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Let's Talk About Hyperfocus

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Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine who, like me, is a highly sensitive person (HSP). She described to me an interesting experience she was having and wondered if I might be able to relate to it. She’d recently become interested in the Broadway musical “Pippin,” and it was becoming something of an obsession to her. She was spending quite a bit of her free time watching videos of the current tour and reading up on the actors in the cast, and was finding it difficult to pull herself away from it when she had to divert her attention to something else. She asked me if I’d ever experienced anything like that before.

As an HSP with ADD and anxiety, I was no stranger to what my friend was describing. I had experienced it many times before but never really talked about it or put a name to it. The phenomenon is called hyperfocus, and it’s pretty common among HSPs, people on the autism spectrum, and people with ADD/ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder. It’s a state of intense, single-minded concentration on one particular thing, to the point that you might become oblivious to everything else around you. You might lose track of time, or forget about chores, deadlines, and other obligations because you are so focused on this one thing.

I wondered: If hyperfocus is so common, why is this the first time my friend and I are talking about our experiences with it? We aren’t exactly shy when it comes to talking about mental illness – my friend is even a graduate student in psychology. I’m lucky enough to have several friends who understand the importance of mental health and actively work to end stigmas and normalize talking about mental illness, and my friends and I have openly discussed a wide variety of mental health topics, but for some reason, hyperfocus has never really been one of them. I decided to open up the conversation by asking people about their experiences with hyperfocus and what it felt like to them. My friends had a lot to say on the subject.

“I’m a distance runner, and I have ADHD, and the best analogy I can think of to describe it is that it’s like a runner’s high. Usually, focusing is really hard and just gets harder the longer you have to do it, but when you hyperfocus, it’s like you get into this head space where all of the distractions just go away and you just want to focus more and more because it feels good.  You’re not even aware of the mental energy you’re using to focus, so when your hyperfocus ends, you feel kind of exhausted and groggy and like you need a nap, but you don’t really know why.”

I was mid-manic episode when I was 15 and I counted all of the pine needles on a pine tree.”

“I can’t really control it; it just sort of happens. Sometimes it happens in ways that help me, like when I’m really focused on writing a paper, but most of the time it happens in ways that really don’t help me, and I just end up wasting lots of time.”

“When I’m hyperfocused on something, pulling myself away to pay attention to something else makes me feel just like agitated and empty, and I just want to go back to what I was focusing on before.”

What stuck out to me most was the fact that even though all of my friends had very different descriptions of their own experiences with hyperfocus, I could relate completely to all of them. My friends were all different – not just from each other, but from me: different ages, different backgrounds, different mental health struggles. Yet when they described their experiences with hyperfocus, I just thought, oh, yeah, I’ve been there before. I’ve been so focused on something that it almost felt like a high. I’ve found myself engrossed in counting, listing, and other repetitive behaviors and feeling the need to see them through to completion. I’ve experienced hyperfocus at work that made me extremely productive, as well as hyperfocus that’s caused me to spend an entire afternoon on Wikipedia. I’ve struggled to shift my focus to other things. I asked my friends why they thought they experienced hyperfocus, and if they could think of anything specific that caused it.

“I have ADD and bipolar disorder, and I experience most of my hyperfocus when I’m depersonalizing or while manic.”

“I know I hyperfocus because I have ADHD, but I also have OCD, so I sometimes feel like I just can’t leave something undone or unfinished, and usually that’s when I hyperfocus.”

“I think it’s kind of a coping mechanism for me as a highly sensitive person. Hyperfocus is almost like an escape when I’m experiencing sensory overload or just getting really overwhelmed.”

Hyperfocus as an escape really resonated with me. Thinking about my own experience with hyperfocus, I realized I, too, often used it as an escape, although I wasn’t always aware of it at the time. Sometimes I used it to escape sensory overload as a highly sensitive person, but mostly I use it when things are getting to be “too much” for me as someone with ADD. Like a lot of people with ADD, I really, really struggle with working memory and multitasking – I find it incredibly difficult to keep multiple things in my brain at one time. If I remember to pay bills, I might forget to clean my apartment, buy dog food, or call someone on their birthday because I just have an incredibly hard time splitting my attention between multiple things. When I hyperfocus, all the other things just seem to go away. There is no “back of my mind.” There is no “next on my to-do list.” There’s just me and whatever I happen to be absorbed in at the moment, and I think allowing my brain to be fully absorbed in one thing and one thing only for a little while gives it a much needed break.

On the other hand, my friend told me that her hyperfocus on “Pippin” was making her feel even more anxious and overwhelmed. She’d been unable to focus in class and was having a lot of anxiety over her newfound obsession. Hyperfocus, I guess, is kind of a double-edged sword. It can give you an escape or help you get things done, but it can also cause harm to your mental health or make you forget about other things you need to do. I asked my friends if hyperfocus had ever had a negative impact on their lives, relationships, or responsibilities.

“Mostly it just affects my sleep, because I tend to get hyperfocused in the evening when I’m just relaxing before bed, and I get really absorbed in reading a book or watching Netflix or surfing the internet, and then all of a sudden I look at the clock and it’s 4 a.m.”

“It definitely causes some tension between me and my boyfriend. I think he’s really trying to understand, but sometimes he just doesn’t get that this is how my mind works.”

“Now that I’m in college I have to stay really on top of deadlines and hyperfocus because I don’t have anyone helping me stay focused on school and reminding me when things are due.”

My friends also had some tips for dealing with hyperfocus. Setting alarms can help you keep track of the time you spend in hyperfocus mode, and having a friend or family member call you or knock on your door might make coming out of hyperfocus a little easier. If you can find ways to channel your hyperfocus into work or school, it can become a kind of superpower instead of something to struggle with. If you are someone who experiences hyperfocus, these tips might help you deal with it better, but I found that just acknowledging that it happens and talking to other people who experience it made me feel a lot better. “Just talking about it” is a pretty tried and true method for alleviating some of the burden of so many other mental health symptoms, so why shouldn’t hyperfocus be one of them? Let’s add it to the list of mental health topics we discuss. Let’s talk about hyperfocus.

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Image by Evgeny Sergeev

Originally published: October 21, 2016
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