ADHD and Hyperfocus

ADHD is of course well-known for creating roadblocks involving multi-tasking, sustained attention, and executive functions. But there are other less known signs of the disorder. One of them might even seem contradictory to our usual mental images of ADHD. It’s one of the most interesting symptoms of ADHD, and it’s called hyperfocus.

While hyperfocus is not officially listed among the DSM-5 criteria for ADHD, many clinicians and researchers recognize it as an interesting manifestation of ADHD. Hyperfocus is a little quirky, in part because it seems so different than most other problems usually associated with ADHD.

When hyperfocusing, a person’s concentration becomes laser fixated on a specific event or topic. And it stays there! This type of focus is narrower and more intense than most of us have experienced when we concentrate on something. Dr. Ari Tuckman describes hyperfocus as “unbroken attention,” to that extent that the person becomes almost completely engulfed in the topic, fun event, or activity of interest. We all do this to some extent of course -- losing track of time during a fun event or zoning out from the world when texting -- but the intensity is more ramped up in the hyperfocus experience.

It might seem great to be able to stay so focused on a topic or task for so long! Indeed, we will look at a few ways to use it adaptively in your life. Dr. Tuckman however notes that there is a potential problem. The over-absorption from hyperfocusing creates a loss of energy and time for the other tasks and duties in our lives, and this might lead to other more important or even vital tasks being forgotten about, lost in a sea of unfinished business, and left undone. There are techniques that an ADHD therapist or coach can help you with to efficiently manage hyperfocusing, like using like timers, reminder apps, day planners, and so on. But today we are taking a different look at hyperfocus. We are considering some ways to use hyperfocus to your advantage in your life, and specifically in your relationship.

Relationships and Hyperfocus

In a relationship, hyperfocus may show up early on without even needing an invitation. ADHD specialist Melissa Orlov describes how hyperfocus often emerges in the early dating phase of a relationship that is impacted by ADHD. As a contributor to the book The Distracted Couple, she describes how certain brain chemicals, like the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, ratchet up during feelings of infatuation, leading a person with ADHD to very closely attend to the needs and desires of his/her partner. That feels great for both parties but unfortunately it doesn’t usually last. In other words, if hyperfocus were a theater goer watching an ADHD-impacted relationship on stage, it would have left during the intermission and gone to sleep at home not too far into the second act. The gradual loss of infatuation may lead to a decrease in hyperfocus, according to Orlov, and that is of course just when the relationship waters usually get a little trickier to navigate.

Harnessing Hyperfocus

So we’ve looked at the down sides of hyperfocus. But are there any positives to it? Well, some working with ADHD would say… yes. For instance, there may be ways to draw on the intensity of the hyperfocus experience in ADHD to help a relationship.

New York City based ADHD coach Jennifer Koretsky provides examples in The Distracted Couple from her own life, in which she found an adaptive way to utilize her hyperfocus. She used her hyperfocus to intricately study and evaluate hundreds of donor profiles when she and her partner were looking to have a child through artificial insemination, and again when looking for a lawyer specializing in the specific legal issues related to their adoption process. Both partners were able to recognize when her hyperfocus would be beneficial and when it should be dialed down in this process. Her partner helped her disengage her hyperfocus, to adjust her evaluation criteria, and to use Koretsky’s hyperfocus experience as a tool in their process and in a way that was supportive, accepting, and productive.

If you have hyperfocus as part of your ADHD, how might you and your partner use it positively? Is there a way for you to draw on it to benefit the relationship, and to get your partner’s support for when to rely on it and when to turn it down? What would be the first area in your life that you might apply it to for a positive result?

About the Author

Larry Maucieri, Ph.D

Larry Maucieri, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at Governors State University. He has published on adult ADHD as well as traumatic brain injury and dementia.

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