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E9. ADHD is Poorly Named: The Truth About Attention Regulation and Hyperfocus

Welcome to ADHD Crash Course! Today we're going to talk about an interesting ADHD subject: hyper focus. A lot of you already know that ADHD is a disorder of regulating attention more than just a universal lack of attention.

So, what does that mean? It means people with ADHD can pay attention quite well, in fact, exceptionally well, when it's something that their brain has dialed into. And when we talk about hyper focus, we're talking about that dialed-in attention to an extreme. Not only can I pay attention to this thing really well, but I struggle to shift my attention to something else. Some people with ADHD even think of this as a superpower, because when their attention is dialed into something, they're almost unstoppable.

It certainly can be a big advantage to be able to have this hyper focused attention when you can leverage that to get the things done that you need or want to do. But the thing about difficulties with regulation means that you don't get to choose what you focus on, how long you focus, and when this shows up.

How Hyperfocus Can Cause Confusion

This can be really confusing, especially for people who are in an ADHDer's life, because somebody can go from this exceptional attention, this exceptional focus, this exceptional productivity or attention to detail when it comes to one subject, but not be able to generalize that. It's not a pattern that they can turn on and off, which also means they might hyper focus on something and then get sick of it and be done with it.

But if you don't know that about the ADHD brain, it can look like someone's deciding to focus on one thing and not the other, so this can be a blessing and a curse. It can be a positive thing in people's lives with ADHD, or it can be something that people are frustrated by or even embarrassed of.

The (Potentially) Fun Side of Hyperfocus

Let's take hyperfocus when it applies to a new hobby. It's not uncommon at all for people with ADHD to go through a really intense honeymoon phase with a new interest. They are hyper focused on it, investing tons of time, doing lots of research, buying the best supplies, buying tons of supplies, they are all in... until they're not.

And, you know, in my case, I've found this to not be a horribly difficult thing or an embarrassing thing. Although I've actually enjoyed a ton of my hyperfocus interests, there's also a little bit of erosion of self-trust, because it's not predictable. Your interest is not predictable, the intensity is not predictable, and the inevitable loss of interest is not predictable, nor controllable.

I'm not saying you can't control your actions. You choose whether or not you're going to act on an intense interest, but the intensity is wholly out of your control. Some of us find ourselves feeling a little bit silly when something that was our main interest, this all-consuming interest, isn't even one of our interests a month or two months or three months later.

I don't even remember this incident, but my friend Michelle told me that when I started playing tennis (I loved it so much) and I kept saying to her, "I think this is my thing. I think I'm going to stick with this".

And she thought it was so funny, because why wouldn't I stick with it? But I had such a history of starts and stops, of that kind of excitement and then burning myself out or feeling burnt out on something. So, there was this cautiousness, "I like this a lot. But I'm not promising anything!".

I'm in a different place now. I understand a lot about my brain, I kind of embrace it for what it is, and I know that I might have a super intense interest in something that is just not going to be sustained. I might do something nonstop and be so excited about it and so focused on it and then be done with it... for life (or cycle back to it in a year).

But I've learned to just ride it out. I tend to have a lot of hyper focus energy around creative things, art things, and in general, it's not been super disruptive for me. It gets kind of weird, but that's okay- you've got to embrace your weird stuff.

When I was starting my business and I created my website, I had a little blip in there about hyperfocus; it's a picture of me wearing a crochet beard hat. It's still up, it's still on my website. And I had a caption under it about attention regulation and what that was and had a personal reference: "Hey, if you've ever hyper focused on learning how to crochet so you could make beard hats for three solid weeks and then never crocheted again, I might be the coach that gets you".

I wasn't sure if this was a little too quirky of a thing to put on my website and I received really mixed feedback about it. The professional feedback I had was it that was kind of weird, and it didn't look super professional, and my family and friends thought it was hysterical because they had all received crocheted beard hats for Christmas.

It was something that was just funny and true and authentic and very much ADHD. So, at the end of the day I decided, "Yeah, it is weird, a little quirky, but these are my people and they'll get it." Because what I think that we don't need (really as human beings, but definitely as human beings with different brains) is one more polished image of this "ideal" that we're really never going to reach... no one's going to reach it.

The Downside of Hyperfocus

So far I've talked about hyper focus as it relates to interest and hobbies, kind of the "fun side" of hyper focus, but there are some ways that hyper focus shows up for us that causes more confusion and that might have a bigger impact in our lives than just hobbies and interests.

It can mask our abilities

The first one is that hyper focus can mask what our abilities are, mask what is inherently challenging for us, because we have the advantage of this laser focus.

And that doesn't seem like it's a bad thing, right? But,remember that hyper focus is not something you can turn on and turn off, so that momentary advantage can prevent people from getting diagnosed and getting the support that they need in all the areas of their life.

When you look at academic performance, a lot of times people will say "You were a great student, you couldn't have ADHD", even doctors. I have clients that have had doctors tell them, "Well, you did very well in school. So, it couldn't have been ADHD because it didn't show up when you were younger". What I've seen for myself and for my two daughters who have ADHD, is that all of us were really able to hyper focus on academics when we had to.

For me, I was a very average (sometimes even not-so-average) student. Throughout middle school and throughout high school, I found it kind of boring and I wasn't that engaged. Once I realized that what I wanted to do was therapy, though, I became very hyper focused on my academics.

I was able to do pretty well. Now this was not an enjoyable, fun hyperfocus like a lot of my art jags. This was more of a fear-based hyper focus. I had this end goal in mind, but I really had no idea if I had what it took to achieve it.

I had no idea how to study and I had to "tooth and nail it" through that and I did that through a lot of hyperfocus. I've worked with a lot of women who have similar stories. Some of them are very successful in their careers and are able to hyperfocus to close the gaps.

People look at them from the outside and think "Of course, she doesn't have ADHD, she's a surgeon or she's a professor or an engineer", but what people don't see and what's hard to understand is that although hyperfocus might be closing the gap in this one area, in the other areas in their lives, they might be completely overwhelmed or even struggling to function.

It can strain relationships

Another area that hyper focus can cause confusion in, is in the area of relationships. A lot of times with romantic relationships, especially at the beginning of a relationship, people (in general) tend to hyper focus; people with typical brains, people with ADHD, this is normal.

But with ADHD, it can be really intense, because that intensity of that attention. So, take that regular honeymoon phase and crank it up for a lot of people with ADHD. The transitioning out of that can feel really dramatic for a partner, because here they've gone from being someone's main focus/ hyper focus, and then there's this huge change. It's hard for a partner to not take that personally and feel like something fundamental has changed.

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to hyperfocus.

You can see that hyper focus has a tendency to benefit some of us at different times and it also can be disruptive at other times. For me, I think the more that I know and understand about my brain, the easier it is to manage life with my brain.

There are absolutely times that I indulge in a hyperfocus jag and all kinds of things will slide because I don't want to shift my attention. As long as I'm doing that as a choice and not a reaction, I don't have a problem with it.

There's definitely fallout, consequences. Maybe everybody's eating cereal for dinner, or I don't sleep that night and feel kind of junky the next day. But if that's my decision, I'm okay. For me that often is the heart of managing ADHD: it's accepting and embracing your quirky brain and just becoming aware of how ADHD shows up so you get more choices.

You're not just responding, you're not just reacting. You get to move forward with intention and decide what's important to you. And maybe that's making a bunch of beard hats.


Interested in learning more about my group coaching program, Embrace Your Brain? Considering 1:1 coaching or have other questions for me? Please feel free to contact me here.

Learn how to use sensory input to change your energy and focus! Register for my FREE Sensory Strategies for ADHD workshop here.


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