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Hyperfocus in Adult ADHD: Stuck in Gear

August 5, 2010 Douglas Cootey

ADHD hyperfocus makes it nearly impossible to shift gears and adapt to the flow when things change. Can you break out of ADHD's hyperfocus rut with impulsivity?

One aspect of hyperfocus in ADHD that I've not heard mentioned much is the inability to shift gears, or in other words, adapt to the flow when things change. You would think that an adult with ADHD would have spontaneity in the bag, but that golden attribute of ADHD impulsiveness is hampered when ADHD's hyperfocus mode is engaged.

Hyperfocus in ADHD Can Be a Juggernaut

I recall a time I was trying to start a Japanese animation goods import business with a friend. I was putting together our catalog and running into problems with the software. I was stubborn. No computer was going to going to get the best of me.

I can't remember why, but my friend was tired of the struggle and just wanted to leave. Maybe he was paying the hourly computer lab fee. Who knows? It was ages ago. I just remember seeing the situation in my mind as if I was floating above my stubborn body, watching how clueless I was being, yet being powerless to let go of the juggernaut with which my ADHD hyperfocus imprisoned me.

I get a lot of my work done by engaging that juggernaut. In fact, it could be argued that without ADHD hyperfocus, I wouldn't finish most of what I start. However, getting my hyperfocus driven mental machine to shift gears and change direction can be like getting an 18 wheeler to make a u-turn in a narrow alley (I Manage Adult ADHD and Hyperfocusing with Rewards).

ADHD Hyperfocus Makes It Hard to Move On

Take tonight. I had planned something entirely different to write about. I had planned on it for over a week. Trouble was that I needed a piece of the puzzle from somebody who didn't come through for me. I couldn't write the blog without it. There I was at midnight pacing the floors, trying to think of something else to write. Two hours later I was still struggling to let go of the plan and move on with another one.

Some days ADHD can be like this for me. It's not as if I can't truly think of something else to write about. I forgot to buy bread at the grocery store tonight. I lost my wallet and forgot to use the finder doohickey I recently bought. I watched seven episodes of a TV show instead of going to bed the other night. I'm a treasure trove of ADHD mishaps.

But I couldn't let go of that planned topic. It floated around my head like a mosquito. Finally, I dared the stormy skies to rain on me, braved the lightning, and took my bike out for a ride. That act of spontaneity broke me out of the rut. Yay for ADHD impulsivity. Two hours is a bit long for an ADHD hyperfocus rut, but I've had worse. And now I'm free to write about anything I'd like.

If only I could think of something.

Follow me on Twitter for my ADHD escapades at @SplinteredMind or my novel writing project over at @DouglasCootey. And if you're a glutton for punishment you can friend me on Facebook as well.

Photo of stuck truck by Ben Coulson

APA Reference
Cootey, D. (2010, August 5). Hyperfocus in Adult ADHD: Stuck in Gear, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/adultadhd/2010/08/adult-adhd-stuck-in-gear



Author: Douglas Cootey

Gina Pera
says:
August, 20 2010 at 7:27 am
HI Douglas,

To respond to your points....

Douglas wrote:

"Gina, I appreciate your concern, but you seem to assume a lot about me and my personal history without knowing anything about me. ADHD meds put me on disability. It’s a very serious matter."

Actually, if you re-read, I think you'll see I was addressing the subject in general, not your situation specifically. How could I comment on your situation? I don't know you, don't know your experience, etc. That is not my place. I am just offering a Big Picture view.

---------
Douglas wrote:

Since not everybody can afford meds, or wants to take them, or responds well to the meds, I give advice that can be applied to both the medicated and non-medicated."

Yes! And that's very useful. Plus you are an entertaining writer. :-)

There are options for people who cannot afford medications.

As for people who "don't want" to take medication, well, who is forcing them? Surely not me. Nothing I've written supports that.

That said, people who "don't want" to take medication for strictly emotional or oppositional reasons might not be truly aware of their behavior's impact on others (and even themselves). While loved ones might repeatedly forgive or make allowances, over time this can affect their stress levels and perhaps even lead to anxiety, depression, etc. It seems pretty selfish to not even factor this in when making a decision. But the "don't want" category doesn't always make an informed, well-thought-out decision. They might simply react. In opposition.

--------
Douglas wrote:

"People who cannot utilize psych meds as a solution should not be left out in the mental health cold."

I don't think anyone is suggesting that, certainly not me. ;-)

-------------
Douglas wrote:

"I am also an advocate. I believe that the pressure to medicate as the only treatment is harmful to the significant percentage of people who experience harmful effects from psych meds."

Nor "pressure to medicate" being suggested or supported, not by me. Let's just review what I wrote:

"You’re right, Douglas. Not everyone with ADHD needs medication. It’s a personal choice. But when that choice is based on bad experiences with reckless physicians or a tendency to latch onto negative information (a not-uncommon tendency with ADHD), is it really a choice? I don’t think so."

Seems pretty clear to me.

-------
Douglas wrote:

" I advocate cognitive behavior therapy as an alternative and recommend that the subject of medication is one that they should have with a professional. Many CBTs are authorized to prescribe medication. They will be best able to decide if medicating ADHD is the right step to take for the individual."

Just curious: On what basis do you advocate CBT as an alternative?

Are you aware that traditional CBT is NOT recommended for ADHD? That the two studies on CBT for ADHD involve a very specific type of ADHD-focused CBT and that it was done in conjunction with medication?

CBT therapists are typically NOT MDs.

But again, no one is arguing with your point that the medication question is one to be discussed with a medical professional. BUT, not all medical professionals are savvy to ADHD, so there's the rub. Adults with ADHD must often be their own advocate, and that means getting a solid, well-balanced education on treatment strategies.

----
Douglas wrote:

"My voice is an important one to have out there. There are more advocates who believe as you do. Thank you for commenting."

Of course it's important. Did I say it wasn't? Is simply my offering a larger view saying that your voice is not important?

But I don't know what you mean "advocates that believe as I do." Believe what? That people with ADHD should be able to make an informed decision? That's what I believe. It's important, when re-stating another's position, to be responsible with accuracy.

The fact that you try to put me into an all-medication box is problematic. Perhaps you are seeing this in a binary way instead of a necessary gray. Or perhaps you have decided you are anti-medication, for whatever reason, and have built a belief system around this.

I don't have a belief system. I have knowledge of the evidence and a deep understanding that this is a complex issue where no one-size-fits-all answers apply.

Thank you for allowing me to comment. ;-)
Terri Martell
says:
August, 16 2010 at 7:48 am
After 23 years I am still trying to understand what is happening inside my head.
Whatever "IT" is I do understand being stuck, literally.

This may not be related to what the topic is but "stuck" in gears for me started as a trip to Wal-Mart for a few things, including dog and cat food. I was reading the mountain of labels which seem to grow by the hour.
I was able to decide on dog food an hour and a half later, there is only one dog, but then came the cats. The more I read, the more confusing it became, coupled with the price, the sizes, the kinds, the flavors it was impossible to decide on the right food satisfying the needs of all four cats.
I couldn't leave the store without getting what I came for.
Then the anxiety kicked in, I almost turned frantic when I finally called my sister trying not to sound out of my mind as I asked her to get me out of there!

Thank God for my sister!!!!!!!!!

She talked for a few minutes, asking where I was and what was going on. When I explained as briefly as possible instead of hearing how ridicules I was, because I surely felt it she asked if I could see the women’s clothing. She knew the layout of the store and as if she was talking to a small lost child she went on asking if I could see one of the doors yet?

Six hours after I entered the store my sister was verbally leading me out, with nothing to show for it other than when I was finally outside I could BREATHE!!!!!!

We did not speak too much of the incident later other to half heartedly kid about not getting stuck somewhere. I had never gotten that stuck before or after to that extent but I never go to Wal-Mart needing both dog and cat food. It is one at a time for me from now on.

If that isn’t the type of stuck the comments were referring to I apologize.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
says:
September, 6 2010 at 6:47 pm
What a terrible experience! I'm glad you have the support of a loving sister to help you out.

Your experience isn't exactly what I was writing about, but it is related, if a bit more extreme. If you ever find yourself in that situation again, try reminding yourself that the anxiety is just a trick of the mind. Taking deep, slow, cleansing breaths and get your feelings under control. The panic only makes indecision worse, as you know.

I used to have a Panic Anxiety Disorder, but I trained myself to stop panicking. It took effort and a few hard months, but I've reaped the benefits for years afterwards. Good luck and thanks for writing.
Douglas Cootey
says:
August, 11 2010 at 11:31 pm
Gina, I appreciate your concern, but you seem to assume a lot about me and my personal history without knowing anything about me. ADHD meds put me on disability. It's a very serious matter.

Since not everybody can afford meds, or wants to take them, or responds well to the meds, I give advice that can be applied to both the medicated and non-medicated. People who cannot utilize psych meds as a solution should not be left out in the mental health cold. I am also an advocate. I believe that the pressure to medicate as the only treatment is harmful to the significant percentage of people who experience harmful effects from psych meds. I advocate cognitive behavior therapy as an alternative and recommend that the subject of medication is one that they should have with a professional. Many CBTs are authorized to prescribe medication. They will be best able to decide if medicating ADHD is the right step to take for the individual.

My voice is an important one to have out there. There are more advocates who believe as you do. Thank you for commenting.
Gina Pera
says:
August, 11 2010 at 7:31 am
And yes, Douglas, I'm very familiar with people who have no insurance, no money, and no jobs.

It's the dark side of ADHD that has long existed alongside the happy stories of the "Gifts" of ADHD. Wealthy, well-educated people with ADHD are more often diagnosed because they have more resources and access. But poor people (and even once-wealthy people) can have ADHD, too.

It's another reason why I've worked so hard to create honest awareness of these issues for 10 years.
Gina Pera
says:
August, 11 2010 at 7:27 am
You're right, Douglas. Not everyone with ADHD needs medication. It's a personal choice.

But when that choice is based on bad experiences with reckless physicians or a tendency to latch onto negative information (a not-uncommon tendency with ADHD), is it really a choice? I don't think so.

I've been an unpaid advocate in the area of ADHD for 10 years not because I have any ties with Big Pharma (or even any stock). I do it because solid information makes a huge difference in individuals' lives. It is appalling how often people with ADHD get substandard medical care -- and don't even know it.

I see it all the time, up close and personal, in the Adult ADHD Salon that I lead here in Silicon Valley. It's only with the support of the group and the evidence-based knowledge I share that people truly find good treatment for ADHD, whether it's medication or learning strategies to get better sleep, get organized, etc.

It really pays to educate yourself before ever selecting a physician (or a diagnostician), because then you can recognize a whackadoodle when you encounter one.

Dr. Charles Parker has compiled an excellent blog (with video casts, articles, etc.) on the wide-ranging issues associated with brain health, including medications used to treat ADHD as well as complicating factors such as food sensitivities, thyroid function, etc. "Functional" medicine is the way to go now, IMHO, and that of the best treating physicians I know.
bethpage
says:
August, 7 2010 at 6:50 am
I don't know if this bp has ADHD OR NOT , BUT I CAN NEVER SEEM TO FINISH what i start. I often have several projects going the same time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
says:
August, 8 2010 at 4:07 pm
You'll need to make an extra effort to offset this tendency. I try to keep track of the projects I am on and not allow myself to go over a certain number. I'm not always good at it, but making the effort helps me finish more projects than I would otherwise. Good luck!
Gina Pera
says:
August, 6 2010 at 5:38 am
Hi Doug,

Nice ending! ;-)

Yes, that difficulty with transitions is seldom mentioned, and it's a critical piece of understanding ADHD. I made a point to address it several times in my book and I always emphasize it in my talks. The difficulty transitioning (not just out of hyperfocus but in general) literally can feel like a stuck gear. Or like the brain's switching-station is overcome by rust.

The right medication can usually help a great deal with this. The trick is finding the right medication for an individual, at the right dose.

Cheers,
Gina Pera, author
Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
says:
August, 6 2010 at 4:47 pm
Not everybody can use ADHD meds, Gina. Some, like me, are dangerously sensitive to the side-effects. Others see no results at all, or simply can't afford them. We rely on alternative treatments to learn coping skills, such as cognitive behavior therapy.

Thanks for your comments. The more people writing about ADHD, the better.
Janna
says:
August, 5 2010 at 5:00 am
Ah, the "fun" of executive dysfunction. I've written about hyperfocus a couple of times on my own blog, and wrote a long essay about executive dysfunction in general a few years ago.

I realized last night that I'm actually not in hyperfocus mode much at all these days. I have my moments (like Friday, when I started doing the dishes and wound up cleaning the entire kitchen, including mopping the floor), but by and large I'm more distractible than anything else.

I don't know whether it's a lull or what; I just know that right now, I'm struggling to maintain my focus for as long as I would like to.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
says:
August, 8 2010 at 4:11 pm
It's good that you struggle. Giving in just makes us feel dejected.

I think going through cycles is normal. Sometimes just one aspect of ADHD has more prominence for me as well.

It's a really great comment. Thanks for taking time to share it.

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