It’s often said that maladaptive daydreaming is a coping mechanism that develops in response to trauma. I agree that maladaptive daydreaming is a coping mechanism. Therefore, there must be an underlying problem that the maladaptive daydreamer is coping with. But many maladaptive daydreamers don’t remember experiencing significant trauma. So, is maladaptive daydreaming always due to trauma?
Immersive daydreaming is not a trauma response
Immersive daydreaming – the ability to construct vivid, detailed, narrative daydreams – is not due to trauma. It’s a natural ability that some people are born with. If you remember daydreaming a lot as a child, but you were doing it for fun rather than because you needed to escape from something, it’s likely you were immersively daydreaming. Even if your daydreaming is maladaptive now, it wasn’t always that way. All maladaptive daydreamers start out as immersive daydreamers. But in maladaptive daydreamers, daydreaming becomes a harmful addiction that gets in the way of real life. So, maybe the transition from immersive daydreaming to maladaptive daydreaming is the part that’s due to trauma.
What is trauma?
To understand whether your maladaptive daydreaming is due to trauma, you first have to understand what trauma is. Many people have equated trauma with ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences. ACEs are the “big-T” trauma – for example, sexual abuse or the loss of a parent. Scientific studies have shown that people who experienced a number of ACEs have a much higher risk of a range of physical and mental health conditions.
But what about people who didn’t experience that type of big-T trauma? Can people with relatively “normal” childhoods still be affected by trauma?
Gabor Maté defines trauma as “any set of events that, over time, impose more pain on the child than his or her sensitive organism can process and discharge”. And in a podcast I listened to recently, Mel Robbins defined trauma as “the lasting emotional response that comes from living through a stressful, distressing, scary or life-threatening event.”
In other words, you don’t have to have gone through something horrific to have experienced trauma. You just have to have been in a situation that was more painful or overwhelming than you could tolerate at the time. And, sadly, that applies to almost all of us. Our modern society frequently puts children in situations where they feel stressed, alone or unsafe, and we’re only just beginning to understand the consequences of that.
Is maladaptive daydreaming due to trauma?
In the vast majority of cases, it probably is. If, as a child, you discovered that you could create a safe, comforting imaginary world where nothing ever went wrong, why wouldn’t you retreat there when real life got complicated or scary? Every child gets upset sometimes, but we discovered at a young age that we could avoid whatever was upsetting us by dissociating into a daydream.
Whether you want to call that upset “trauma” is up to you. I personally feel it’s a useful way of describing a situation that affected you on a deep emotional level. But if you feel that what happened to you from wasn’t serious enough to count as trauma, that’s fine. Call it what you like. If it felt bad enough that you needed to escape from those bad feelings by daydreaming, then it was probably a contributory factor in your daydreaming becoming maladaptive.
Does that mean that healing the trauma will heal the maladaptive daydreaming?
Maybe. I think the reverse is certainly true. If your daydreaming became maladaptive because you were using it to escape from trauma, then as long as that trauma remains unhealed, you will not be able to overcome your maladaptive daydreaming. The best you’ll be able to do is swap your daydreaming for some other, equally unhealthy, coping mechanism.
But maladaptive daydreaming can take on a life of its own. It becomes a habit. It becomes your default way of dealing with anything that’s stressful or upsetting. And there will always be aspects of life that are stressful or upsetting. So, even if you heal the original trauma, you’ll probably still use maladaptive daydreaming as your default coping mechanism whenever anything in life is not how you’d like it to be. Without the underlying trauma to feed it, your maladaptive daydreaming will be easier to overcome, but it’s unlikely to go away on its own.
So what’s the solution?
Unfortunately, if you developed maladaptive daydreaming as a result of trauma, the only way to sustainably overcome it is to heal the trauma and find healthier ways to cope with the stresses and strains of daily life. That’s not something you’re going to be able to do overnight. Trauma recovery takes time. Learning healthier coping mechanisms takes time. But the good news is that both are possible. You can take responsibility for your own healing. You can ask for help if you need it. And you can heal from both the underlying trauma and the resulting maladaptive daydreaming.