Understanding the root cause of maladaptive daydreaming

There are two components to Maladaptive Daydreaming Disorder (MaDD) – firstly, you have an innate capacity for immersive daydreaming, and secondly you have lost control of that ability, such that your daydreaming has become an addictive behaviour that negatively affects your life.

I have yet to come across anyone who explains addiction better than Dr Gabor Maté. The quotes in this post are taken from his article Beyond Drugs: The Universal Experience of Addiction. I highly recommend you read the original article, especially if you are feeling shame or embarrassment about your daydreaming addiction, or don’t quite believe that daydreaming can be a “real” addiction. Here, I attempt to explain what Dr Maté’s view of addiction means for sufferers of MaDD.

Dr Maté defines an addictive behaviour 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”. By that definition excessive daydreaming that negatively impacts your life by taking your time and focus away from other things, is most definitely an addiction, and maladaptive daydreamers are no less deserving of compassion, support and help than any other addicts. Because, as Dr Maté goes on to say: “addiction is neither a choice nor a disease, but originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self. … The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.

I think many maladaptive daydreamers can relate to this. We daydream to escape – either from the stress of our current lives or from traumatic memories in our past. Or, alternatively, we may daydream to experience a sense of connection, love or worthiness that is missing in our real lives. We may be trying to escape loneliness or a sense of not being good enough. Either way, something in our real life is not the way we want – or need – it to be, and that causes stress. And so we retreat into an alternate reality where the source of that stress (whether it’s something bad that happened, or something we needed that didn’t happen) isn’t there. To understand why we daydream excessively, we first need to understand what it is that we are trying to escape from.

Dr Maté makes a very important point: “to treat the addiction, which is a symptom, without treating the pain that underlies it is to deal in effects rather than in causes, and therefore dooms many to ongoing cycles of suffering”. In other words, just trying to stop daydreaming, without understanding and addressing why you daydream isn’t going to work. Most likely, you will simply relapse. But more worryingly, if you were successful in stopping daydreaming while the underlying pain is still present, you open yourself up to all kinds of other addictions. You could end up swapping daydreaming for gambling, alcohol or worse – because you will still have that same need to escape the pain.

So it’s vital, before you try to break your daydreaming addiction, that you take steps to understand and address what caused it in the first place. Dr Maté believes that “the source of pain is always and invariably to be found in a person’s lived experience, beginning with childhood. Childhood trauma is the template for addiction—any addiction. All addictions are attempts to escape the deep pain of the hurt child”. For some maladaptive daydreamers, that may be self-evident. Professor Eli Somer’s original publication on MaDD reported six patients with excessive daydreaming – all of them had experienced moderate or severe childhood trauma.

But many maladaptive daydreamers don’t immediately identify as having had a traumatic childhood. However, Dr Maté goes on to say “trauma is not restricted to horrific experiences. It refers to any set of events that, over time, impose more pain on the child than his or her sensitive organism can process and discharge”. In other words, trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be an out-of-the ordinary horrible event; it just has to be more than you can cope with at the time.

In this context, it’s worth considering that Professor Somer has reported that over three-quarters of maladaptive daydreamers may have ADHD. And nearly everyone with ADHD has Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), which means we experience rejection and negative experiences far more intensely than other people. So, for example, if your parents were emotionally unavailable due to over-investment in their careers, mental health problems or multiple caring responsibilities, or if you were constantly in trouble at school because you were perceived as lazy or too easily distractible, that might have sent you a very powerful signal that you weren’t loved, or weren’t good enough. And for someone with RSD, that’s more than enough to qualify as childhood trauma.

In summary, maladaptive daydreaming is an addictive behaviour that represents, on some level, an attempt to escape the pain of your current or past life by retreating to an alternate reality where the painful event(s) did not occur. It isn’t a sign of weakness and it doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that at some point in your life, your basic human needs, for love, connection, stability and safety, were not met. To have any chance of breaking free from maladaptive daydreaming, you first need to understand and process the pain that led you into the addiction in the first place. If you need help with that, I’d advise you to seek out a psychotherapist or counsellor who specialises in helping people recover from childhood trauma – it isn’t necessary to find a therapist who is familiar with MaDD, because MaDD is a symptom of the underlying problem, and not the root cause.