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The Truth About ADHD Hyperfixation, According to a Mental Health Professional

Sometimes, certain interests can dominate the attention and focus of those with ADHD—a phenomenon known as hyperfixation. But why does it happen, and how can you regain control?
Written by
Jeff Sounalath
Mental Health Therapist, MS, LPC, LCDC, NCC

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For adults living with ADHD, bouts of hyperfixation can derail productivity, damage relationships, and sideline the tasks or obligations necessary for daily life. During these periods, you may become totally consumed by an activity or interest and struggle to refocus, even after hours or days. Unlike simple passion or enthusiasm, however, this type of hyperfixation is not entirely voluntary and often requires a deliberate, structured approach to overcome.

But what exactly causes these obsessive states, and how can you learn to control them? In the following guide, we'll give you the truth about hyperfixation, including its most common triggers, why it's more common among those with ADHD, and proven methods to break free from its grip.

What Is Hyperfixation?

In simple terms, hyperfixation refers to an intense and prolonged interest in or obsession with a certain activity, subject, or person. While episodes of hyperfixation can be common among those with ADHD, they also appear with other mental health conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

And though it’s less common or intense than in those with the mental health conditions mentioned above, neurotypical individuals may also experience hyperfixation.

Definition of ADHD Hyperfixation

In the context of ADHD, hyperfixation happens when a person's attention is completely absorbed or consumed by a particular subject or interest for an excessive or unhealthy amount of time. In order to qualify as ADHD hyperfixation, these episodes must go beyond a simple difficulty shifting attention away from an interesting task.

Instead, those dealing with ADHD hyperfixation may struggle with day-to-day functioning due to their "need" to focus on a specific subject rather than important life tasks, such as work or relationships.

For adults with ADHD, episodes of hyperfixation can manifest in many situations, some of the most common of which are:

  • "Losing yourself" in a new hobby
  • Obsessing over a TV show, book series, or video game
  • Researching a random topic or topics for hours online
  • Fixating on the details of a conversation or interaction you've had
  • Tendency to lose track of time while performing a certain activity

Hyperfixation vs. Hyperfocus

Although the two terms are commonly used interchangeably in casual conversation, there are actually important differences between hyperfixation and hyperfocus, especially for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Below, we'll outline some of the biggest distinctions between the two terms.

Differences in Triggers

While both hyperfixation and hyperfocus may be triggered by an activity that deeply interests a person, there are subtle but important differences in the way that interest manifests or "triggers" an episode.

With hyperfocus, this kind of intense passion or interest is typically goal-oriented in nature, which is why some psychological research suggests that inducing a state of hyperfocus may actually be beneficial for those looking to accomplish certain tasks or goals. Taking this research a step further, some individuals even attempt to trigger hyperfocus (also called a flow state) intentionally in order to increase productivity.

In instances of ADHD hyperfixation, however, this all-consuming interest in an activity, concept, or person often has no firm "goal" outside of the interest itself. This means that while hyperfixation and hyperfocus may share certain triggers, it can feel infinitely harder to manage hyperfixation in a healthy way.

Biologically speaking, both hyperfocus and hyperfixation involve the brain's reward system. With hyperfocus, the brain processes accomplishment and feelings of reward properly once certain goals have been met. In ADHD hyperfixation, these feelings of reward or accomplishment may "malfunction," leaving individuals in a situation where they constantly seek reward while never fully satisfying that desire. If you suspect that you may be struggling with ADHD, it's important to get a proper online ADHD diagnosis and ADHDAdvisor.org has a large network of licensed mental health care therapists.

Differences in Duration and Control

Because hyperfocus is typically tied to a certain goal or achievement, it naturally comes along with a set "endpoint," which is the accomplishment of whatever that goal or achievement may be. Once a milestone has been met and the reward center of the brain has been successfully triggered, feelings of hyperfocus tend to fade on their own.

ADHD hyperfixation, on the other hand, does not share this objective, goal-seeking quality. Instead, episodes of ADHD hyperfixation may last indefinitely, even at the expense of negative consequences, neglecting important jobs or chores, or damaging relationships.

Additionally, while some people have shown the ability to slip into and out of a state of hyperfocus willingly, ADHD hyperfixation is a far less voluntary experience and often requires some other external stimulus for a person to break free.

Common Manifestations of Hyperfixation

Hyperfixation manifests differently for different people, even those who share other ADHD symptoms. Some of the most common types of hyperfixations are:

Obsessive Interests

Obsessive interests are perhaps the most widely recognized type of hyperfixation, including:

  • Difficulty switching between tasks, even when "bored" by a fixation
  • Committing excessive time or attention to a subject
  • Compulsively researching a specific topic

Repetitive Behaviors

Although distinct from OCD in several important ways, ADHD hyperfixation can involve repetitive, obsessive behaviors:

  • Needing to arrange or organize items "perfectly"
  • Following set routines, such as taking specific roads when driving
  • Easily-overlooked habitual behaviors, like nail-biting

Importantly, attempts to deviate from these routines or repetitive behaviors known as ADHD stimming often cause distress or anxiety, both of which can limit flexibility and overall quality of life.

Intense Focus on People

Although many instances of hyperfixation involve things or ideas, it is also common for a person with ADHD to hyperfixate on another person through behaviors such as:

  • Excessively idealizing or doting on new love interests
  • Replaying and overanalyzing conversations or interactions
  • Experiencing extreme jealousy or worry

In addition to the mental and emotional stress caused by these behaviors, hyperfixating on another person may sabotage or damage that relationship's long-term stability.

Overthinking and Ruminating

Thought loops, rumination and ADHD overstimulation are all common features of many mental health disorders but can be especially difficult to break when paired with hyperfixation. They include:

  • Fixating on and overanalyzing past mistakes
  • Constantly envisioning worst-case scenarios
  • Habitually doubting or second-guessing decisions

This type of behavior can severely damage a person's self-esteem and confidence, resulting in wide-ranged, negative effects on their quality of life and overall mental health.

Underlying Causes of Hyperfixation

As we mentioned earlier, even neurotypical adults may experience periods of hyperfixation. That said, ADHD makes these periods much more likely due to various factors.

Although hyperfixation has clearly defined neurological roots, research has also shown that environmental factors can trigger or reduce episodes. By understanding these factors, it's possible to stave off unhealthy bouts of hyperfixation, much like you would with another impending mental health crisis.

Neurological Underpinnings

Some of the neurological considerations that predispose those with ADHD to hyperfixation are:

Dopamine deficits

A lowered level of dopamine is one of the hallmark signs of ADHD and contributes to perpetuating episodes of hyperfixation. Just like too little dopamine can make it difficult to change negative thought patterns, it can also make it much more challenging to shift between tasks, especially from a stimulating task to a less stimulating (but more important) one.

Poor impulse control

Although poor impulse control in those with ADHD is directly tied to an imbalance in dopamine and serotonin levels, it is nonetheless important to talk about as its own subject. Because individuals with ADHD are more prone to being distracted by appealing subjects or activities, they're also more likely to fall into periods of hyperfixation when surrounded by various stimuli.

Deficient emotional regulation

Because ADHD can make it more difficult to regulate emotions, topics, conversations, or activities that are emotionally charged may be more likely to trigger ADHD hyperfixation. Research shows that this is due to the way that ADHD impairs the brain's ability to transmit or process emotional information in the same way as neurotypical individuals.

Other Disorders with Hyperfixation Tendencies

Although it's perhaps most commonly associated with ADHD, hyperfixation also appears in many other mental health conditions, including:

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Individuals with autism may develop more specific instances of hyperfixation regarding a certain interest or task, such as trains, license plates, or a historical period. Because this type of hyperfixation is generally more enduring and consistent than ADHD hyperfixation, it may cause difficulties when trying to develop new hobbies or participate in unfamiliar activities.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

One of the more recognized conditions associated with hyperfixation is OCD, which involves an obsessive preoccupation with certain behaviors, patterns, or rituals. Often, this type of preoccupation is driven by feelings of anxiety or discomfort, with breaks in hyperfixation episodes causing mental or emotional distress.

Depression and Anxiety

Unlike other externally-directed types of hyperfixation, depression and anxiety can cause an individual to hyperfocus on negative thoughts or emotions. When this happens, hyperfixation can cause a sort of self-sustaining "loop" wherein negative thoughts fuel worry or sadness, which, in turn, fuel more negative thoughts.

Psychological and Physiological Triggers

Outside of the chemical or structural differences associated with ADHD, many environmental factors can increase the risk of hyperfixation. These include:

Stress and Anxiety

When faced with intense or ongoing stress and anxiety, individuals without an adequate coping mechanism may look to escape by diving into a particular activity or interest. Left unchecked, this tendency may devolve into hyperfixation.

Physiological Factors

In addition to the lower levels of dopamine experienced by people with ADHD, several lifestyle factors can exacerbate this deficiency. Among these are things like poor diet, lack of physical activity, or sleep deprivation, all of which may have severe negative impacts on emotional regulation and mental state.

How to Manage ADHD Hyperfixation

Overcoming hyperfixation requires more than just an effort of will, and it's often best to seek professional help when dealing with regular bouts of ADHD hyperfixation. In these cases, finding the right mental health professional to help you build effective, realistic methods to prevent or break free from hyperfixation is crucial.

Set Time Limits

When attempting to manage hyperfixation in your day-to-day life, it can be useful to set strict time limits or physical timers when performing a task you know is likely to trigger an episode. Rather than avoiding activities you enjoy altogether, simply set a timer on your phone, computer, or other device. By giving yourself an objective, physical reminder, you may be able to more easily break free from hyperfixation.

Mindfulness and Lifestyle Changes

As we mentioned earlier, lifestyle and environmental factors can play an important role in how well you manage ADHD hyperfixation. To give yourself the most control possible, consider trying these tips:

  • Following a strict sleep schedule and nighttime routine
  • Practicing mindfulness and focused breathing
  • Tracking your daily screen time on various devices
  • Getting more physical activity to help regulate dopamine levels
  • Eating a healthy, nutritious diet

Professional Help

Whether you respond best to traditional therapy, medication, or success coaching, effective treatment begins with the right therapist. Thankfully, modern telehealth offers adults with ADHD the opportunity to take an online ADHD test, and connect with trained professionals from all over the world, meaning greater freedom to choose a therapist that aligns with your personality and goals.

With ADHDAdvisor.org, for instance, you gain access to a dedicated team of matching specialists who will identify the qualities in a therapist that matter most to you and then supply a list of likely candidates for you to choose from.

Scheduling Flexibility

Seeking professional help with your mental health for ADHD hyperfixation shouldn't be a source of even more stress, which is why it's important to find a mental health service that offers flexible, convenient scheduling. This is where online ADHD treatment services excel. Instead of restricting you to the schedules and openings of therapists near you, an online service like ADHDAdvisor.org can connect you with experts from a far greater area. In addition, this kind of care removes geographical barriers, such as commutes or lack of transportation, allowing for more accessible mental healthcare regardless of where you live.

Holistic Diagnosis and Treatment

Current research has greatly improved our understanding of ADHD and its symptoms, which is why 21st-century treatment typically combines multiple different methods into a single treatment plan. Generally, your treatment will involve one-on-one therapy sessions with your chosen practitioner, goal-oriented success coaching, medications, or a mixture of the three.

Convenient Subscriptions

By opting for a monthly subscription rather than a one-time purchase, you grant yourself a number of powerful advantages. On top of giving yourself the peace of mind of having a reliable therapy schedule, you can also plan ahead, receive discounts, and message your therapist between sessions when questions or issues arise.

Final Thoughts

For many adults with ADHD, hyperfixation is an all-too-familiar challenge. With the right mix of preparation, understanding, and professional help, however, it's entirely possible to develop the tools needed to regain control.

As you go about developing these tools, it's crucial that you treat yourself with the compassion and patience you deserve. Realize that hyperfixation is a product of your brain chemistry, environment, and ADHD and that you shouldn't feel any guilt or shame about these episodes when they happen.

Instead, consider partnering with a compassionate mental health professional like those at ADHDAdvisor.org. Rather than navigating the intricate and often frustrating complexities of ADHD hyperfixation alone, you can give yourself a knowledgeable and dedicated partner who will be there every step of the way.

If you're interested in learning more, take our complimentary intake quiz or speak to one of our matching specialists today.

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