After the Thrill: Avoiding a Hyperfocus Hangover

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The Crash After ADHD Hyperfocus

Until recently, my life’s focus was on helping my learning-disabled daughter graduate from high school. I’ve spent years working on that goal. From medical to social to scholastic, my daughter’s needs overtook my own complicated life. There were so many meetings, so many doctor visits, so many trips to the ER, and so much paperwork. To make things more complicated, I had to homeschool her via FaceTime while she was social distancing with her mother across town. Helping her graduate high school during a pandemic took great focus.

Then, suddenly, she was done. No more school. No more deadlines. No more pleading with overworked teachers. We did it! I should have been on Cloud Nine for months. Instead, I slipped into a depressive episode within a day of her graduation ceremony.

I lost a day before I realized that depression had a hold on me. I usually manage my depression well, but life’s been crazy during this pandemic. However, what had actually brought me down was my old ADHD friend: depression after success. Once I identified what was happening, however, I used my coping strategies to get back in control.

Crashing emotionally after finishing a task you have worked on is not a uniquely ADHD problem, but we tend to experience it more than others because of our “superpower” called hyperfocus. A lot of ADHD writers wax eloquent about this upside to adult ADHD — I’ve been one of them — but hyperfocus has its downsides, the worst being the crash that can come after the hyperfocus wanes.

ADHD Hyperfocus: Side Effects

If distraction is your kryptonite, then hyperfocus is your ability to leap over tall buildings. This is because hyperfocus brings clarity to an otherwise chaotic ADHD mind. Often, intense concentration occurs when the person with ADHD is undertaking a task that he knows well. Impulse and skill synchronize. The distractions and noises of the world fade away, leaving only the task in front of you. While in the zone, you experience euphoria — like a runner’s high. All is right in the world, the stars are in alignment, and nothing is getting in the way of completing something for a change. Everything comes together in a quasi-transcendental, cosmic convergence. It is a thing of beauty.

And then the project is done.

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How to Avoid Falling Off the Hyperfocus Cliff

Remove the clarity and the chaos returns. Looking at it another way, if hyperfocus is a runner’s high, then feeling down or depressed after success is rolling your ankle after crossing the finish line. Instead of cheering, your mind is in chaos. The mental fog might cause mere discouragement or a slight funk, but those with comorbid conditions, such as depression, find themselves battling a deeper, more serious problem.

Here’s how I usually prepare myself (and where I went wrong this time):

  1. Any project that comes to an end could be a trigger. It’s easy for me to prepare myself when working on a small project that takes only days to complete. Long-term projects, however, can catch us unaware. I didn’t think of my daughter’s graduation as a completed task. It was our goal for 12 years. I should have realized that the sprint and victory at the end would leave me vulnerable.
  2. Pick a complicated carrot. Rewarding yourself after a successful episode of hyperfocus can make completing a task a positive event. Choose a reward that occupies the mind, like a new gadget or something that deserves quality time to enjoy. Get other people to watch out for it with you. Use your support network. Let people know what to expect, and they can be there to boost your spirits when you start to slide in a downward spiral.

For many adults with ADHD, the crash after hyperfocus is a harsh reality. However, it doesn’t have to cripple you for days and weeks. Add these coping strategies to your tool belt, and you’ll be prepared for the next time. Not only can you slip out of feeling down once you know it’s happening, but, with proper planning, you can avoid it altogether.

ADHD Hyperfocus: Next Steps for Avoiding the Crash

Douglas Cootey has been writing about the intersection of family, ADHD, and depression for decades. He is the author of Say No to Suicide.

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