Hyperfixation, also referred to as hyperfocus, is commonly connected with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism, and depression. But how exactly is hyperfixation related to these issues — and is it always a problem? If your teen is hyperfocusing, it’s important to understand what’s happening and why so you can help them if needed.
To explore this topic, we spoke to Lauren Disner, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the south campus of New Haven, a residential treatment center in Utah.
Table of contents
- What Is Hyperfixation?
- Symptoms of Hyperfixation
- Types of Hyperfixation
- What Causes Hyperfixation?
- How To Stop Hyperfixation
- Hyperfixation: Putting It All Together
What Is Hyperfixation?
So just what is hyperfixation? Hyperfixation occurs when your teen becomes so fully engaged in something that they can’t think of anything else until they finish what they’re doing, or someone pulls them away from it. People most commonly hyperfocus on people, places, food, TV shows, hobbies, or even their own thoughts.
Sometimes compared to being “in the zone” or “in a flow state,” hyperfixation can lead your teen to become so engrossed in an activity that it limits their ability to perceive life outside of what they’re doing. They may reach a point where they can no longer function in day-to-day activities. In that case, hyperfocus is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“For example, if I’m a baker who focuses intently on baking during work hours, that kind of hyperfixation is not an issue,” Disner said. “But if I’m hyperfixating on baking when I’m not at work to the point where I’m not engaging with my family, that’s a problem.”
Symptoms of Hyperfixation
There are multiple symptoms of hyperfixation. The most common ones, the majority of which indicate hyperfocusing is negatively affecting a teen’s life, include:
- Neglecting self-care.
- Not paying attention to loved ones.
- Limited ability to engage with others.
- Full engrossment in entertainment activities like gaming.
- Difficulty breaking attention.
- Lack of social awareness.
- Struggle to communicate about topics outside of the hyperfixation.
Types of Hyperfixation
Teens may experience several types of hyperfixation based on their thoughts, personality, history, and other factors.
Hyperfixation on a person
When a teen hyperfixates on a person, it’s typically because they feel a strong emotion toward that individual. Since this focus can either be positive or negative, it needs to be managed to ensure healthy relationships are formed and maintained.
Hyperfixation on food
A hyperfixation on food could involve overly focusing on a specific meal or a single item, such as a piece of fruit. This may have long-standing health consequences if the food is not nutritious or there is not enough variety in what a teen is eating.
Hyperfixation on shows
Many teens enjoy watching TV as a way to escape, but hyperfixating on shows that distract them from day-to-day life is when this behavior becomes an issue.
Hyperfixation on hobbies
It’s good for teens to have hobbies they can enjoy during their free time, as long as they don’t develop an unhealthy hyperfocus that pulls them away from everyday tasks.
Hyperfixation on thoughts
If a teenager gets hyperfixated on a train of thought, it can distract them from schoolwork, their home life, and other responsibilities.
What Causes Hyperfixation?
There’s no clear-cut reason why teens become hyperfocused on something, so it’s hard to identify the causes of hyperfixation. It differs depending on the person.
In some cases, it affects people who have visual hyposensitivity (i.e., they underreact to what they see), auditory hypersensitivity (i.e, they’re overly sensitive to noise), anxiety, vision issues, an inability to shift focus, or difficulty planning.
That said, there are some conditions that may cause your teen to be more likely to hyperfixate on something.
Adults, teenagers, or children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder understand what hyperfocusing on something feels like, as ADHD and hyperfixation can be connected. People who have the disorder are often prone to hyperfocusing on activities like video games, TV shows, home projects, and books, for example.
In a recent interview, ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D., said, “Children and adults with ADHD have difficulty shifting attention from one thing to another. If they’re doing something they enjoy or find psychologically rewarding, they’ll tend to persist in this behavior after others would normally move on to other things.”
As is the case with ADHD, hyperfixation and autism can be connected. For example, Disner has worked with some autistic people who’ve become attached to other people because they feel there’s something missing in their lives.
“For some people with autism spectrum disorder,” Disner said, “when there is an acknowledgment that another person is interested in them and wants a relationship with them, they can become hyperfixated on that person or that relationship in general.”
For teens with depression, hyperfocus can be a coping mechanism. Someone with depression and hyperfixation may hyperfocus on something that pulls their attention away from the despair or pain they’re experiencing in their everyday life.
When it comes to hyperfixation and anxiety, the reasoning is similar to that of depression. Turning their attention away from their concerns is a way for teens to forget what they’re feeling anxious about. It’s a temporary fix that gives them a break from their worries and fears.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder includes unwanted thoughts or fears that could relate to a variety of areas such as germs, harm, order, superstitions, and losing loved ones. With hyperfixation and OCD, teens may hyperfocus to tune out the chaos and block these thoughts from overwhelming their minds.
How To Stop Hyperfixation
There’s no single perfect way to treat hyperfocusing when it becomes a problem. The approach for how to stop hyperfixation differs depending on the issues a teen is facing.
For example, Disner noted she would not treat hyperfocus the same way in someone with OCD as she would someone with autism or ADHD. If someone has OCD, she would talk about their hyperfixation as an external problem because it isn’t specifically about their brain function. Rather, it’s a behavior meant to be a distraction from the OCD symptoms.
“On the other hand,” Disner said, “if you have autism spectrum disorder, have ADHD, or are neurodivergent, we’d say, ‘Let’s understand how your brain works and how you can channel your energy so that you have an opportunity to spend time on things you enjoy and that don’t take over your life.’”
Disner said whatever mental illness or disorder a client is dealing with, she helps them understand when hyperfixation is affecting their relationships and ability to function. She also helps them get their needs met so they’re not “stuck” in hyperfocusing.
Disner shared how she assisted one young person who had a hyperfixation on chess.
“When we were able to pick apart the pieces of playing chess and identify what was engaging about it, we found other activities that have those aspects in them,” she said. “Rock climbing, for example, required the same type of strategy and forward thinking. You need to think ahead six or seven steps to accomplish a goal. Another example is doing research — being really detailed and trying to think about what you’re looking up in a strategic way. Those kinds of activities were similar to chess and could be equally as intriguing to this individual.”
Here are a few ideas for how to stop hyperfixation if it’s become a problem for your teen:
Set time limits on activities like gaming or social media
Because time is an abstract concept, Disner recommended using visual cues like clocks or analog timers. This allows your teen to recognize when their time is up on a specific activity so they can move on to another one.
Help your teen stick to an organized schedule
Following a routine is one of the most effective ways to help your teen avoid hyperfixation. To stay on track and move from task to task, they can’t get stuck on one activity for too long.
Set limits on activities near bedtime
As Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., a psychologist and sleep expert, shared in a recent article, experts recommend teens stop using electronic devices at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed. In fact, he said, screen time within two hours of bedtime has been linked to inadequate sleep duration, poor quality sleep, and excessive sleepiness the following day.
While it can be difficult to maintain boundaries like this because everyone is tired before bedtime, the more you can do so, the better it will be for your teen in the long term.
Practice mindfulness and meditation
Meditation and mindfulness can help your teen shift their focus away from their hyperfixation. With these practices, they’ll learn how to clear their minds, be more aware of physical sensations such as their breathing or how their body feels, and be more present more with the world around them.
Reach out to a professional
A professional therapist like Disner can help your teen with ideas for how to stop hyperfixation. Therapists follow expert practices that lead to positive changes.
Hyperfixation: Putting It All Together
While hyperfixation can become a problem for teens, Disner said it’s OK to be super focused at times.
“It can be enjoyable and acceptable to hyperfocus on a preferred activity for limited amounts of time,” she said. “Parents don’t have to assume that hyperfixation is bad and end up in a power struggle about whether their teen is allowed to engage in it. However, if it does become a problem that negatively affects day-to-day living, that’s when parents should work with their teen and a therapist, if necessary, to cut back on the behavior.”
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!