People with bipolar disorder often have problems with attention and focus. These symptoms are similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which a third of bipolar disorder patients have. Having both disorders is not required to experience restlessness, impulsivity and inattention. These symptoms show up in both disorders separately. Contrarily, patients with bipolar disorder and ADHD can also experience hyperfocus, in which the person focuses on a single task or thought process, possibly to the detriment of other areas of the person’s life.
Having the ability to focus on one project or subject for an extended period may come as a relief to people who tend to have trouble concentrating at times. During periods of mania or hypomania, people with bipolar disorder may start multiple projects at the same time, but not finish them.
Periods of hyperfocus can help provide the focus to complete those projects. Once they lock onto a desirable activity, a person can absorb themselves in it for hours at a time. This is one reason some with bipolar disorder actually enjoy hypomania.
Latching onto a subject is not unique to people with ADHD or bipolar disorder. There is a concept called “flow” that most people experience. Flow is a groove. When a person is in flow, focus is heightened, creativity is high, ideas conglomerate seamlessly and one point of focus after another simply falls into place.
The ability to focus acutely or find a flow is not the problem with hyperfocus. Like most aspects of life, too much of a good thing can become dysfunctional. Hyperfocus is a problem when the person experiencing it begins to ignore the world around them. Time passes without realizing it. Others are ignored and responsibilities fall by the wayside. At that point, and especially when it happens repeatedly, it’s no longer a positive state like flow, but becomes debilitating.
Additionally, hyperfocus and over-stimulation can lead to other behaviors that may trigger mood episodes in bipolar disorder. If a person loses a whole night’s sleep because of focusing on a task, mania can emerge fairly easily. During periods of mania or hypomania, the likelihood of engaging in yet further detrimental behavior only increases. This could be more time spent focusing on the same subject as before, or moving on to seemingly more interesting subjects. It could also mean indulging in risky behaviors involving sex, gambling, spending and substance abuse.
It’s important to watch out for behaviors like flow and hyperfocus. Flow may be fine for the general public, but for those with bipolar disorder and ADHD, hyperfocus can mean serious consequences down the road. Keeping any subsyndromal behavior in check is important. There are a few ways to do so when it comes to hyperfocus.
1 Set an alarm (or three).
Getting into a groove and afraid of spending too much time on a project? Set an alarm to indicate a stopping point. Set a few if ignoring alarms is a habit.
2 Have friends or family members take charge.
If practicing self-control is an issue, be honest about it. Ask friends and family to set your schedule and keep you on top of it. Make sure communication is open so that the situation doesn’t become confrontational, but remains constructive.
3 Do the important tasks first.
Let the desirable activity be a reward instead of its own end. After the house is clean and the checkbook is balanced, then it’s time to spend a few hours working on a project.
4 Track other symptoms
If hyperfocus seems to be happening more often, it may be a sign of an oncoming bipolar episode. Take note and adjust your behavior to help stave it off.
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