Top 5 Causes of Maladaptive DaydreamingLast Updated:
As I’ve written before, one of the central ironies of maladaptive daydreaming is that it’s something that someone can engage in for months (or even years!) before they come to the realization that their daydreaming is somehow abnormal and is actively disruptive to their life.
When this realization finally comes, this leads them, eventually, to learn about the existence of maladaptive daydreaming and discover that there are millions who have had exactly the same realization before them.
The obvious question many initially have is, “What caused my maladaptive daydreams to begin in the first place?”
While the kinds of dreams that maladaptive daydreamers have are infinitely variable, with no two of them being identical, in my experience the causes of maladaptive daydreaming can be more easily categorized.
This is a fortunate because one of the most sure-fire ways to begin the process of stopping your maladaptive daydreams is through understanding why they began in the first place.
The Causes of Maladaptive Daydreaming
Below are the top five causes of maladaptive daydreaming. It’s important to note that not all of these will be applicable to every maladaptive daydreamer. Further, the cause underlying the rise of your own maladaptive daydreams may not be listed below. But hopefully these causes help to prod your thinking in the right direction and help you begin to identify what initially spurred the onset of your maladaptive daydreams.
Part of what makes it so difficult to realize that one is engaging in maladaptive daydreams is that they invariably begin through regular daydreams slowly morphing over time – often becoming more detailed, abstract, time consuming, and compulsive in the process.
Perhaps the most common cause of maladaptive daydreaming is trying to avoid something happening in the real world. For example, if you’re facing something difficult in school or work, it’s common to retreat into daydreams to give yourself a bit of a mental break.
However, these daydreams can often metastasize over time into maladaptive daydreams – becoming quite abstract and entirely divorced from your “real” life – as you attempt to avoid even thinking about the issues that you’re currently confronting.
Of course, while it’s always a good idea to give your mind a reprieve when facing challenges, the issue with maladaptive daydreams is that they can become so alluring and time-consuming that is actually ends up exacerbating the real issues you’re facing (as you aren’t dedicating the time necessary to try to remedy them).
Perhaps the second leading cause of maladaptive daydreaming is trying to escape something happening in the real world. The way that I’d delineate between avoidance and escapism – as it relates to maladaptive daydreaming – is that avoidance behaviors involve trying to avoid something fixable, while escapism involves trying to avoid something unfixable.
For example, I recently heard from someone who had unsuccessfully applied to medical school – she was devastated and retreated into daydreams that became more and more abstract over time. These daydreams, which were by now full maladaptive daydreams, were beginning to disrupt her real life; causing her to miss important college classes and do poorly on a few assignments.
I’d classify the cause of this maladaptive daydreaming as escapism. The reason she began engaging in maladaptive daydreaming is because she was thinking constantly about her failure to get into medical school, so she retreated into abstract maladaptive daydreams that were entirely divorced from her own life.
This gave her a bit of a mental reprieve from thinking about her perceived failure to get into medical school. But by escaping into her daydreams for so long each day it was actively disrupting the schoolwork she still had to complete. And, ironically, a failure to continue getting good grades in college would make it even more difficult to get into medical school in future years.
The cause behind the maladaptive daydreams of some has nothing to do with avoiding or escaping stressful things occurring in their real life – rather it has to do with the lack of anything overly interesting occurring in their real life.
This is a common cause of maladaptive daydreams among very creative and introverted people. They devise maladaptive daydreams that are so entertaining to themselves that they (consciously or subconsciously) engage in them to the detriment of doing anything in the “real” world.
However, spending so much time within one’s own head – engaged in daydreams entirely divorced from one’s own life – can lead to a failure to form interpersonal relationships, interest, hobbies, or work skills that make life rewarding.
Many who engage in maladaptive daydreaming because of boredom justify it as just being a consequence of the lack of interesting things occurring in their real life. But what these people often find is that one day they become quite depressed at the state of their “real” life and then desperately want to change. But by the time one has engaged in maladaptive daydreams for months or years, they can be hard to get rid of precisely because they’re so alluring.
While boredom is a common cause of maladaptive daydreaming among those that are creative and introverted, loneliness is a common cause among those that are creative and extroverted.
For these people, a lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in the real world leads them to daydreaming about interpersonal relationships as a replacement. There’s nothing per se wrong with this when done in moderation, of course. Playing out different interpersonal dynamics while daydreaming is something everyone does and helps us play out scenarios in our minds that could occur in the real world. So, in that way, doing this kind of daydreaming is perfectly adaptive.
However, the issue becomes when these creative and extroverted people begin to engage in daydreams that are so alluring and engrossing that they not only take up hours of their day, but also cause them to begin to forego trying to build real world relationships in favor of just staying in one’s own head (where they can fully control how interactions play out).
The final leading cause of maladaptive daydreaming involves failing to properly handle major life changes – often those that cause a slight bit of an identity crisis to occur. For example, those who closely link their identify to their job or their field of study, but then suddenly are forced to make a radical change, often find the discontinuity between their self perception and their reality to be too difficult to bear.
As a result, they retreat into excessive daydreaming – that can then turn into maladaptive daydreaming – as opposed to trying to bridge the gap between the way they used to think of themselves, and who they are now.
Having to radically alter your perception of yourself can take years to do and can be quite painful depending on what precipitated the need to change. So, maladaptive daydreams can act as a way to avoid needing to think about this discontinuity that exists or the need to create a more cohesive new perception of yourself.
However, the reason why maladaptive daydreams are so pernicious is that they cause us to delay doing what we need to do – whether that’s fix things in our real life or face the difficult, perhaps unfixable, realities of our life. But one can’t delay forever and often the more you delay, the more painful it is in the end.
The root causes of maladaptive daydreaming can be categorized as either trying to avoid something, trying to escape something, feeling a sense of boredom, feeling a sense of loneliness, or having difficulty grappling with a large life change of some kind.
As I wrote at the outset of this post, it’s always a good idea to try to identify the causes of your maladaptive daydreams as it can help set them in context. Further, as I wrote in my book, many have not seriously considered why their maladaptive daydreams have developed – but for most, when they really think about it, there’s an obvious reason.
When the cause of your maladaptive daydreams is identified, that can often have the effect of mysteriously mitigating just how alluring they are – perhaps because you realize that they are a logical outgrowth of some unresolved issue in your life.
As always, I hope this post has been helpful. If you’re still trying to figure out if you are engaging in maladaptive daydreaming or not, then be sure to take the maladaptive daydreaming test to get a better understanding of what the critical factors that differentiate daydreaming from maladaptive daydreaming are.
While stopping your maladaptive daydreams can seem desperately difficult, in the end the best way to begin is often by better understanding what caused them to start developing in the first place.