Mary was in the zone. She'd been online all day and didn't realize her house had caught on fire until the fireman said she needed to get off the computer and leave.
Unclench. Mary is just an urban legend—a case example of how people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder can hyperfocus on a task for hours, losing all awareness of their surroundings. Hers is a story that people in the ADHD community tell themselves so we will feel less alone.
"We all hate the name ADHD," says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, cofounder of Atlanta consultancy group ImpactADHD. Because the word "deficit" is in the name, many incorrectly assume having ADHD means you can't pay attention. Instead, ADHDers often pay more attention to certain tasks than we should. It's called hyperfocus.
Kimberly Gordon, a psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, explains the symptom as "an intense, deep concentration on a specific task." Like our mythological Mary, Gordon says, "When individuals with ADHD hyperfocus on one thing, they tend to block out everything else going on around them. The brain sends off signals of activity, pleasure, and engagement as they are immersed in a task while hyperfocused."
A little background: ADHD stems from an underproduction of two neurotransmitters in the brain—dopamine and norepinephrine. If neurotransmitters are the grease that turn the brain's gears, dopamine and norepinephrine are ones that are linked to your ability to focus. Stimulation activates the prefrontal cortex, triggering dopamine and making it easier to stay on task. In order to get the neurotransmitters we need, people with ADHD latch onto the tasks that stimulate us, like playing a favorite game or reading about a topic we enjoy. We can then enter a zone where we're lost to everything around us, surrendered to a single task.
"I see hyperfocus as a gift when applied well," Taylor-Klaus says. "Think surgeons, ER doctors, actors. My daughter [who has ADHD] is an amazingly talented actor, and I think it's because she can tune out the rest of the world and be completely present in the moment. It's amazing to witness."
"When managed, being able to hyperfocus…is a strength that in many cases can lead to real life benefits, such as a successful career in the arts, computer programming, piloting, engineering, conducting surgery—the options are endless, when it is managed under the supervision of a treatment plan," Gordon adds.
That plan is key. Untreated, ADHD wrecks havoc on your life. Most likely, there is no Mary, no woman unable to flee her burning home because of it. But teenagers with the disorder are 36 percent more likely to have a car accident. Adults are two to four times more likely to get fired and both age groups are prone to drug and alcohol addiction. The divorce rate for ADHD couples is nearly double that of other marriages. And 42 to 53 percent of families below the poverty line have at least one family member with ADHD—compared to 33 percent of wealthier households.
"ADHD is a medical condition and can lead to poor outcomes if untreated," Gordon says, "but [despite the negatives] no one should get the message that something is wrong with them or be reluctant to seek out treatment." Instead, become aware of your symptoms, seek a diagnosis, and develop a physician-led care plan. "Awareness is a key element in ADHD management," Taylor-Klaus adds. "You can't recognize hyperfocus and redirect it if you don't realize that it's a thing in the first place."
So how do you tell hyperfocus from healthy focus? Look for regularity. Non-ADHDers are able to pay attention on a consistent basis. "Hyperfocus, on the other hand, involves over-concentrating on one task to the neglect of others, expending more energy than is needed for a productive result," Gordon explains. "People with ADHD cannot always choose what they hyperfocus on." There are days I forget to eat because I'm so zoned in on what I'm writing. Not, oops I skipped lunch—I'm talking all day. I'll tell myself I'm going to stop to eat at 11 am, then next thing I know it's getting dark outside.
The difference is very much the intentionality Gordon addresses. People without ADHD who simply get wrapped up in a project make the decision to power through. We don't. And there are usually ramifications because of it. In my early 20s, I would pass out in public after not eating. No one intends to do that, no matter how much of a workaholic they are.
"When we're motivated—by interest or novelty, for example," Taylor-Klaus says, "we can regulate attention quite well; but when it's boring or irrelevant…well, that's a different story."
Reflecting on that flip side of hyperfocus, Gordon points out that lack of attention from ADHDers doesn't necessarily mean lack of effort." Adults with ADHD are accustomed to negative criticism, such as 'You are just not motivated enough,' 'I know you are smart…work harder,' [and] 'You can't just do what you enjoy all the time.'" Every single one of these comments is a phrase I heard growing up. And every time I heard them, I was already trying—my best just wasn't enough.
"The truth is that children and adults are not always allowed to reach their full potential or learn ways to adapt to how their brain works," she adds, "because society argues that there is only one way to get something done. Parents with children with ADHD must be creative and realistic."
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