Thursday, 19 January 2023

Maladaptive Daydreaming in ADHD


Above is the longer-than-usual vlog content with my sister Ann (off camera!) Apologies if the quality is a bit poor but I had to condense it here. But it's also available at a higher quality on YouTube at the link below:

But it's a big topic this time and I could speak for hours about this. ADDitude did a webinar on this subject a few months ago in relation to ADHD but until then I'd never heard of Maladaptive daydreaming before. I'd heard of daydreaming obviously - something  which occupied so much of my childhood. But suddenly I was hearing the term Maladaptive Daydreaming everywhere. Dr Soffer-Dudek is the expert and - I think - coined the term. It's not a formal diagnosis, but a suggested syndrome. 

As you probably gathered, people with maladaptive daydreaming spend a large amount of time daydreaming and is defined as replacing human activity. People with the condition feel a need to daydream all the time so can't attend to work or other activity. They want to daydream all the time as it's so much fun. It's also said to be addictive and Immersive.

I'm not sure what the situation is if you do this with someone else as in make-believe play or escaping into a fantasy world with someone else. But this was me and my sister! We loved being characters. It began in childhood with our dolls and animal toys no doubt. Then in our teens it would be with real people such as our favourite pop stars or people at school or in the family.  In the webinar Soffer-Dudek said the daydreams can be characters from movies or invented characters or celebrities. So there you go! She said the fantasies have a narrative, people can become very attached to the characters and can fall in love with them. Ann and I know this - we can go one better! Our characters fell in love with each other! Some people have said it's similar to soap operas as characters can evolve over time so the characters can become parents and grandparents and they can have them for twenty years. Tick. We've watched our characters become parents and their children grow up. Tick.

With maladptive daydreaming people get totally absorbed and choose to do this over seeing friends - it can be addictive like gambling. This daydreaming can occupy hours and hours on end and is very vivid. We definitely did this but tried not to be too unsociable. Some people use music to trigger the altered consciousness.

But, Soffer-Dudek explained, it's not psychotic as people know they're doing it although they can forget about their environment. But people are aware of it, and conceal it in public. Ann and I did this. We would spend hours in our room being 'our people' as we called them, either having conversations or playing cards or listening to music or acting out various spontaneous scenarios. Gradually we invented our own characters, usually a few years or a decade older than us, at first, and eventually we dispensed with the real life counterparts as our own characters became more three-dimensional.

Apparently the maladaptive part is based to some extent on whether it causes a person distress or impairs functioning. Ann and I wouldn't have said so! Maybe parents or relatives might have thought it in that we weren't living in the real world as much as they thought we could or should. But we had to go to school and socialize and later to work. The characters and daydreaming was compensatory to some extent, to make our lives fun and make up for the social awkwardness in real-life. Real life could also feed the fantasies and scenarios so had a very good function there.

As well as fantasy being compensatory, and giving back power and control, playing out different roles is important too. We would also feel the emotions just as our characters would feel them. Maladaptive daydreaming can also follow trauma. It can be related to anxiety, depression, and OCD as well as ADHD. Some people lose control and it becomes a coping method, a sort of escapism when anxious and a compulsive need to immerse themselves. As well as being addictive it can be rewarding in the short term. Afterwards some people apparently feel guilt and shame, lonely and embarrassed. I have to say Ann and I never did but maybe because there were two of us and we didn't abandon real life.

According to Soffer-Dudek, some people today wouldn't get a diagnosis of ADHD but would get maladaptive daydreaming. She went on to say that 20 percent of people with ADHD probably have maladaptive daydreaming instead. 

There's a definite 'comorbidity' with autism too.

"Individually and privately, girls with autism are known to sometimes inhabit a rich fantasy world full of imaginary friends, animals and creatures." (Atwood 2007; Holliday Willie 2014). 

In Sarah Hendrickx brilliant book: Women And Girls With Autism Spectrum Disorder she states “...Overwhelmingly what we see in girls is an unusual extreme identification with the characters in fiction books, TV programmes and sometimes people they know and feeling attachment to; the girls actually ‘become’ the character. This may involve reenacting scenes from the book, film or show over and over again, mimicry and getting lost in the fantasy to the point of having difficulty in separating it from real life....”

Hendrickx found with girls who do this "it was more of an escape to a better place from a real world that was difficult and sometimes unhappy."

In a thread on daydreaming someone suggested it is only maladaptive if it impedes on your life. My feeling is it depends on how you define impeding on your life. I suppose you could say it impeded ours although we tried to live a normal life in parallel but staying in and being our characters instead of going out socially for the sake of it? I'm not sure that's maladaptive! I often used social occasions for feeding my fantasy world! That’s not to say we didn’t go out socially but sometimes couldn’t wait to get home as if going out was just going through the motions. They say music can enhance it. I'd say in our case music definitely enhanced it in the sense of reminding us of situations with our people or if our characters liked the music. But it wasn't essential.

I may have thought of it as something to hide when I was younger and something that we would grow out of but this was mainly coming from other people. I see it as creative and something to celebrate now. Relating this to the writing side: wouldn't all authors do this? All authors invent characters and have imaginary conversations and scenes with them. But maybe having someone to share it with is a gift. 

Well, I'll definitely be returning to this subject in the future but in the meantime I would love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment on the blog or YouTube or both!

Thanks 😊

More on the ADDitude webinar can be found here:


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