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What You Need to Know About Hyperfixation and ADHD

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From time to time we can all get a little too focused on things that interest us. Maybe a loved one has to speak twice to draw our attention away from the TV. Or we spend an entire afternoon without even realizing it while putting together a puzzle. But hyperfixation is a real issue for many people in the United States, and it’s more than just a few moments of inattention that can be easily remedied.

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Hyperfixation is the experience of focusing attention on one area of interest to the exclusion of everything else for an extended period of time (usually hours). It is common in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but is not considered a symptom officially. Hyperfixation, also called hyperfocus, is not well studied, and much of what is known about it relies on experiential evidence.

Billy Roberts, LISW-S, a social worker with Focused Mind ADHD Counseling, explained, “Hyperfixation can be a hallmark feature of ADHD. As a result of challenges with ‘executive functioning,’ or the brain’s CEO, adults with ADHD struggle with uneven attention. An example of hyperfixation is getting consumed by one task even at the expense of seeing the ‘bigger picture.’”

Children can also hyperfixate although the focus of attention for adults and children is often different. While a child might get caught up in TV or a video game, adults may fixate on the internet or a house project. Lucia Wallis Smith, LPC, a psychotherapist with Clear Mind Counseling, explained that the hyperfixation activity usually offers some reward to the individual.

“People with ADHD can often hyperfixate on certain pleasurable activities and actually use them to de-stress and self soothe,” Wallis Smith said. “It seems counterintuitive, but is explainable because most of the choices of hyperfixation activities are highly engaging and provide frequent rewards so focus is reinforced. Video games are a good example of this.”

People with ADHD are often thought to be distractable, so hyperfixation seems like a contradictory reaction. But it might be better to think of those with ADHD as having a dysregulated focus response, which can result in inattention or extremely fixated attention.

One study, published in ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, noted that ADHD behaviors are not binary (e.g. only good or only bad) but they exist on a spectrum. In this way, hyperfixation can be a positive thing when it is focused on productive tasks. However, even during these periods of productivity someone with ADHD has to be cautious not to become so hyperfocused they completely lose track of time or forget important things like eating.

Hyperfixation may seem similar to addiction, particularly when it is centered around screen time. But Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, a Primary Care Doctor at Doctor Spring, said the two are easy to differentiate. Addiction is marked by dependence on something that produces symptoms – physical or mental – in its absence. “Hyperfixation, on the other hand, has drop off periods where the person’s extreme interest in something decreases or totally disappears, only to be reignited after a few days. The technical identifier that distinguishes between the two is dependence.”

That’s not to say that hyperfixation doesn’t take a toll. Mighty contributor Hannah F. shared her experience with the Hyperfixation Community. “All these thoughts are like mosquitos. They keep coming no matter how much bug spray you put on, they buzz around your head, they bite you and you swat away violently. No matter what you do you still get bitten and itching for comfort. No matter how hard I try to not think about these thoughts to try and not stress out the thoughts still linger in my head and I get worked up over them,” she wrote.

Many people with ADHD or parents of children with ADHD want to know the best way to counteract hyperfixation. Roberts suggested opening a conversation as a first step. “One way to cope with hyperfixation is to use it as a superpower, focusing on creativity or interests that serve your goals. If a loved one is hyperfixated, it can help to start a dialogue about the behaviors. Adults with ADHD might not even realize they are becoming fixated; a validating but honest conversation can be helpful for both parties,” he said.

Smith advised the use of timers to help a person prevent getting into a hyperfixated state. “I collaborate with my clients to devise a reasonable schedule — keeping in mind what is important for mental and physical health, deciding how to fit in the activity of hyperfixation in with the other neglected activities. Often, we come up with a daily timeline specifying what times and how long they engage in healthy and productive activities.  I don’t completely cut them off from their pleasurable hyperfixation activity, I just help them manage it.”

For more on hyperfixation and to connect with others who experience it, visit The Mighty’s Hyperfixation Community.

Header image via AnnaStills/Getty Images

Originally published: February 18, 2021
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