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Hyperfocus: the "Superpower" with a Literal Cost

Young woman in wheelchair with ADHD hyperfocusing on her latest craft project
Getty Images / Dusan Stankovic

Many people think ADHD involves a lack of attention and an inability to stay still. However, some ADHDers can sit and focus for hours – to the point of being unable to switch off, even if that means forgoing food, water, and sleep. Sarah Alexander-Georgeson explores the impact of hyperfocus on her daily life.

One of the lesser-known symptoms some with ADHD may have is "hyperfocus." Hyperfocusing is when someone with ADHD may become too fixated on a task and can't shift their attention.

Hyperfocus has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it can lead to increased productivity and creativity. On the other, it can cause problems such as procrastination and missing deadlines. It can also lead to not eating, staying hydrated, or getting enough sleep because the individual is so immersed in what they're doing.

You can hyperfocus on watching TV, playing video games, learning something new, pursuing a hobby or any number of things. It can even be studying or working on a project. It is important to note that hyperfocusing is not unique to ADHD, nor does the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) cite hyperfocus in its diagnostic criteria for the condition.

However, individuals with ADHD frequently report states of hyperfocus, and clinical research often supports its existence. For those of us with ADHD-related hyperfocus, it can be intense and difficult to control.

Eating, drinking, and sleeping may go out the window

Binge-watching has become a buzzword for consuming a lot of TV, and many articles have warned us of the dangers of staying stationary for so long. But few people will neglect sleep, food, and going to the bathroom to catch "one more episode."

In my case, I will stay up through the night, not sleep or eat, because I have become fixated on a particular series and must finish it. It's a compulsion - I can't sleep until I have seen all the episodes. Even if my eyes hurt and I desperately need to rest, my obsessive brain will not allow it.

My main hobby is embroidery, and I love it so much. Incidentally, it has taken me thirty-six years to find this hobby. I have tried and thrown away many other pursuits in my life, and my yo-yo-ing interests have cost me a lot of money.

Paying my "ADHD tax"

ADHDers refer to this as the "ADHD tax" because many people with ADHD are familiar with becoming obsessed with a hobby or activity. We buy all the items we think will make us "masters of the craft" and will fixate on it with everything we have... for a while. Then we'll realize we're not that into it, hide the stuff away, and never take it up again.

Sadly, we may have hundreds of dollars' worth of hobby materials forever stashed around the house.

I can't tell you how many crafting supplies I have. I had grand plans to make cards, take up crochet, and do macramé. I taught myself to knit, but I made one scarf and then bought enough wool for a hundred scarves. Naturally, I never touched my knitting needles (which I have in every size) again.

I tried punch needling, which I enjoyed, and I created three pieces and bought all the supplies. Said supplies now live in a cupboard in my living room and haven't been touched in over a year. I may go back to it, or I may not. Who knows?

I have fallen in love with embroidery and can fixate on it for long periods, sometimes spanning weeks. I will, of course, eat and sleep between these times, but I will not go to bed at a time anyone would label a "decent hour."

Likewise, I will only eat if prompted by somebody else or if it is something easy to prepare or order. I often complete an embroidery hoop in a single day and feel a sense of accomplishment afterward. After all, I have created something from scratch!

Hyperfocusing is like speeding down the highway toward burnout

Usually, after long periods of hyperfocus, I go through a period of not wanting to do my hobby. It's like I have "creativity burnout," and I feel rubbish. My motivation will dwindle, and it's impossible to focus on anything.

This affects my mental health, and I worry I'm losing interest in another hobby. Fortunately, it's just my brain telling me I need a break. I have always returned to embroidery, even if I've had months away from picking up a needle and thread.

I hope setting time limits will help

I'm not always great at managing my hyperfocus tendencies. I don't always recognize the warning signs, but I'm trying to be more aware. I want to try some strategies like setting time limits, breaking tasks into chunks, and using reminder apps.

I struggle with time management, but setting time limits for my everyday activities would help me feel more in control.

If all goes well, I can do other things during the day instead of focusing all my energy on one thing and risking short-term burnout. I want to say "goodbye" to projects getting abandoned for months - or, in some cases, forever.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 

NPS-ALL-NP-00893 MARCH 2023

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