Maladaptive Daydreaming vs. Dissociation: The Differences
It’s quite common for those who suspect they are experiencing maladaptive daydreaming to begin to read about related disorders or to begin to worry about what maladaptive daydreaming could lead into if it persists further.
As has been frequently discussed here over the past few years, there is still no clinically agreed upon definition of maladaptive daydreaming in the DSM-5. This has led to many people (wrongly) beginning to treat maladaptive daydreaming not as a distinct phenomenon, but rather as being closely related to other clinically-defined phenomenon.
For example, there has been an uptick over the past few years of those wondering whether or not maladaptive daydreaming is really just a manifestation of dissociation or whether maladaptive daydreaming could lead into forms of clinically-defined dissociation.
Predictably, this has then resulted in some who think they are experiencing maladaptive daydreaming – perhaps after taking some maladaptive daydreaming tests – to begin to get concerned that they may end up experiencing dissociation-related phenomenon moving forward.
This is part of the reason why many is the psychiatric and psychological community have pushed so hard for clear definitions of maladaptive daydreaming to be agreed upon and included in the DSM-5. Without these definitions, it can lead many people down a rabbit hole of looking at quasi-related, but separate, disorders and wondering if they have them or could develop them.
The reality is that for the vast majority of people maladaptive daydreaming is a unique phenomenon that while disruptive to one’s own life, doesn’t contribute to the development of clinical disorders that weren’t already present in an individual to begin with.
The Connection Between Maladaptive Daydreaming and Dissociation
Over the past few years – partly because maladaptive daydreaming isn’t well-defined – many have wondered if their daydreams are really just a form of low-grade dissociation.
So, let’s get a few important things out of the way…
First, all daydreams – whether they are maladaptive or not – involve some level of dissociation from oneself. Even if you’re having what would classically be defined as an adaptive daydream – for example, imagining what life would be like if you pursued a certain career you’re interested in – you’re still dissociating from your current self in some respect. Indeed, the vast majority of adaptive daydreams are set in some future time where you are slightly different, your circumstances are slightly different, etc.
Second, dissociation is marked by clearly defined symptoms. Some of these symptoms are physical, such as hearing voices, having blurred vision, or physically moving without realizing it. Alternatively, some of these symptoms are psychological, such as feeling like a different person, having an inability to disentangle the real world from a dream world, etc.
Given that there is a slight connection between maladaptive daydreaming and dissociation, in terms of them both involving dream states, it’s understandable that those experiencing maladaptive daydreams worry about them growing in dissociative directions.
Indeed, this worry is often compounded by the fact that maladaptive daydreams often do grow more abstract over time and can sometimes become more time intensive as well.
However, it’s important to keep the distinction between dissociation and maladaptive daydreaming clear. While maladaptive daydreaming and dissociation appear superficially similar, the symptoms associated with each are fundamentally unique. So, it should go without saying that if you notice symptoms of dissociation then the professional support of a qualified psychologist or physiatrist should be sought.
Note: In a previous post I covered some of the maladaptive daydreaming symptoms.
What Often Leads to Maladaptive Daydreaming
So, let’s back up a bit and talk about what leads to maladaptive daydreaming. The reality is that there’s no singular thing, but rather a variety of potential things based on an individual’s past experience and mental make-up.
What I firmly believe – although it would be hard to put together a serious academic study on – is that maladaptive daydreamers have a significantly higher level of creativity than average. This allows for these individuals to paint creative daydreams for themselves that can be quite abstract and entirely engrossing.
Then it’s often the case that when an individual grapples with hardship in their life, instead of turning to things in the exterior world to temporarily escape from "real" life, they turn to the interior world of their daydreams (which perhaps offer a purer and more siphoned off form of escapism than what can be offered by escaping into the exterior world).
For example, it’s common for those who have developed maladaptive daydreams to be in a temporary rut in their life; perhaps not enjoying their school, their job, or their home situation. But instead of doing what many do in this circumstance – which is to try to escape through sports or books or, unfortunately, alcohol – they turn toward a fantasy world they’ve created due to the heightened creativity.
This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Having vivid, abstract, and engrossing daydreams for a small amount of time each day is no worse than watching TV. However, the issue for maladaptive daydreamers is that these daydreams can grow increasingly time-consuming and disruptive over time and, ironically, can preclude an individual from really grappling with their real-world problems and thus making them worse as a result.
Keeping a Positive Attitude about Maladaptive Daydreaming
It’s entirely common for those that discover they likely have maladaptive daydreams to begin to catastrophize a bit – thinking that it will take them years to overcome or will lead them to spiralling out of control.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that hundreds of thousands – likely millions – have had maladaptive daydreams at one point and nearly everyone gets over them eventually (although you may want to be a bit proactive in getting rid of them if you feel like they are actively disrupting or harming your life).
The best way to approach maladaptive daydreaming is to keep a positive attitude and treat getting rid of them as a form of an experiment. When I was trying to figure out how to get rid of them, I experimented with a number of different ideas. Some didn’t work, but those that did worked much better and quicker than I expected.
The mental framing that I used when I began my journey towards ending my maladaptive daydreams was, “I’m going to give this all a try for a week, and if it doesn’t work then it’s just a week of wasted effort -- the worst that can happen is that I just don’t solve the issue, which will be a bit demoralizing but leave me in no worse of a situation”.
It’s entirely logical that folks believe that maladaptive daydreaming and dissociation are connected. However, the reality is that all daydreaming – whether of the adaptive or maladaptive variety – has some level of dissociation embedded within it by definition (as you’re daydreaming of a state you aren’t currently in).
However, from a clinical vantage point the symptoms of true dissociation – both physiologically and psychologically – are quite distinct from what the vast majority of those who engage in maladaptive daydreaming exhibit.
While it’s entirely normal to worry that one’s maladaptive daydreaming may lead one into other disorders of some kind, it’s important to recognize that maladaptive daydreams can exist entirely independently of other disorders.
As always, I hope this post has been helpful. While it’s always hard to generalize too much, it’s important to take a step back and not try to always lump maladaptive daydreaming in with other things. Sometimes maladaptive daydreams can arise purely because of one having a creative personality and seeking a little escapism.