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ADHD & Maladaptive Daydreaming – Common Signs of ADHD

We all get distracted from time to time and end up in a daydream, but for some people, zoning out or daydreaming can be more of a common occurrence and cause issues at work or school. As daydreaming is often regarded as inattention, it’s commonly associated with ADHD, but excessive daydreaming is also a sign of a condition called maladaptive daydreaming. This too is highly common for students with ADHD.
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ADHD & Maladaptive Daydreaming – Common Signs of ADHD

29/12/2022
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We all get distracted from time to time and end up in a daydream, but for some people, zoning out or daydreaming can be more of a common occurrence and cause issues at work or school. As daydreaming is often regarded as inattention, it’s commonly associated with ADHD, but excessive daydreaming is also a sign of a condition called maladaptive daydreaming. This too is highly common for students with ADHD.

It’s not uncommon for ADHD and maladaptive daydreaming to get conflated, with many people believing that one is a symptom of the other, but this isn’t the case. In this blog, we’re going to look at both ADHD and maladaptive daydreaming more closely – looking at common symptoms of both and why they’re two different conditions with two separate types of treatment.

What is ADHD?

Going back to basics, let’s first look at precisely what ADHD is. ADHD, also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition that can alter the way a person behaves. There are three types of ADHD:

  • Inattentive ADHD
  • Hyperactive ADHD
  • Combined ADHD

The symptoms a person experiences will depend largely on the type of ADHD they have. ADHD is commonly diagnosed in children under the age of 12; however, it can be diagnosed in adulthood, too.

Common symptoms of ADHD

There are a few common symptoms of ADHD that a person with the condition may experience, including:

  • Lack of organisational skills
  • Poor impulse control
  • Easily distracted
  • Trouble staying focused on one task at a time
  • Forgetting things
  • Poor social skills e.g. interrupting people or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time
  • Fidgets a lot/can’t sit still for long
  • Makes silly mistakes
  • Daydreaming

Someone with inattentive ADHD will struggle more with staying focused, and therefore their symptoms will relate more to poor organisation and making avoidable mistakes in their work due to a lack of focus and inattention. This type of ADHD is more common in girls and can be slightly more difficult to diagnose.

A person with hyperactive ADHD will experience symptoms related to hyperactivity more than inattention symptoms. This means things like fidgeting and physical impulses will be more prevalent. This type of ADHD is more common in boys and tends to be easier to diagnose.

Combined ADHD is when a person experiences both inattention and hyperactivity and neither is more prevalent than the other. People with this type of ADHD can experience a range of ADHD symptoms associated with both branches.

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What is maladaptive daydreaming?

Maladaptive daydreaming is a condition that causes a person to daydream an excessive amount. If a person has maladaptive daydreaming, they may daydream for hours, to a point where it may be compulsive. The daydreams tend to be very vivid and detailed and can have complex storylines and characters.

Maladaptive daydreaming has been associated with a number of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depressive, dissociative disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Though it’s often common in people with these types of disorders, many mental health professionals are of the view that maladaptive daydreaming isn’t a mental disorder on its own.

It’s thought it affects children, teenagers, and young adults the most, and those with a history of abuse or trauma, although this isn’t always the case.

Signs of maladaptive daydreaming

Everyone daydreams from time to time, so being able to distinguish between normal daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming is essential. Some of the most common signs of maladaptive daydreaming are:

  • Intentionally choosing to daydream
  • Daydreaming for extended periods of time, sometimes spanning hours
  • Extremely detailed and vivid daydreams
  • Complex daydreams with characters and plots
  • Disconnecting from what’s going on around them

In addition to the physical symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming listed above, there are other signs that refer to how maladaptive daydreamers feel during or after a daydreaming episode. These symptoms include:

  • Choosing to daydream in favour of participating in social events and activities
  • Struggling to reach deadlines at work or school due to getting distracted with daydreaming
  • Feeling guilty about daydreaming when it begins to impact other aspects of daily life, like work or school
  • Feeling compelled to daydream and getting upset when they can’t
  • Wanting to stop or reduce the frequency but not being able to

Maladaptive daydreamers who experience intense daydreaming often have low self-esteem and use it as a coping mechanism for real life events, though this isn’t always the case.

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Is maladaptive daydreaming a sign of ADHD?

Maladaptive daydreaming is often associated with ADHD, with many people believing that it is a symptom of the condition, but this isn’t entirely accurate. People with ADHD, specifically inattentive or combined ADHD, are more likely to daydream as a result of their mind wondering more, so to speak. This is known as ADHD daydreaming. However, this does not mean that everyone with ADHD has maladaptive daydreaming, or that everyone who experienced maladaptive daydreaming has ADHD.

There isn’t too much research on the connection between the two yet, but results from a 2018 study showed that people who had maladaptive daydreaming reported having an ADHD diagnosis (or a mental health disorder diagnosis such as OCD or depression).

So, maladaptive daydreaming and ADHD are two different things, but people with ADHD may be more prone to experiencing maladaptive daydreaming. That being said, maladaptive daydreaming and ADHD daydreaming can generally be distinguished by the length of time they take and the intent.

Differences between daydreaming with ADHD and maladaptive daydreaming

People who experience ADHD daydreaming don’t do it on purpose and won’t have daydreams that are hours long, whereas people with maladaptive daydreaming often do invoke a daydream on purpose and they can last for hours at a time. These are just of the key differences between the two, but there are more.

Control

As mentioned, people with maladaptive daydreaming often bring the daydreams on themselves on purpose, making the daydream a choice. People with ADHD daydreams don’t do this and instead find they slip into a daydream due to scattered thoughts.

Disassociation

One of the biggest overlapping symptoms between ADHD and maladaptive daydreaming is disassociation. People with maladaptive daydreaming disassociate from their surroundings and can seem detached from reality.

On the other hand, people with ADHD may exhibit hyperfocus which can look like disassociation, but is in fact a different thing. Hyperfocus is when a person with ADHD focuses intently on one thing for hours (not too dissimilar from maladaptive daydreaming), but the intent is different. Hyperfocus tends to be triggered by a new interest and doesn’t tend to be planned.

For example, a person with ADHD won’t intend on spending four hours of their day absorbed in a new hobby with little interest in anything else around them, but a person with maladaptive daydreaming will often choose to disassociate on purpose.

Controlling ADHD daydreaming

Daydreaming is, as mentioned, normal and is often a way for people to be creative and let their imagination run free for a while. If you only daydream every now and then and it has no bearing on your daily life, there’s nothing to worry about; however, if you have ADHD and experience ADHD daydreaming, there are some things you can do to try and maintain your focus.

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Mindfulness

According to a 2017 study, adults with ADHD who implemented mindfulness techniques on a regular basis found they were able to improve their attention and focus. There are several types of mindfulness techniques you can try to improve your focus and stay on track when you feel your mind wandering. They include meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of therapy that aims to help you identify unhelpful thought patterns and turn them on their head. It’s used to help manage a wide range of conditions and disorders, including anxiety, depression, OCD, and anxiety, but it can also be useful for people with ADHD who experience ADHD daydreaming. This is because ADHD daydreaming is an unhelpful behaviour, and through CBT, you can learn to spot the signs of when you might begin to daydream and try and stop them.

Medication

In the event ADHD daydreaming is becoming problematic in other areas of life, medication may help to treat the broader inattention that is at play.

Controlling maladaptive daydreaming

Maladaptive daydreaming isn’t a condition in its own right and so there is no structured treatment for it. Due its prevalence in people with other neurodevelopmental or mental health conditions, treating the main condition can help to bring maladaptive daydreaming back under your control, but if you have maladaptive daydreaming and don’t have another condition, your main treatment option will be psychotherapy – specifically cognitive behavioural therapy.

Like with ADHD daydreaming, CBT can help you to recognise unhelpful behaviours and change the way you think, especially if you feel compelled to daydream, like an addiction.

ADHD support at The ADHD Centre

At The ADHD Centre, we offer support and advice to people with ADHD, including adults, students, and children. Our team of private ADHD specialists has decades of experience in dealing with patients with ADHD, including those who experience ADHD daydreaming or even maladaptive daydreaming alongside their ADHD.

If you or your child has ADHD and is noticing that daydreams are becoming problematic and impeding on other aspects of your/their life, we can help. Please call us on 0800 061 4276 or email us at enquiries@adhdcentre.co.uk to find out more.

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