Hyperfocus and ADHD: superpower or superpain?

The name attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is really very misleading.  Adults living with ADHD don’t actually have a deficit of attention. The ‘amount’ of attention is not much different from non-ADHD adults; the difference lies in where that attention is focussed (and why). Although the majority of adults with ADHD present with ‘symptoms of inattentiveness’, many adults with ADHD report episodes of long-lasting, highly focused attention. This is referred to as “hyperfocus”.

‘Hyperfocus’ has been defined as “locking on” to a task, especially if the subject is of interest to a person. This has even been compared to a state resembling a “hypnotic spell”. Although this working definition is familiar to many people with ADHD, there is no clear scientific definition of hyperfocus and many studies into it are simple case studies or studies that ask people about how they hyperfocus.

Despite this lack of a clear medical definition, there appear to be four general characteristics of hyperfocus that are consistently reported:

  1. Hyperfocus can be characterised by an intense state of concentration.
  2. When someone is engaged in hyperfocus, there is usually a reduced perception of the environment around them.
  3. To engage in hyperfocus, the task has to be fun or interesting.
  4. During a bout of hyperfocus, performance at the task in hand generally improves.

Examples of hyperfocus can include becoming so engrossed in a video game that a person does not hear someone calling their name, or focussing on a task and forgetting important self-care activities such as eating or drinking.

Hyperfocus can often involve the use of computer games

Although it is most often mentioned in the context of ADHD, hyperfocus isn’t unique to ADHD and is also frequently seen in non-ADHD adults. Although those with more ADHD symptoms have been shown to report higher levels of hyperfocus, and more frequent episodes of hyperfocus across various settings. One study reported that ADHD adults and matched non-ADHD adults did not differ in the occurrence, frequency, duration and pervasiveness of hyperfocus. What they did observe was that hyperfocus was less likely to occur in educational and social situations in ADHD patients. Essentially, this means hyperfocus is possibly not as useful for adults with ADHD, even if they are medicated.

Interestingly, it is very difficult to force someone into a hyperfocus state, which demonstrates the lack of control over what an individual with ADHD hyperfocuses on. This is important, as hyperfocussing is often represented as a strength, or even ‘superpower’, of ADHD. In reality, not being able to control what we hyperfocus on, or when hyperfocus occurs makes it less of a strength, and more of a potential liability. Taking the ‘superpower’ analogy further, if Superman wasn’t able to control when his laser vision ‘turned on’, it wouldn’t be much of a ‘superpower’ (and in fact might be seen as a problem).

Some adults with ADHD find they can hyperfocus on tasks that are useful for their lives or careers, and this would likely feel like a strength. For others, who cannot hyperfocus on tasks that are useful, any period of hyperfocus can replace these useful tasks and activities, which could lead to anxiety or procrastination.

If you find hyperfocus to be a problem, there are approaches to it that may help:

  • Try to find constructive ways to use hyperfocus to your advantage, especially in work by looking for tasks that suit your interests.
  • Limit negative consequences by setting reminders for self-care.
  • Don’t self-chastise if you happen to spend 12 hours watching television instead of doing your taxes. 

Finally, emotional acceptance that this is part of your ADHD may help you not self-chastise after a period of hyperfocus. This is a normal part of the ADHD life.

Author: James Brown PhD.

Editor: Alex Conner PhD.

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