The association between maladaptive daydreaming disorder and depression – part 1

Around two-thirds of people with maladaptive daydreaming disorder also suffer from depression. The reasons for this are not clear. In part 2 of this post, I will look at some of the reasons why maladaptive daydreamers might be prone to developing depression, but first I want to consider the possibility that depression and maladaptive daydreaming might both be natural consequences of the same underlying problem.

In his TED talk, Neel Burton explains that depression can occur when “the amount of stress that someone comes under is greater than the amount of stress that they can tolerate”; in other words, when life throws more at us than we can handle. He goes on to suggest that depression “evolved to remove us from damaging, distressing or futile situations” and that it can be “a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing, or at least processing and understanding”.

In other words, when life places us under more stress than we can tolerate, depression is a protective mechanism that forces us to remove ourselves from the stressful situation, by withdrawing into ourselves until we have recovered enough to be able to face the world again. Maladaptive daydreaming serves much the same purpose. When faced with real-life stress, we retreat to the comfort and safety of our daydreams. We may even use our daydreams, consciously or sub-consciously, to work through the stressful situation, perhaps coming to a happier conclusion than real-life events allowed for.

Maladaptive daydreaming often begins in childhood. It is therefore interesting that the Mind website states “going through difficult experiences in your childhood can make you vulnerable to experiencing depression later in life”. When we’re very young, we don’t have the same range of options for escaping stress that we have when we’re older. Sometimes the only happier place that we can escape to is the one that exists in our heads. What started out as our mind’s way of protecting us from a situation we couldn’t control, can become, over time, a destructive habit that, as an adult, keeps us from finding a more appropriate way of resolving our problems.

Similarly, it is well known that difficult life events, such as relationship or work problems, can lead to depression. In the same way, an immersive daydreamer who is going through a difficult time is likely to seek refuge in a happier alternate reality. But if losing yourself in a better place is keeping you from addressing the difficult real-world situation, it can be hard to break out, and the daydreaming can cross the line from immersive into maladaptive.

In summary, when someone is exposed to stress for a prolonged period, particularly if their options for resolving that stress are limited, there is an increased risk that they will develop depression. If that person happens to be an immersive daydreamer, there is also an increased risk that the same stressful event will push their daydreaming from immersive into maladaptive. It shouldn’t be surprising that two-thirds of maladaptive daydreamers suffer from depression if the circumstances that cause the two conditions are the same. The depression doesn’t cause the maladaptive daydreaming. The maladaptive daydreaming doesn’t cause the depression. Both are symptoms that someone has been exposed to something they can’t handle, expected to cope with too much, or, as Neel Burton puts it “their world was simply not good enough for them”.

If you are struggling with both maladaptive daydreaming disorder and depression, the most important thing to realise is that it is not your fault. Your life is not giving you what you need, and your daydreaming and your depression are your mind’s way of alerting you to that. They are signals that you need to make changes, not because you need to become a better person, but because you deserve to live a better life.

1 thought on “The association between maladaptive daydreaming disorder and depression – part 1”

  1. The earliest I remember daydreaming was the age of 6, but I believe that was normal daydreaming. By 9, however, I had developed a method and a deeper need. As a child, I did not suffer abuse of any kind, I had a fairly happy childhood. We had what we needed but family cohesion. My (older) siblings were no company for me, and I had no friends at all except in school hours. the house was big and full of trees, so I was happy and had enough space to build big daydreams. The lack of friends and means started fading from my mind and I didn’t think about it again until I was old enough to be having real problems (AKA My teens).
    But by the time I was 9, we had moved to a small apartment in a sterile neighbourhood, where it was unthinkable to go outside to play and I still had no friends. Moving is, in my mind, the first real blow to my precarious mental wellbeing.
    So my friends became book characters and celebrities. Oddly enough, this daydreaming helped me learn English (I’m South American), and my loved celebrities were English speakers. I assume there were gaps between “companions”, but the way I remember that time it seems like I was always talking to someone who wasn’t there.
    In any case, by the time I was 15 I can say my Daydreaming was maladaptive. It took the shape of my depression and filled the holes in my life. While other kids were starting to either do drugs or going dancing, I was building inner worlds and forming social networks that I could control according to my needs. I had no friends, my depression was something I couldn’t talk about. There was a family, but not the right family to try to tackle a mental problem.
    But my DD family was. And if I needed a figure in particular, all I had to do was either pick one or make one.
    As the years passed, the needs I had to fullfill the most were love, frisndship and inclusion. I have all that in my DD world, in the way and form that suits me.
    But the best thing I get from my DDing is a tool to manage my worst(ish) lows. When I receive a real life “punch”, I don’t go to my world for comfort, I go to my world to receive a controllable punch. I drain, I cry, I suffer.But by the time I come back to the real world, there’s a lot less crying to do.
    I guess it’s something like touching your aching tooth with your tongue…?
    All I know is that it works. Also, I can recreate a same situation an unlimited number of times in all the ways I want.
    I daydream all the hours of my day, there’s always someone with me. Someone ON MY SIDE.
    However, DDing doesn’t work when the real life situation is way too bad and way too real. A health issue, an accident, a robbery. Then I’m on my own.
    I realise I’m not receiving a treatment for my depression or my social anxiety, but my DDing is a coping tool I’ve come to love. It’s true that it’s invaded my time and thoughts to a point where it’s all there is, but as long as I’m aware of what’s real and what’s not, I’ll take this medicine gladly.

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