experiencing MD might stop engaging with the task (or person) in front of them to engage in the behavior.

maladaptive daydreaming

People with MD my dissociate with reality to absorb themselves completely in the daydream. They are often rich with detail; often with a full cast of characters, settings, and detailed plot lines.

Some common symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming are:

  • Intense, vivid, and immersive daydreams
    • Often presenting as a complete story with characters, setting, and plot line.
  • Daydreams triggered by real life stimuli such as hearing a song, watching TV, smells, sights, etc.
  • They last several minutes to hours and they are hard to break away from.
  • Often accompanied by an strong, almost addictive, desire to continue the daydream.
  • Trouble focusing and completing daily tasks.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Speaking or whispering dialogue during the daydream.
  • Repetitive movements, twitches, or facial expressions

It is suggested that some people may develop MD as a coping mechanism to trauma and they may engage more frequently during times of distress. Basically, when reality gets too painful, scary, or stressful, we create a new reality inside our heads. This new reality is often ideal and safe; we are usually cast as our most ideal selves.

Comorbid Disorders

As I mentioned before, trauma can be a contributing factor to maladaptive daydreaming. But, wait! There’s more! MD is also often found in people with depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD.

ADHD, the most common comorbidity, causes many of us to be prone to daydreaming already. But ADHD people can actually hyperfocus on daydreaming and that can make it all the more harder to pull yourself away when engaging in MD.

This hyperfocus/daydream hybrid seems to show up in 2 ways, in experience: you are either hyperfocused on the daydream or you incorporate your hyperfocus into the daydream. This can include people. That’s right folks, ADHDers are fully capable of accidentally hyperfocusing on an entire human being.

Maladaptive Daydreaming and Me

As I’ve stated before in a daydream post, I am quite a prolific daydreamer and I always have been. All of my fiction writing ideas have started out as a daydream, usually with me as the main character. During my worst depressive episodes, daydreams about a future I couldn’t otherwise see where the only things that pulled me through a day sometimes.

The first time I remember engaging in maladaptive daydreaming was in my early teens. After years of psychological abuse, I used to dream about being rescued. I would lay in bed at night and stare out at the road, imagining someone just whisking me away from the pain and the bullying. I used to picture the interstate and all the places it could take me.

While MD can be pleasant like daydreaming, maladaptive daydreams are more likely to involve themes of violence, power, control, sex, captivity, and rescue/escape scenarios. For me, I’m almost always being rescued in some way. Also, in my daydreams, I am the absolute best possible version of myself. She’s the version I work toward each day in real life.

When I was a younger woman, I was an actress. I used to let vivid daydreams about Hollywood fill me up. When I would fall into a deep depression, I would lie in bed for hours (sometimes days) and dream of a better future. One where I was whole and happy and fulfilled; a place where I had found my purpose and was thriving in it.

Dr. W Says…

When I first became aware of maladaptive daydreaming, I was blown away. I had always known my propensity to go deep into the worlds that I built in my head was a little unusual, but I always chalked it up to an overactive imagination; creativity, plain and simple. Some of it may be. Maybe non-creatives don’t deal with MD. Who knows?

I digress. As soon as I found out about it, I went straight to Dr. W about it. Is this me? And why maladaptive? That word has such a negative connotation and this was a coping mechanism that had, healthy, helped me through the literal worst times of my life.

Turns out, she thinks its a pretty awesome coping mechanism…as long as I don’t let it start to interfere with living my real life. She said that it’s fine to build a place that is safe and warm, where things happen on our terms.

They aren’t always pleasant, though. Sometimes I daydream about arguments or confrontations that I’ll likely never have. In those daydreams, I’m finally standing up for myself. I get so immersed in them that they sometimes evoke actual emotion, sometimes with me getting teary eyed or angry.

So, what’s it like?

So, what is it actually like? When it’s really intense, the best I can describe is that it’s like a deep meditative state. The rest of the world just fades away. I’m still aware of what is going on around me, but I become this other version of myself in the daydreams. There is always a whole cast of characters; sometimes people I know, sometimes people I’ve made up.

I can literally get lost in it. Like a movie in my head of; I’m in control and I’m the star.

Here is where it gets complicated. When my life feels out of my control, I start to spend more and more time in my dream world. I will absolutely excuse myself to go lie down so that I can escape for a little while. Every break from work, I’m laying down somewhere quiet so I can get into that state.

Also, if you’re hyperfocused on a person and you make that person a part of your dream world, you will start to project all sorts of ideas onto them. All that goodwill and safety that you’re creating in your dream. That’s who you want them to be, anyway. This can be dangerous and can cause unhealthy attachments to people that we don’t really know.

When I was younger, I got myself hurt more than once because I let myself believe that the person I daydreamed was the real person. They rarely are.

In Conclusion

I’ve been going through a lot lately and my life hasn’t felt safe, warm, or happy. I have some really tough decisions that need to be made but, in the meantime, I have a world awaiting me when it all gets too tough to take.

If you are a maladaptive daydreamer, just know that you are not alone and you are not abnormal. You developed a skill to keep you safe, likely because people hurt you.

Despite the name “maladaptive,” I see this as just another tool in my mental health toolkit. A safe way to escape when things become too much for me. As long as I continue to know the difference between dream and reality and I don’t let it impede on my real life, it’s a harmless way to soothe myself.

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Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight! 

About The Author

Amber Corinne

Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.

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