Is It Hyperfixation or Just a New Obsession?
Obsessions come and go, but a hyperfixation is long-lasting and affects daily life, often causing people to tune out the world around them and ignore day-to-day tasks.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
October 12, 2023
Table of Contents
What is hyperfixation?
Hyperfixation is a complete obsession with or absorption into a particular task. The task can be a hobby, a TV show, a subject of interest, or something else. People who hyperfixate may tune out the world around them and ignore important responsibilities. To better understand hyperfixation, let’s consider the following example:
Tony is a 14-year-old who learns about computer building on YouTube and is quickly absorbed by the hobby. They constantly watch videos on assembling and disassembling computers, trade computer parts online, and discuss the topic constantly. Tony begins to forget chores, like taking the family dog for walks, and skips family dinner to focus on computer building. Tony’s parents want to encourage this passion but are unsure how to break them out of this spell.
What are the characteristics of hyperfixation?
Here are some examples of what hyperfixation may look like. Think about if any of these symptoms apply to you.
- Forgetting to take breaks even for necessary tasks like using the restroom, showering, or eating.
- Losing track of time to the point where you begin a task and then suddenly realize hours have passed.
- Not responding to others who are trying to communicate with you or get your attention.
- Being unaware of the world around you and “tuning out” things like people talking, the weather, and the time.
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Is hyperfixation different from hyperfocus?
In short, yes. Some online sources may use hyperfixation and hyperfocus interchangeably, largely because a person who exhibits one trait may also have the other. However, recent research is differentiating between the two phenomena. A 2022 paper defines hyperfixation as “an intense, repetitive attachment to some form of hobby or content.” In contrast, hyperfocus is a “short, intense focus on a single or set of tasks,” according to the paper.
According to this definition, the two differentiating factors between hyperfixation and hyperfocus are the length of time and subject matter. Hyperfixation is long-lasting and focused on a subject, like dinosaurs, whereas hyperfocus tends to be short-lived and focused on a specific task, like grocery shopping.
Hyperfixation and neurodivergence
Hyperfixation (and hyperfocus) are traits commonly seen in neurodivergent people, defined as those who process information differently than neurotypical individuals. People with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, anxiety, depression, and other conditions may fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence.
Below, are some examples of how hyperfixation can manifest in specific types of neurodivergent people. However, it’s important to keep in mind that every person thinks differently. Some neurodivergent people may not experience hyperfixation, while some neurotypical people may.
Hyperfixation and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Research shows that people with ADHD are more likely to experience hyperfixation as compared to those without this condition (hyperfocus is also more common among people with ADHD). Due to ADHD’s impact on people’s attention systems, people with ADHD can become deeply engrossed in certain topics while easily forgetting about others. Experts believe this dysregulation is caused by low levels of dopamine in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive function. A deficiency in dopamine makes it hard for people with ADHD to refocus away from an exciting task to a boring task. Eventually, when coming out of a period of ADHD hyperfixation, individuals with ADHD may feel disoriented and may take some time to readjust to the world around them.
Special interests and autism spectrum disorder
The term “special interests” is used to describe a type of hyperfixation seen in people with ASD. This intense focus on specific topics is similar to how hyperfixation manifests in people with ADHD. More research is needed to fully understand what happens in the brain of a person with ASD when focusing on a special interest.
Hyperfixation and anxiety
People with an anxiety disorder (who may be considered neurodivergent by some) may also hyperfixate on certain subjects. Instead of the subjects being hobbies, though, the topic of fixation is usually a fear or worry, typical fixations for people with an anxiety disorder. This could include a fear of contamination, illness, the future, and more.
Is hyperfixation bad?
There’s no moral weight applied to hyperfixation (or hyperfocus for that matter). Neither behavior is strictly “good” or “bad.” Rather, both hyperfixation and hyperfocus can have positive and negative consequences.
For instance, on the positive side, hyperfocus may prompt someone to clean their room in a matter of hours, and hyperfixation could result in someone mastering a new skill quickly. However, both hyperfixation and hyperfocus can become problematic when daily tasks and responsibilities—including but not limited to taking care of oneself, work or school, and social interactions—are ignored.
How can I manage my hyperfixation and focus in a healthier way?
If hyperfixation keeps you from living a healthy and balanced life, here are some recommendations for focusing in a healthier way. While reading the following suggestions, keep in mind that learning to focus in a healthier way doesn’t mean forgoing your interests. Having passions and hobbies is important. These suggestions aim to help you incorporate your passions and hobbies into a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Make personal goals
Setting specific and achievable goals can keep you accountable in managing your hyperfixations. Your goals can also serve as a helpful boundary—you can set aside a certain amount of time to focus on tasks that need to be completed and let yourself explore your hyperfixation hobbies during other moments. For instance, a goal may be to only spend a certain amount of time on a hobby before bed to ensure you get enough sleep during the week. Also, you could involve other people in your goals as an accountability measure. For instance, you could sign up for a class with a friend in an attempt to diversify your interests.
It can be easy to lose track of time and immerse yourself in a hobby at home, especially if you consider yourself an introvert. Spending time with friends or family outside of the home, even once or twice a week, can help you re-engage with relationships around you.
Focus on physical and mental health
Carve out time to take care of your physical and mental health. Set aside some time (even 15 minutes daily) to practice mindfulness, go on a short walk, or journal. Taking care of your physical and mental health can help you maintain better focus.
Enlist the help of family and friends
If you are working toward a specific goal, ask family or friends to help you achieve it. The goal can be big or small—maybe you ask a roommate to keep you accountable for chores around the house or have a parent ensure your homework assignment is complete.
Seek support from a mental health professional
You don’t have to manage hyperfixations by yourself. One way to better understand how your brain processes information is by working with a licensed mental health clinician. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can assist you in understanding how your thoughts, actions, and emotions are connected. Working with a mental health professional can help you manage symptoms of hyperfixation and work on daily skills. Also, for some people, hyperfixation is associated with a co-occurring mental health condition like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For these people, seeking therapy (and psychiatry as needed) can help you manage hyperfixations and co-occurring conditions.
Get support for hyperfixation and hyperfocus at Charlie Health
If hyperfixation or hyperfocus are getting in the way of your daily life, Charlie Health is here to help.
Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, individual therapy, and family therapy for young people with complex mental health challenges—including those dealing with hyperfixation. Our specialized mental health providers specialize in therapies that can help address hyperfixation, including cognitive behavioral therapy, and offer personalized tracks for neurodivergent clients.