Almost everyone has been so engaged, so enraptured, so fixated on something that time slips by unnoticed. But those of us with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder seem to be far more prone to Hyperfocus and Hyperfixation. Lately I’ve been thinking about Hyperfixating, Hyperfocusing, and Addiction. Here are the differences that I see.
What does Hyperfixation look like?
Video games that you love.
Working on a hobby that’s all consuming.
Evenings and days lost to social media.
Binge watching a show you love.
Knitting. Crafts. Searching online for vintage Barbies.
These can become our go to activities when we’re overwhelmed, sad, anxious. “I need a break. I just want to unwind. Relax. Not think about anything.”
We gladly lose ourselves in The Crown, Minecraft, or planning our dream home. All well and good.
What Is Hyperfixation?
In the world of ADHD, this state has been described as Hyperfocus.
Some refer to it as being ‘in the zone,’ or ‘completely engaged.’ We are doing something at the exclusion of everything else,
Hyperfixation is different. It’s not just in that moment, but obsessed with something. If it’s something healthy or at least harmless, great.
But at some point, this may become a way of self-medicating ADHD. We become addicted to running, a high-risk sport, hunting for bargains, or hunting for sex. All ways to wake up the ADHD brain so it’s getting those neurotransmitters that it’s missing. We run risks to generate adrenaline. As our adrenal glands get overworked, we need bigger risks, bigger thrills.
When I’m constructing a model, working meticulously, but at my own speed, it engages my brain, demanding care, precision, craftsmanship, and art. Time falls away, I’m in the moment. Hyperfocussed. The cares and worries of the day vanish. (Temporarily.)
But model railroading has been a constant pleasure for most of my life. Rather than a relief, it can become a refuge, a way of avoiding what needs doing.
Model railroading is a form of meditation for me, and as numerous studies have shown, Mindful Meditation can rewire the ADHD brain. (Or any brain. But the impact on those of us with ADHD can be dramatic, in a surprisingly short time as this video on Mindfulness & ADHD explains.)
It’s relaxing. It’s stress relieving for me. Other comedians I know do needlepoint, knitting, wood-working, or collecting something particular like sheet music or antique toys. In the moment they’re hyper-focused. But it’s something they come back to again and again… Hyperfixation. A passion.
The Difference Between Hyperfixation and Addiction
In one sense it’s a matter of degree.
Addiction is a constant craving. Friends who have recovered from an addiction to a substance know that they will always face that temptation to go back, to seek solace and comfort in drugs or alcohol. Even if they haven’t had a drink in 15 years they don’t say, “I was an alcoholic.” They say, “I am an alcoholic.”
It’s always there.
Hyperfocus is different. It’s intense. Then it’s over. I’m locked into something, then the spell is broken.
My parents had a large collection of murder mysteries on a book shelf at their cottage. So, one rainy day I grabbed an Agatha Christie mystery novel to pass the time. I was hooked. After reading all 20 of her novels in the book case, I tried a Nero Wolfe mystery. After devouring all 15 of those I came to the Ngaio Marsh mysteries. I read them, one after another.
Then… nothing. I haven’t read a murder mystery in the 20 years since.
Another difference between hyperfocus and addiction? Being able to hyperfocus on work, or learning a topic can be helpful in my career, or developing skills. Hyperfocus has a potential upside. A doctor would call it “An Adaptive Strategy.” Whereas an Addiction has a very short term upside, “Ahhh… So good…” but long term it’s what doctor’s call, “Maladaptive.” Harmful. Unsustainable.
As a recovered Workaholic I learned the cost of constantly working in order to feel good: exhaustion, burnout, divorce, and no close friends. There was an upside to producing so many comedy shows. But when that’s all I had in my life it became stifling. Depressing. The joy turned to onerous obligation.
Dependence versus Addiction
For me, the difference between Hyperfixation and Addiction is like the difference between ‘Dependence’ and ‘Addiction.’ When a doctor told me ADHD medications might lead to dependency, but they were not addictive, I asked, “What’s the difference?”
He explained, “You may depend on a cup of coffee in the morning (or four of them) to feel focused and if you don’t have coffee you may feel lousy, tired, even get a headache, but you’re not going out and robbing corner stores to get cash for a large latte.”
Addiction is extreme. All consuming.
Miss your ‘fix’ of whatever your addiction is, then emotions start to go haywire, moods swing wildly, you develop physical symptoms. The scene that comes to mind is Gene Hackman trying to get off heroin in French Connection 2. (Good film, BTW.)
Addiction is 24/7. The need is always there.
Whereas hyperfixation is not a constant craving, or an absolute must-have.
You may find a video game, a hobby, TV series—or in my case, working on my model railroad— an activity that you can become immersed in for a long time. Hopefully you find it relaxing, stress relieving, comforting. Perhaps even restorative and healing.
When I’m working on my model railroad, I can lose myself in creative problem solving, crafting an imaginary world.
But I’m not craving trains every day. If I don’t get to my railroad for a week or two I’m not shaking, shivering, exploding with angry, or thrashing around.
In fact, I may find something else to hyperfixate on and not touch the railroad for months. A few years ago I discovered the Diabolo and spent the better part of a whole summer learning to juggle the spinning toy. Then, just as quickly, I move on to something else. A new interest.
Is Hyperfixating Helpful?
Hyperfixation has been associated with ADHD, Anxiety Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Depression.
I know many people with ADHD who claim that hyperfocus is their superpower. I find it can be a helpful strategy, a tool to cope when I’m overwhelmed with To-Dos, frustrations, worries, or distractions. Hyperfixation can be powerful, or a time-sucking vortex, depending on what we fixate on.
But as every ADHD specialist in our videos has said, rarely, if ever, is a single tool or strategy enough to successfully manage ADHD. It takes a toolbox of them. An arsenal of weapons.
In our PBS documentary, ADD & Mastering It!, fellow comedian Patrick McKenna and I share 36 ADHD-friendly strategies that we draw upon as needed, as the particular situation demands.
Hyperfixating on an ADHD strategy can be wonderful. When my wife became a yoga instructor, I became her practice student. I was so intrigued by my progress I became hyperfixated on doing yoga every morning. I read about yoga. Watched videos. Bored friends describing my progress.
Yoga became all consuming. It helped lower my restlessness and calm both my brain and body. Today, three years later, yoga is just another strategy. Some weeks just one or two sessions. Other weeks, four or five.
That’s okay. It’s all good. Lately I’ve been hyperfixated on diet and exercise, something I NEVER thought would happen.
That said, the hyperfixating for a while and then moving on can be frustrating. I do wish I was more consistent. More balanced. More regular. More disciplined in my yoga, exercise, eating well, and seeing friends. (Is it possible to ‘binge socialize’? Seeing friends for the first time in ages, having a great time, and suddenly filling up your calendar.)
Is hyperfixating my superpower?
I suppose I would say it allows me to develop a wide range of abilities, interests, skills, and knowledge. Call that a superpower if you wish. I do feel when I’m consciously using hyperfocus to my advantage, it becomes the most positive of my ADHD traits.
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