Some maladaptive daydreamers find that when they try to stop or cut down on their daydreaming, they feel worse. Symptoms of anxiety – tiredness, irritability or difficulty concentrating, for example – seem to bubble up out of nowhere. Are these withdrawal symptoms? Is this something you inevitably have to go through if you want to stop daydreaming?
There’s a common belief that overcoming addiction involves a period of withdrawal, during which you’re going to feel worse before you feel better. This isn’t only true for substance addictions. Withdrawal symptoms can also occur in behavioural addictions, such as maladaptive daydreaming. Your mind and body are adjusting to a new way of being, and that’s not an easy process.
But there’s another, very common, reason for feeling worse when you reduce your daydreaming. Maladaptive daydreaming usually begins as a coping method. It allows you to avoid a problem that’s too overwhelming to deal with. It’s how you mentally run away. But the longer you use maladaptive daydreaming as a coping method, the more automatic it becomes.
After a while, it feels as though your maladaptive daydreaming is the problem. You’re aware of how much time it’s stealing from you. You see that it’s causing problems in your relationships. You think that if you could just stop daydreaming, everything would be OK.
But everything isn’t OK. The problem that drove you into maladaptive daydreaming is probably still there – because you’ve never actively addressed it. Some problems go away on their own, but not many. And even if the original problem has resolved over time, if it was overwhelming enough to push you into maladaptive daydreaming, it may well have left some residual trauma that you need to work through.
So there’s a very good chance that, even though your maladaptive daydreaming is seriously messing up your life, it’s also serving a purpose. It’s helping you cope with some deeper problem. It’s not a healthy coping mechanism, because it’s allowing you to avoid that deeper problem rather than fixing it. But, it’s a coping mechanism nonetheless. And that means it helps you feel better in the moment.
When you deny yourself that coping mechanism, you no longer have a way to escape from the underlying issue, which means it’s likely to resurface. And it commonly resurfaces in the form of anxiety or depression. Both anxiety and depression are your mind’s way of warning you that something isn’t right. (If you’ve never thought of depression that way, I highly recommend Neel Burton’s TEDx talk about why depression can be good for you.)
The feelings you have when you try to stop daydreaming have been there all along. It’s just that you were using your daydreaming to escape from them. And, in fact, you’d got so good at doing that, you didn’t even know the difficult feelings were there.
When we repeat an action over and over again in response to a particular situation, the action eventually becomes automatic. That’s how habits form. When x happens, you always do y. When you feel the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, you always relieve that discomfort by escaping into a daydream. After a while, your subconscious knows what to do. It doesn’t even bother to tell your conscious mind that uncomfortable symptoms are present, it just drops you automatically into a daydream.
So when you stop daydreaming, you have to feel the feelings that were already there. You’ve made a choice to be more present in reality, and reality isn’t always a comfortable place to be. But before you let that thought push you straight back into maladaptive daydreaming, let’s look at why having unpleasant symptoms when you stop daydreaming might actually be a good thing.
As I said above, anxiety and depression are our mind’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right. Being aware that there’s a problem can be the first step in fixing it. You don’t want to stop daydreaming so you can be trapped in a painful reality that makes you permanently miserable. You want to stop daydreaming so that you can build an awesome reality that you love being part of. And the only way you’re going to do that is by looking honestly at what’s wrong with your life and doing the work necessary to fix it.
It’s normal to experience unpleasant symptoms when you try to stop daydreaming. But if you dismiss them as “withdrawal symptoms” and hope they’ll go away on their own if you just give them time, you’re still basically avoiding the problem. The symptoms you’re experiencing are messages from your subconscious. You need to pay attention to them.
You’re going to have to put some effort into improving real life if you’re going to sustainably heal from maladaptive daydreaming. If you experience “withdrawal symptoms” when you stop daydreaming, welcome them. Listen to what they’re trying to tell you. Because they’re telling you where you need to focus your efforts if you want to build a reality you don’t need to run away from.
[Photo by Lisa Fotios]