What Is Hyperfixation, and Does ADHD Cause It?
Everyone knows what it feels like to be totally consumed by an activity or passion. If you’ve ever had this immersion teeter into obsession, you are likely already familiar with what it feels like to experience hyperfixation.
Unlike the typical experience of interest or hobbies, hyperfixation that occurs in conditions like ADHD and autism can feel all-consuming and have a major impact on your daily life. Let’s explore more about why hyperfixation happens and how to better manage this feature of a neurodivergent mind!
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Hyperfixation describes a tendency to become completely engrossed in an interest or activity, often at the expense of focusing on other areas of one's life. For example, maybe there's...
a game you can't stop playing or thinking about
a celebrity or band you're obsessed with
a hobby (like collecting or crafting) that consumes all your time and attention
While hyperfixation isn't inherently bad — there's nothing wrong with having interests, even intense ones! — it can lead us to ignore responsibilities and commitments, which can have negative consequences. Plus, interests developed through hyperfixation can disappear just as suddenly as they began, leaving us feeling unfulfilled as we reflect on the immense time and attention spent on something we no longer care about as much.
Hyperfixation is commonly associated with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and autism.
Are hyperfixation and hyperfocus the same thing?
Many people will use the terms hyperfixation and hyperfocus interchangeably. Although they often occur together, hyperfocus refers more to actual task or goal-oriented behaviors rather than the particular hobby or interest. For instance, with hyperfocus you may get sidelined by a messy cabinet that you feel compelled to immediately organize, no matter how it disrupts your day. In this scenario, you aren’t compelled by organization as a hobby; you just got drawn into this particular goal-oriented activity that will end once your organizing is completed.
What causes hyperfixation?
People are often surprised to hear that a person with attentional difficulties, such as in ADHD, can pay intense attention to certain things and struggle with others. However, the presence of attentional issues does not exclude the possibility of experiencing extreme focus — as counterintuitive as it may sound.
There is no one reason for hyperfixation in neurodivergent minds, but there are a few contributing factors:
Reward seeking: ADHD leads to dysregulation of the reward system, which can make it extremely difficult to engage with certain tasks. This daily lack of reward takes a toll on your wellbeing and when your mind is rewarded by an activity, your brain wants more and more… and more.
ADHD minds find relief in the complex: Research has shown us that unlike the increased effort needed to do less engaging tasks, like doing dishes or folding laundry, when people with ADHD are presented with a highly engaging task their brains actually require less cognitive effort than their neurotypical peers. This can explain why oftentimes chaos feels like comfort.
It’s hard to switch: Task switching, which is the ability to switch between tasks, is impaired in ADHD. There are a few factors at play here, but when it comes to hyperfixation it’s as if a metaphorical electrician for your brain installed gigantic on/off switches instead of dimmer switches. Once that baby is in “on” mode, it can take an enormous amount of effort to turn it off.
Emotional dysregulation: ADHD can lead to significant challenges with emotional dysregulation, making it hard to manage life stressors. Immersion into hyperfixations may be used subconsciously (or consciously) as a coping mechanism to escape daily pain and discomfort.
Science has yet to examine why certain hyperfixations are common, so we can’t explain your sudden obsession with collecting antique mugs or learning how to tuft rugs. What we do know is that the way a neurodivergent mind focuses on certain topics is highly driven by differences in the reward system and engaging in a fixation can feel like a massage to the brain.
Am I hyperfixating? How to tell
Awareness doesn’t always come easy with hyperfixation, at least while it’s happening. When a hyperfixation hits there are a few tell-tale signs you can watch out for to see if you’ve crossed over from passion to fixation.
Did you forget to eat or drink because you were so immersed in your current focus?
Do you find yourself accidentally ignoring others?
Have you completely lost track of time?
Is it painfully boring or even anxiety-inducing to think or talk about anything other than your current focus?
Did you forgo other important activities (i.e. chores, work, hang-outs) in order to prioritize spending time with your object or activity of focus?
Did you accidentally choke on your drink because you found a space in the conversation to fit in your hyperfixation and you didn’t have time to swallow before getting it in there?
Is the hyperfixation interfering with your life in some significant way?
For most people, the intense passion you experience when a new hyperfixation hits eventually wears off. There’s rarely a tapering, just a sudden disinterest. This may come after you’ve achieved a certain level of competence in the skill, or out of the blue. Although it can be common to be harsh on yourself about “giving up a hobby,” learning to embrace the waves of change and appreciate the skills you did learn can help you feel more pride about your mind’s approach to life. And hey, maybe you got some quilts out of it!
Pros and cons of hyperfixation
Although there are obvious challenges to hyperfixation, there are also many unique and powerful benefits.
Pros of hyperfixation
Hyperfixation is a unique state of mind that leads to nearly superhuman capabilities. The intense focus and dedication to the task at hand means there are a few benefits:
Learning complex tasks or gaining advanced understanding of a particular topic in a fraction of the typical time
Amazing creativity and art
Superior job performance
Learning and teaching opportunities
Connecting with like-minded people
Having a safe space to go and throw your brain into a rewarding task can be essential for your wellbeing. Like any great thing, there are also clear downsides. Learning how to manage hyperfixation without neglecting your daily life can take a lot of work and discipline.
Cons of hyperfixation
Hyperfixation can have a lot of negative consequences. Being so focused on one thing means other things get neglected, such as:
Neglecting health and hygiene
Forgetting to do daily duties
Ignoring partners, friends or kids
Distracted from job
Missing work or school (in extreme cases leading to job loss or failing classes)
Disrupted sleep (especially with video games or hobbies involving excessive screen time)
Hyperfixation can lead to personal struggles with self-acceptance when the topic you care so much about leads to social rejection. When people around you don’t understand your passions or even mock you for your fixations, it can feel extremely painful. Although there are always risks to dancing with your hyperfixations, there are many ways to manage how you engage in these topics and activities that bring you so much joy.
Tips for managing hyperfixation
Learning to work with your brain is one of the most important parts of finding wellbeing as a neurodivergent person. Your wiring is different from many of your peers, so how you go about your hobbies, passions and interests may also look quite different — and that’s okay. Here are some tips for helping you manage a hyperfixation without completely letting it uproot your life!
Increase your awareness: Knowing what hyperfixations look like for you is essential for being able to identify when it’s happening. Try asking yourself:
What do I neglect while engaging with my hyperfixation?
How do I respond to interruptions while fixated?
Am I only hyperfixating when I’m avoiding less appealing tasks?
Learning more about your own patterns takes some work, so don’t be dismayed if things aren’t always obvious. Look at the way you interact with your world in an objective way and hone in finding fair solutions for those areas that are causing you the most issues.
Tag team life: If you live with a partner or family member it’s perfectly reasonable to get their help when you are drawn into hyperfixations. It may be as easy as “hey, can you feed the dogs I’m identifying these 100 mushrooms I just foraged.” This ensures you mitigate the negative effects of hyperfixation and helps create a healthy conversation between you and someone you trust.
Elastic band method: Sometimes periods of hyperfixation can feel like an out-of-body experience. Wearing an elastic band on your wrist that you can snap is a grounding technique that can be helpful for bringing attention back to the present. Simply snap the band and pay attention to the way it feels on your skin and focus on the fact that you are here right now, in your body. This act can make it a little easier to task switch.
Use timers and alarms: Setting a timer or alarm can be a great wait to allow yourself to be fully immersed in your activity without overdoing it. This technique creates a hard cut-off where you must cease doing the activity. You can even break things up by scheduling blocks of time to indulge uninterrupted in your current hyperfixation and use the time in between to take care of the other slightly less interesting life things.
Set a goal: By setting clear milestones you can keep yourself from overdoing the productivity. For instance, if you’ve been consumed by embroidery, maybe you could set a goal to finish 2 leaves. If you’re gaming, set a specific goal about how far you want to advance. Just find a specific milestone for your particular task and stick with it! Although it might feel disappointing to stop, the act of achieving a goal will help offset some of those negative feelings.
Practice meditation: A daily meditation practice can do wonders for creating space between thought and action. Even just one minute a day can help you gain benefits. Strengthening this ability in your mind will make you better able to notice when you are sucked into hyperfixation-mode and also make you a better observer of your own patterns of behaviour.
The bottom line on hyperfixation
Hyperfixation can lead to many challenges for neurodivergent people. However, with proper management, you can also find ways to use hyperfixation to your advantage or, at a minimum, learn to appreciate the journey.
If you experience hyperfixation and think you might have ADHD, Frida could help. Through Frida you can get an assessment and diagnosis by clinicians with expertise in ADHD, who can help you build a plan to keep moving forward.
Take Frida's ADHD self-assessment to see if Frida is right for you.