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Hyperfocus and Beard Hats


How did all of my family and friends end up with beard hats last Christmas? Hyperfocus. Let me explain. Like all people with ADHD, I tend to have trouble regulating my focus. That means that there are times that I want to pay attention (like when I'm trying to follow driving directions or reading Ikea furniture instructions) and I simply can't do it. It may even be extremely important that I pay attention (like when I'm hiking in a state park with my sister and we need to remember which path we took in order to leave before the sun sets), but that's not necessarily going to shift my brain into focus gear. (Thank God for park rangers).


My inability to pay attention to things (and subsequent need to be retrieved from state parks by their employees) is probably what most people picture when they think of ADHD. But there's a quirkier side of attention regulation that some aren't aware of. We can laser focus on activities when our brains have dialed in to them (by the way: finding a task novel, interesting, or urgent makes this more likely to happen).


The problem with this hyperfocus is that we have no real control over when it shows up, how long it shows up, and what it's attached to. The fact that it's suddenly not only easy for me to focus on a task, but difficult for me not to focus on the task isn't always an advantage. It can get in the way of me doing the things that I need to do. That's especially true if I don't recognize that the feeling of urgency that I'm experiencing in the moment doesn't equate to the actual priority of the task. As I've learned more about my brain, I'm better at judging when it's ok for me to "ride out" a hyperfocus wave and when it's better for me to resist the pull (not easy, but it can be done).


Last fall I found myself on a crochet hyperfocus kick. I'm not sure if it was the stress of 2020's political turmoil or the pandemic shutdown that pushed me over the hyperfocus edge, but I crocheted non-stop for 3-4 weeks. I had never crocheted in my life, but it suddenly felt urgent that I learn all of the stitches, make 100 amigurumi animals and beard hats for everyone I knew and loved. I crocheted like it was my job. I forgot to eat or go to the bathroom. I stayed up late and ignored other interests. Two of my daughters caught the bug, and that's when it really got fun.


We had crochet binges that lasted for hours. My daughter's boyfriend was even dragged into the crochet frenzy one night (he's such a good sport and even managed to create something that roughly resembled a squirrel). We crocheted gifts for ALL of their friends for the holidays. My son (who had zero interest in crochet but still felt his friends shouldn't be shafted) commissioned us to make video game characters for his friends.

When 3 out of 6 family members have ADHD, you learn to just roll with things.


I bought yarn of every color, keychain hooks for crochet critters, and found dozens of patterns online. The girls and I finally completed our planned and unplanned projects in time for the holidays and then...I was done. Not done with crochet animals, or hats, or Christmas gifts- I was 100% done with crocheting. It's a year later and I haven't picked it up since.


The beard hat binge of 2020 wasn't my first rodeo. I've cycled through quite a few hyperfocus runs: wire and bead jewelry making, polymer clay creations, candy making, resin art, alcohol ink painting, furniture painting, balloon animal making, wood burning, etc. In the wacky and wonderful world of ADHD, this isn't at all uncommon. There's even a brilliant Facebook group designed specifically for ADHDers who have lost interest in their creative pursuits and want to exchange their materials for other member's abandoned hobby supplies (it's name is Creative Exchange:ADHD Style) .


I used to feel embarrassed about my "interest cycling" and had no idea that it was an ADHD thing. I felt sheepish when something that I wasn't able to contain my excitement about only weeks prior suddenly lost all of its sparkle; when my new favorite thing was suddenly not even one of my things. I doubted myself and felt uneasy if a new interest sparked. Would this new passion stick or would I flake out again?


I've learned quite a bit about my brain since then, so today my perspective is different. I understand some of the factors behind my likelihood to hyperfocus. I know that my brain craves novelty, kicks into high gear with interest, and that I can struggle with attention and emotional regulation. Problems with attention regulation mean that it can be hard for me to turn my focus off once it's zeroed in on something. Difficulties with emotional regulation can cause me to experience positive emotions (such as excitement about a new hobby or idea) to a degree that can feel overwhelming and even too intense.


Knowing my brain and accepting it as it is doesn't mean that I allow myself to follow all of my hyperfocus impulses to their inevitable end. It means that I can take what I know about my brain, my current situation, and my most important priorities and use these to make choices that work for me. I'm not saying that it's always easy to resist the pull of urgency when something draws my interest (and I'm definitely not always successful) but awareness has allowed me to be intentional.


I've also let go of my fear of "being flakey". Sure, I have a trail of short-lived hobbies, but occasionally I cycle back to some of those interests and get to enjoy them a second time. Obviously, there are some hyperfocus interests that are highly unlikely to be resuscitated (I'm never 100% sure of these things, but I struggle to see a future that involves me making balloon animals). These abandoned hobbies may seem like a waste of time to some, but I don't see it that way anymore. They give me joy and keep life interesting- even if only for a season.


 




Picture of my sister and me taken after we were chastised for climbing on the rocks (seriously, who notices a sign this small?) but before we got hopelessly lost and had to be rescued. Hyperfocus would have been useful that day- too bad I don't get access to it on demand.



 






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