Maladaptive daydreaming: an addiction or an unhealthy coping mechanism?

Maladaptive daydreaming disorder has been described variously as a behavioural addiction, an unhealthy coping mechanism or a symptom of an underlying disorder. For your daydreaming to be considered maladaptive it must either cause significant distress or impair social, academic, occupational or other important areas of functioning. So, maladaptive daydreaming is harmful by definition (if your daydreaming doesn’t harm you, you’re probably an immersive daydreamer). But to understand what sort of harmful it is, we need to look at what we really mean when we say something is an addiction or an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Maladaptive daydreaming is a behavioural addiction

Gabor Maté defines addiction 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”. There are four components here: cravings, temporary pleasure, negative consequences and difficulty stopping. Many maladaptive daydreamers would accept that their daydreaming fits all of these criteria. So by this definition, maladaptive daydreaming can definitely be a form of addiction.

But isn’t maladaptive daydreaming also a coping mechanism?

Coping mechanisms are “…strategies people often use … to help manage painful or difficult emotions”. Negative emotions are a part of life, and we all need to find ways to manage them. Healthy coping mechanisms help us to process the negative emotions and, where possible, to solve the problem that caused them in the first place. Unhealthy coping mechanisms allow us to run away from our problems and suppress our negative emotions. They’re unhealthy because when you stop using the coping mechanism, the problem is still there and the negative emotions come flooding back. This is what happens when we use daydreaming as a coping mechanism. Something happens in real life that feels overwhelming or out of our control, so we run away to our perfect daydream world where everything turns out exactly how we want it to. For a few hours, it’s like the real world doesn’t exist. We’re happy. And then we come back. And real life is still horrible and painful and unbearable, and we can’t sit with those feelings, so we escape again, and the cycle continues.

So what’s the difference between an addiction and an unhealthy coping mechanism?

The definition of addiction above doesn’t include anything about why the behaviour started in the first place. But in practice, almost all addictions arise out of a need to escape from pain or emotional suffering. So it would be fair to say that an addiction is an unhealthy coping mechanism. But not all unhealthy coping mechanisms are necessarily addictions. Unhealthy coping mechanisms don’t help you solve your problem, which means the problem persists and the need for the coping mechanism remains. This can make it difficult to give up a coping mechanism, because you still need the escape it offers. Addictions, on the other hand, are hard to give up because they feel so damn good in the moment. In other words, an unhealthy coping mechanism involves pushing away reality; whereas an addiction is a pull towards a (false or temporary) promise of a better reality.  

So which is maladaptive daydreaming?

Unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions aren’t mutually exclusive. A behaviour can be both, and in the case of maladaptive daydreaming it often is. We daydream to escape from a world that’s not the way we want it to be, but we also create an alternate world that’s vivid and exciting and compelling in a way the real world can never be, and it pulls us back over and over again. Our daydreaming becomes maladaptive when we use it as an unhealthy coping mechanism, but it becomes addictive when we start to prefer our daydreams to real life.

So, if maladaptive daydreaming is frequently both an unhealthy coping mechanism and an addiction, does the distinction matter? I think it does. By recognising maladaptive daydreaming as an addiction, we acknowledge its reality and its power over us. Addictions are notoriously difficult to overcome, and maladaptive daydreaming is harder than most because no-one can physically take it away from us. A relapse is only ever a thought away. No maladaptive daydreamer should ever judge themselves negatively because they can’t break this addiction with willpower alone. Almost no-one overcomes any addiction without help and support.

But at the same time, seeing maladaptive daydreaming as a coping mechanism helps us understand how to tackle it. Coping mechanisms serve a purpose. They allow us to cope. And it is through understanding what we need to cope with that we can find sustainable strategies to move forward. Charlotte Parkin says that “If a maladaptive behaviour… is necessary for emotional functioning, a person won’t be able to give it up until it is replaced with other strategies.” The solution to maladaptive daydreaming lies not in forcing yourself to stop daydreaming but in compassionately understanding what need your excessive daydreaming is meeting and finding a healthier way to meet that need.