ADHD Hyperfocus: All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

We’ve all heard about the much-ballyhooed ADHD Hyperfocus.  Frank South shares his take on the topic below, in an excerpt from his new book: A Chicken In The  Wind and How He Grew.

But first, I’ve always wondered: Just how do the folks claiming the “gift of ADHD hyperfocus” know what regular old intense and prolonged focus feels like? By the same token, because I do not have ADHD, how can I know how “ADHD Hyperfocus” feels? It’s a conundrum.

When I worked in the newsroom, however, I often spent 6-8 hours at a stretch reviewing a particularly gnarly investigative piece. And that was just one part of a 12-hour day

ADHD hyperfocusHyperfocus or Dysregulated Focus?

Perhaps there’s at least one difference between my newsroom kind of focus and ADHD hyperfocus: I could withstand interruptions (the phone was always ringing) and get right back to where I was. I didn’t like it, but I could do it. Many of my friends who have ADHD, however, report that being a huge challenge.

Clinically speaking, the term ADHD Hyperfocus describes an inability to direct one’s focus toward the task at hand, a tendency to get deeply distracted by the “shiny.” Instead of hyperfocus, it’s thought to be dysregulated focus.

For example, in the old days, my husband would vehemently and irritably react to my interrupting his work. (We both worked at home then.)  I didn’t do it often and only with an important bit of news; e.g. “Hon, dinner’s ready. ”  I found his angry reaction nasty and hurtful. And selfish. “Make your own dang dinner,” I felt like saying.

He wasn’t able to explain his inner experience to me until a few years into treatment:

It had taken me a long time to get focused. It was like I had traveled from earth to Pluto.

When you interrupted me, I have to travel all the way back to earth, just to see what you want.

And who knows if I will get back to Pluto again!

These days, he has much smoother transitions from focus to interruption and back to focus.  He knows what that feels like. In the past, before treatment, he didn’t even know it was possible.  For him, at least.

Trouble with Transitions?

As I wrote in my first book, folks with ADHD can have trouble with transitions; it can feel like trying to pull a rusty lever.  Consider this passage on page 41, from Stephen Copps, MD:

We’ve been told that people with ADHD have only two speeds, full throttle and sound asleep.

Do you know why that is? It’s because the accelerator gets stuck in the on or the off position. There is nothing in between.

Not only does the accelerator get stuck, but also the brakes are faulty, so the person with ADHD has a hard time stopping once they

get started. The radio’s sensitivity knob is frozen, and so only the loudest signal gets through.

You could even say the driver’s “zoom lens” is rusty. When you drive, you need to constantly be zooming in

and out from the big picture to the smaller detail and back again.

The driver with ADHD either sees 40 things at once or over-focuses on only one.

And Now Frank on ADHD Hyperfocus

Writer Frank South has a few intriguing words to say about ADHD and Hyperfocus in his new book, A Chicken In The Wind And How He Grew.  You can read this short excerpt now, below—and read a longer excerpt soon!  (See Stories from an ADHD Dad)

You Can’t Count on Hyperfocus to Save You

There are a couple of cautions about hyperfocus I’ll talk about with Coco [Frank’s daughter] when I get home. The first, which is easy enough for her due to her nature, is that some psychologists and others doubt the existence of hyperfocus. Even my spell-check doesn’t think it exists. So it’s not something you want to brag about in middle school, where peer judgment is deadly enough as it is.

The difficult thing to accept is that you can’t depend on it. You can’t let procrastination run wild and count on hyperfocus to save you. Sometimes it just won’t show up.

And in my experience, it’s a tool that takes time to learn how to use and get some control over. If left to run wild without reins, hyperfocus can hijack an unsuspecting unusually wired brain to all kinds of places it doesn’t want to go.

You get pulled down one rabbit hole after another following one solid well-lit idea that leads to another idea that’s not solid or well-lit, but can be taken apart and interestingly, has light inside, which tumbles down another offshoot hole, where near the bottom there’s a whole family of faintly lit related ideas waiting to be taken apart and examined to see if any can shed new light on the original idea.

They won’t, but it doesn’t matter now.

Things Are Humming—Until I Lose Interest

My brain is humming, calm, and happy inhabiting some deep twisty place, prying open little, unrelated whys and what-nots. Until I lose interest.

When my interest snaps off, I look up startled. I don’t know what time it is, where I am, what I’m doing, or how to get out of there. Sometimes that triggers a panic attack, but usually just a medium-long confusion spell and embarrassment.

One rarely has much to show for a full-anarchy hyperfocus run. It’s hard to remember what was so interesting down there when you’re brushing off dirt, blinking in the full light of day.

It’s a lesson every Marvel comic book preaches: All superpowers have a price.

 

ADHD Hyper Focus
Click to visit Amazon page for this book

13 thoughts on “ADHD Hyperfocus: All It’s Cracked Up To Be?”

  1. I’ve only had a problem with emotional hyper-arousal. But i noticed its because after initially quitting coffee i not only indulged again, but went back up to my max dose. And that, takes away the calm that treatment gives me. For reference i’m on amp. Mph takes the clutter/chaos out of my mind but does nothing to get me over the hump.
    I agree with the feeling that adhd is not a gift.
    When you say your medication would keep you up all night is that because its time release? Perhaps you could have a back up supply of immediate release for these instances?

    1. Whenever someone asks what htperfocus is, I describe an incident from 5th grade, which thanks to my wonderful teacher, was merely a tiny bit embarrassing, I was, and still am, pure Inattentive type, I was a good student who enjoyed school, and I love to read. One day, like usual , I finished my assignment, and pulled out my book and started reading. Unlike most days, I was oblivious to anything going on around me. The next thing I was aware of was my teacher asking “Bridgette, what is the answer to number 3?” I looked up, blunking in confusion, and my teacher says “Turn you math book to page ___” Then, without missing a beat, she asked someone else what the answer to number 3 was, and went on with the lesson.

      It wasn’t until the end of the year that the incident was mentioned again. She told me that she’d found out who my teacher was “next year” and had told her that I sometimes get so deep into my books that I lose track of what’s going on around me, that it’s not intentional, and that all she had to do was call my name to get my attention.

  2. I feel hyperfocus is an ADHD trait that is very powerful that is neither good or bad. What we do with this powerful thing makes the difference in how it helps or hurts ourselves and others.

    Saying hyperfocus is “unregulated focus” doesn’t make sense and is self-victimization conceding that we can’t control it. We ADHDers are not in a non-responsive catatonic state when hyperfocusing. Hyperfocus can and should be regulated or directed. Consistently keeping in control hyperfocus is difficult but it is never impossible.

    Unregulated hyperfocus can be detrimental, like being late for dinner, damaging health and relationships.

    If one cultivates hyperfocus towards beneficial and valuable goals it plays a role in success among peers. It can be the fuel behind following one’s “calling” and creating a praiseworthy life’s work. To evoke the popular meme of “being in a flow state” is the same as hyperfocus is not appropriate because there is a lot more to “flow”. The flow state requires a highly refined skill or technique that is executed from procedural memory among other things.

    Using Dr. Hallowell’s analogy of a Ferrari engine. Drive a Fearrari recklessly and you end up in an accident. Drive it with skill and determination and you are a champion.

    We have Ferrrari brains. Drive them carefully.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. Given the ADHDSuperPower URL, I can clearly see your philosophy. 😉

      But riddle me this: How do you define “ADHD Hyperfocus”? And, how can you claim it as a superpower when you have never experienced “non-ADHD focus”? I’m genuinely curious.

      As for the Ferrari analogy, many people with ADHD tell me they don’t feel like they have a “Ferrari engine”. It might feel more like a Yugo or a four-cylinder running on three cylinders. 🙂

      Cheers,
      g

  3. Hi Gina,
    Great post, and thanks so much for including my Chicken. My dad, the scientist always said that it was nice to be praised but real value is when your work is useful to others. Again, sincere thanks.

  4. A question about hyperfocus in relation to medication: is there any truth to the claim that an ssri-type antidepressant can counteract the effects of hyperfocus brought on by stimulant medication?

    I’ve only seen this suggested in Michael T. Bell’s “The ADHD Marriage Workbook” and can’t find anything about it elsewhere. Our doctor had not heard it before, but is willing to try it.

    In a dual ADHD marriage here, we’ve both experienced hyperfocus as a problem only on medication. After trials of both mph and amp in every form and dose over the past few years, basically we’ve both run into the same situation: it’s either not addressing symptoms at all (too low of a dose) or it turns us into hyperfocus monsters (too high of a dose). We’ve each basically landed on the lowest dose that addresses symptoms, and this is definitely a better life than being unmedicated, but it does come at this price of spending much too long on overdoing things.

    As we are both only on meds a few years now, I wonder if we both are simply learning how to shift gears and generally manage our projects. Part of it might just be the excitement of being able to be so thorough for the first time in our lives, and it might simply take time to learn how to “drive” our new brains. In other words, I suspect we have the executive function to do this now, but we may not know how to use it correctly quite yet.

    Of course we could just try the antidepressants and see if it works, but I am a bit hesitant to take another medication if there is no reason to believe it will address the issue. Neither of us are depressed, but we both want to be able to reel ourselves in a bit easier. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Trudy,

      Good questions — and theories. Especially about learning to “shift gears” after being only a few years on medication (and it sounds like, not optimal medication at that).

      Adderall tends to be the stimulant most associated with “over-focus”. I’m not sure about the wisdom of countering hyperfocus-from-medication with an SSRI. I’m not seeing where that makes sense. Unless there is also anxiety in the mix.

      I wonder if you are getting enough sleep. Sleep deficits can diminish or distort the effects of stimulant medication. Also: Are you also drinking coffee or otherwise consuming caffeine? That can create a synergistic effect with the stimulant, perhaps contributing to over-focus.

      One common phenomenon: Depending on the stimulants to propel one through the day. That leads to too high a dose and over-focus.

      You’ve probably figured this out, but it’s important to have in place supportive strategies for Executive Functions. e.g. daily use of a calendar/planner, a reliable reminder system, an organized workspace, planning your work on paper with tasks broken down and placed on the calendar, etc.

      I just can’t see where the SSRI would make a difference unless the stimulant is pushing you into anxiety.

      Most adults with ADHD will have a second condition, often anxiety or depression. But not all adults will have a second condition.

      If you decide to try, I’d try a VERY low dose.

      I hope this helps.
      g

  5. Hyperfocus is not always a great thing.
    But then, I don’t believe in the whole ADHD is a gift nonsense anyway.

    Usually when it happens I am not medicated. It’s pretty predictable in that way.

    For example, last weekend I stumbled upon that Fascia Blaster product on Facebook.
    So I started watching videos. Next thing you know I am standing in front of the mirror comparing my cellulite to the pictures on the website.
    Did I then impulsively spend $65 on one? You betcha!

    And I was not medicated that day. I woke up late and didn’t want to be awake all night so I didn’t take my medication.

    And you are also correct about shifting focus. If I finally sit down to work and then a half hour later my husband wants to interrupt me to talk, I get very annoyed. My son is the same way.

  6. Hyperfocus, for me. Not all inclusive.

    Constantly trying not to lose my train of thought and a ryhthm that took way to long to just play the first note.

    Getting other things done because you can’t think of, or want to do, anything you need or should be doing at this moment in time.

    It’s the want in your mind that refuses to shut up.

    I can probably list others, and they may or may not resonate. Occasionally it’s a state of mind you wish you had most of the time. But it would usually tire me or anyone out, often rather abruptly, Even so, I may stay up all night and actually get lucky.

    When successful, hyperfocus can result in a eureka how about that, “ I do know what I know. “ The “know” might go off on a walkabout at any given moment. not really hiding, but probably out of focus under your minds microscope or telescope lens being looked through simultaneously.

    It’s a state of mind I rarely get to choose. It usually just happens, is time that may have been better spent doing something else, or it was absolutely required in the moment.
    It might be very important to me, but my mind doubts it’s success, the arguments result, is like flipping a coin and wishing, and waiting for, your mind to just drop the coin and get it over with. “But never give up”, “just try harder to reach your own thoughts and motivations at the same time.”

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