Different styles of daydreaming – it’s not all about the paracosm

Immersive daydreaming is often described as vivid fantastical daydreaming that involves a detailed imaginary world, a complex plot and a cast of lifelike characters. Even if your daydreams are fairly realistic, involving people you actually know, all of those elements are probably there; you’re just drawing heavily on your real life for inspiration.

Immersive daydreaming is very different from mind-wandering, which is what normative daydreamers are usually referring to when they talk about daydreaming. In mind-wandering, our thoughts flit from topic to topic and are usually confined within the boundaries of our real life – we might be thinking about what to have for dinner, or recalling a conversation we had with a colleague. We drift from one thing to another without consciously controlling where our thoughts are going. In mind-wandering, we’re often contemplating real life, but in immersive daydreaming, we tend to check out of real life completely.

Except when we don’t. One of the ways I use my immersive daydreaming to enhance my real life is by intentionally daydreaming about real life. I still visit my paracosm nearly every day, but I also benefit from daydreaming outside my paracosm. And it’s such a different experience, both in how it feels at the time and in how I feel afterwards, that I find it helpful to think of it as a different type of daydreaming.

So, I have paracosm daydreaming, which is the fantasy escape we’re all familiar with. I check out of real life and disappear off to my sci-fi universe where half my friends are aliens and I get to save the world. It’s fun, exciting, and (now I have my daydreaming mostly under control) generally harmless. It can pull me out of a bad mood by short-circuiting any temptation to indulge in unhelpful rumination. But it doesn’t help me move forward in real life. It doesn’t solve my problems. It doesn’t make me a better person.

But then there’s this thing I call connected daydreaming. Connected, because it connects my daydreams to my real life. Usually, it takes the form of a conversation with one of my imaginary friends; someone who won’t judge me, someone I feel safe to be myself with. In connected daydreaming, I show up as my real-world self, not as my parame. I’m not some amazing person who has it all figured out, I’m my genuine flawed self, with all my insecurities, doubts, impulsiveness and, yes, still a fair bit of emotional dysregulation. And the conversation doesn’t take place in my paracosm, it takes place wherever I happen to be at the time. I talk about what’s going on in my life, what’s working, what’s not, what I want to achieve, how I want my future to look. And my imaginary friend listens, he doesn’t judge, he offers me his unconditional support, and he gently nudges me in the right direction. Sometimes, it feels like I’m talking to a therapist.

Connected daydreaming is still daydreaming. I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t an immersive daydreamer. If I didn’t have that in-built ability to immersively daydream, my imaginary friend would never have come to life. He wouldn’t be able to contribute insights from my subconscious that I can’t tap into any other way. He wouldn’t feel so real that I actually care what he thinks. He wouldn’t be able to co-regulate my emotions just by holding my hand. Connected daydreaming absolutely is immersive daydreaming.

But it isn’t an escape. It isn’t a way to run away from my problems; it’s how I face them. It isn’t a hopeless desire to be my parame; it’s how I do the work to become a better version of myself. It isn’t wishing for an unattainable future; it’s how I get clear about the future I really want and how I’m going to work towards it. In short, it’s not dissociating, it’s grounding. It’s inspiring. And over the last year, it’s played a huge part in my recovery.

I still visit my paracosm most nights just before I fall asleep, and at other times of the day if I’m stuck in traffic or waiting for an appointment. Paracosm daydreaming is a fun way to reward myself for a day well lived, or to pass those little moments of time when nothing else is going on. But connected daydreaming is something I actively set aside time to do. And when I don’t make time for it, I notice I’m more stressed, more dysregulated, more on edge. When I’ve had my connection time, I’m calm, focussed, certain of who I am and where I’m going.

If you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you’ve probably thought your life would be so much better if you could just quit daydreaming completely. When your real life is so difficult, and the pull of your paracosm is so strong that you just can’t stay away from it, it can feel like you’re trapped in a spiral – the more you daydream, the worse your life gets, and the more you need to daydream to get away from it. It can be tempting to think the only way to break the spiral is to take daydreaming out of the equation completely. But in my case, connected daydreaming helped me to reverse the spiral. With connected daydreaming, the more I daydream, the better my life gets, and the easier it becomes to balance the deliciousness of my daydreams with the fulfilment of the real life I’m actually building.