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The Difference Between Hyperfixation and Addiction

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

You find that great new series on Netflix, and suddenly you’ve lost nine hours and there are no new episodes for months.

You bought that amazing new book you’ve heard so much about, and you settle into your warm bed to read a chapter… but now the sun is rising, the alarm’s about to go off and you’ve read the whole thing.

You lost a weekend to that video game.

You listen to that one new song over and over…

Work consumes you.

So do your hobbies.

These experiences are common, and a lot of them have been equated with having an “addiction to social media.” Certainly a debate rages on as to what exactly “binging” means in this context. But for around a third of us, it could be something very different.

Hyperfixation can be a symptom of anxiety and stress — and it’s actually a great example of how extraordinary our brains are at self-protection.

Hyperfixation can be seen as a form of escapism, but it is also a form of rest. The brain shuts out all other pressures, stresses and fears and for a time focuses completely on one comparatively pleasurable point  — and it just has to have more! It can feel frustratingly like procrastination, but also allows the brain time to heal from the electrochemical maelstrom of distress, anxiety and depression. Pity about the guilt trip thereafter…

So what is the difference between hyperfixation and addiction?

Well, in simplest terms, addiction is an extreme dependence upon a particular focus, be it chemical, experiential or a person, wherein going without that focus, even for a short time, causes incredible distress, anxiety, aggression and often physical ramifications

Hyperfixation, by comparison is often characterized by “drop off periods” where the interest is lost entirely, or the desire to have the experience again is lessened, only to be reignited for a few days some time later. Some may even observe that their desire for outside distraction is greatly more noticeable on days where their depression and anxiety are cruelest.

So when do you need to worry?

Certainly if you find yourself fitting the framework of addiction it is worth assessing if you should seek help. For example, if you:

  • Become angry, distressed or anxious if you cannot continue your chosen distraction
  • Become utterly listless or tired without access to your activity
  • Notice a continued, powerful desire for your activity, regardless of how much you have that activity
  • Find it impossible to feel positive, energetic or “content” except when participating in your activity
  • Find your preferred activity is interfering with family time, relationships and other positive activities

All of the above are good signs you should consider seeking advice.

However, if, as stated above, you find your activity fulfilling when anxiety is bad, or depression is severe, and when you need rest  —  but otherwise you sometimes find this need dropping off or lessened, or you are still able to feel well when you don’t have access, and can easily entertain the concept of other activities and companionship; then it is OK to accept that hyperfixation is a part of your brain surviving  — and hopefully even thriving  —  in the face of rough days. Another adaptation against anxiety and emotional fatigue.

So, since in this digital world we have more consuming distractions than ever before, what should be done? Well, certainly mindfulness techniques can help us to reframe our focus, and allowing ourselves more active and engaged lifestyles have been proven to have benefits. Both are worth looking at. Certainly if you feel these distraction are causing genuine loss or suffering in your life, definitely seek advice and mentoring.

But for those of us living with severe anxiety with life’s demands, pressures and deadlines, maybe  —  every so often  —  it’s OK for “Netflix and chill” to be… well, literal.

This story originally appeared on Flex-Ed, a resource for the latest in mental and social health research and development.

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash