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Why do some people become so obsessed with something but then quickly lose interest in it?
It’s like flipping a light switch on and off. One minute you’re so into it that it almost takes over your life. The next, it’s like it never existed.
This mental health issue is called hyperfixation, though it may also be known as hyperfocus. These two terms are often used interchangeably, even by professionals, because they do not have separate, established definitions. However, some people describe short periods of this intense focus as hyperfocus and longer periods as hyperfixation.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you get to the bottom of your intense but short-lived obsessions with things. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
What is hyperfixation?
Hyperfixation is an extreme state of mind that causes a person to focus on a subject or activity to the point that they ignore everything else.
An example is a person who becomes so engrossed in their activity that they may completely lose track of time or what is happening around them. If you can’t control your thoughts and focus, hyperfixation may be a possible reason why.
Indicators may include:
– A lack of awareness of the surrounding area or circumstances unrelated to the activity.
– An intense state of focus and concentration on the subject.
– The person often focuses on things they find pleasurable.
– Their performance with the task typically improves.
Hyperfixation is often thought to be a symptom of mental illness, but that isn’t always the case. Nearly everyone will experience hyperfixation. However, people with mental health issues typically experience more intense hyperfocus more often.
It may indicate ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia. However, it is not always a direct symptom. Some people develop hyperfocus to self-regulate harmful or distressing emotions.
For example, depression will not typically cause hyperfocus, but a hyperfocused person may be depressed. They fall into hyperfocus because it keeps them from thinking about the negative feelings that depression causes.
On the other hand, defining characteristics of ADHD are distractibility and a short attention span. Still, the person with ADHD may also experience hyperfixation.
Hyperfocus is also closely related to the ‘flow state.’ A flow state is when a person ‘finds themselves in the groove’ of their activity. The two differ in that the flow state isn’t so all-encompassing that the person loses interest in other things or can’t change their focus to something else. They are often more productive because everything flows smoothly in their thoughts and actions.
Is hyperfixation a negative trait?
Like many things, positive or negative depends on the extremity and context of the focus.
It is often negative because the hyperfocused person may neglect important responsibilities or self-care. Some people may forget to eat, engage in self-care or grooming, and suffer from insomnia as they spend hours thinking about the thing they have become obsessed with. Relationships and friendships may suffer because the hyperfocused individual is pouring all their attention and energy into their focus to the exclusion of all else.
Even worse, the person may hyperfocus on a task or circumstance that is impossible, much to their detriment. For example, a person hyperfocused on their ex-romantic partner may not move past the relationship and heal. Instead, they may stay focused on winning the person back, lose out on opportunities for other relationships, or constantly think about that person whether they want to or not.
Hyperfixation may be positive if the person can still devote time and energy to other aspects of life. The source of the fixation matters, too. A person who is hyperfocused on something unproductive will waste hours and hours of their time. It’s better to be hyperfocused on schoolwork than on a video game.
Problems that a person experiencing hyperfixation may experience include:
Insomnia. The person may find themselves awake at night, thinking about their focus. Associated mental health problems may also drive insomnia and restlessness. Depression and ADHD often feature insomnia.
Dependency on the focus. The person may be unable to form a meaningful interest in other things. Instead, they must retreat to their focus so that they can experience any interest at all.
Problems socializing. Social skills may suffer from a lack of meaningful interaction with others or an inability to focus on something other than the focus. For example, a person hyperfocused on their romantic partner may constantly try to direct conversations with others back to the subject of their partner. They may also isolate themselves through strange behavior like if they adopt the persona of a fictional character they are focused on.
Boredom. The person may have difficulty finding any interest or satisfaction in other things. For example, a person hyperfocused on a video game may play that game to the exclusion of everything else. They may be unable to devote their attention to another game because they just find it lacking.
What are some common subjects of hyperfixation?
Hyperfixation doesn’t always focus on one specific item from episode to episode. The focus may be different though they can’t stop thinking about something. Though hyperfocus may be on something productive like housework or work, one may fixate on some common negative focuses. Some examples include:
Television Shows, Video Games, and Other Media
Media, such as a television show or music, is a common target of hyperfixation. This kind of hyperfixation may go on for years.
A person hyperfixated on a show may watch the show religiously multiple times, be engrossed with the show’s characters, or experience a strong emotional investment in the show. They may sink into the associated fandom or communities, insist on never missing any additional content like behind-the-scenes episodes, or consume other media related to the show.
Video games may also be another source of hyperfocus. Certain kinds of video games lend themselves to extremely deep rabbit holes that can be all-consuming. For example, massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are notorious for addiction and hyperfocus because they are designed as a treadmill to keep people engaged and logging on. Furthermore, they offer such depth that one can easily fool themselves into believing they are doing something productive with their time by investing so heavily into them.
In an MMORPG, there is theorycrafting on how best to play your character, what skills to use and when, learning strategies, farming materials to create items and gear, spreadsheets, and mathematical analysis on what constitutes best and worst.
Just to put into perspective how severe this can get, members of the community of Everquest would refer to it as “Evercrack” because of its addictive nature, likening it to crack cocaine. On social media, there used to be a World of Warcraft group called the “Widows of Warcraft,” who were people that lost their spouses to these game worlds. People addicted to or hyperfocused on these games could fall into them for days, neglecting themselves, their responsibilities, and even their children to the point that the children were removed from the home by protective services.
One South Korean man named Lee Seung Seop actually died due to dehydration and exhaustion because of his gaming addiction and hyperfixation on Starcraft.
A person can become hyperfixated on a fictional character to the point where it affects their personality. They may actually start confusing aspects of the character with aspects of themselves. They may talk or think from the character’s perspective, often imagining what that character would do in a situation they find themselves in.
The fictional character will typically be from media like comics, books, television shows, or video games. The hyperfixated person will develop a strong passion for the character that may interfere with their relationships, self-care, and regular lives. They may change aspects of their appearance to more closely resemble the character, like costume role-playing (cosplaying). Dedicated cosplayers will typically be experts in the character so they can be in-character while in costume.
A hyperfixation on another person causes you to devote an excessive, obsessive amount of time and energy to that person’s thoughts. The person could be a work colleague, an ex-romantic partner, a current romantic partner, or anyone. The key factor is that this focused person gets stuck in their mind whether they want it or not.
The hyperfocused person will likely find their focus distracting. Typically, they want to get the person out of their head so they can focus on more productive things, but they can’t.
Food is a common hyperfixation for people with ADHD. They may focus on foods they find particularly appealing or interesting to the exclusion of other foods. They may only eat their fixated food for long stretches at a time. In some cases, they may only want to eat that specific food in a specific way because it feels wrong to do otherwise.
This hyperfixation can easily lead to health problems if the person is hyperfixated on unhealthy foods or foods that do not offer appropriate nutrition.
Thoughts and Feelings
A person who hyperfocuses on thoughts and feelings typically spends much more time thinking than doing. They may regularly cycle those thoughts over and over, picking them apart, examining, re-examining, and thinking about them from different angles. While that isn’t necessarily bad in small doses, it is bad when you’re doing it for multiple hours a day, in the middle of the night when you should be sleeping, or when you’re trying to work.
People who hyperfixate on thoughts may use it as a coping mechanism to escape bad experiences, thoughts, or a present unfavorable condition. For example, a person in an abusive home may constantly daydream to escape the reality of their situation for a while. Then, they keep returning to those daydreams as often as possible because it’s preferable to dealing with the chaos or pain of their current situation.
How do I deal with hyperfixation?
There are ways to self-manage hyperfixation to an extent. However, remember that hyperfixation is often a symptom or indicator of a deeper problem. Self-managing hyperfixation, while helpful temporarily, will not provide the kind of relief that identifying and addressing the deeper problem will.
How can you self-manage hyperfixation?
1. Identify the subject of your hyperfixation.
The first step is to figure out what you are hyperfixating on. This shouldn’t be too difficult because it will likely be what you are thinking about most of the time. However, you may also consider thoughts you don’t want. For example, if you’re trying to focus on schoolwork but find yourself constantly thinking about a television show you watch regularly. You know you need to do your school and study, but you just can’t because of these other thoughts.
2. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a common buzzword in the self-help space that can have a lot of confusion around it. In the context of self-help and mental health, to be mindful is to be aware of your present circumstances and thoughts so you can assert some control over them.
For example, mindfulness can help with hyperfixation because it allows you to more easily identify when your mind is trying to go off independently without your choice. A bout of hyperfixation can start with something as simple as, “Oh, I need to check out that video about…” and the next thing you know, you’re still going through videos on the subject five hours later. Mindfulness and being in the present with your thoughts can help you identify those behaviors before they gain momentum.
3. Schedule time for your focus.
Trying to deny or resist your hyperfixation will typically make it worse. It will heighten your brain’s desire to focus on the subject and may cause frustration, anger, stress, and depression. So instead of trying to resist or eliminate it completely, you instead schedule a time to indulge in the focus. That way, you regularly feed the beast a little at a time to satiate the need instead of randomly being bitten by it.
4. Get organized.
Take some time to sit down and figure out your responsibilities. Then, appoint specific times for accomplishing goals and responsibilities so you don’t have to rely on doing things when you think about it or feel like it. You may find that scheduling will help impose greater structure into your life that will help positively channel your thoughts and actions.
5. Seek professional help.
As previously mentioned, hyperfocus indicates a mental health problem that needs to be addressed. Both adults and children may experience hyperfocus. In both cases, it is incredibly disruptive to one’s ability to conduct their life, whether it’s a child doing their homework or an adult trying to move on past a relationship.
Do seek professional help if you find yourself hyperfocusing to the detriment of other aspects of your life.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.