In my first full-time job after finishing my master’s degree, I was put in charge a long-running project that was already years behind schedule. With strict, unrealistic timelines and insufficient resources, the project was mine to save.
I’ve always been a high achiever, so I dove right in. Despite the pressure and all the givens, I found the work highly engaging and rewarding – the perfect combination for hyperfocus.
Intense weeks turned into months. The longer I hyperfocused on the project and the more I accomplished, the more important my work became to me. It was all or nothing.
I kept up the pace for a year and a half. Then, with almost no warning, I broke.
I know what you’re thinking; it’s a classic case of burnout, right? Not exactly. You see, that burnout episode happened six years ago — and I’m still recovering from it.
Years after that episode, with a new job and an objectively manageable workload, I am still only able to work about 20 hours a week. I’m also highly sensitive to day-to-day work stress; some hard days can trigger depressive episodes and significant fatigue.
I finally sought help recently, and I found a therapist who specializes in ADHD. I told her my story and, I read what I could on burnout between our sessions to try to make sense of what I went through (and the effects I’m still experiencing). The more I learned, and the more I explored my burnout during therapy, the more I realized that traditional, commonly understood concepts of burnout failed to capture my experience.
What I went through, I realized, was a form of burnout that I believe affects many of us with ADHD: I call it “hyperfocus burnout.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes burnout as the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Here’s how the dimensions of burnout match up to my burnout experience:
As stressful and demanding as leading that project was, I kept going back every day, eager to see it through. I wasn’t mentally distant from my stressor — I was engaged with it. It was all I thought about, day and night. I didn’t feel a sense of ineffectiveness or a lack of accomplishment on the job. It was just the opposite; my job was its own reward, and my productivity and effectiveness increased over time, fueling a positive feedback loop.
In my mind, there was nothing to escape or recover from. Sure, I wanted things to calm down, but burnout never showed up on my radar (though others in my life could see it). That’s why it’s typical approaches — like taking breaks, reframing, and increasing rewards – wouldn’t have worked on me.
A dimension of my experience that I didn’t see reflected in my research was my intense and increasing fear of falling short on my job. As time went on, my perceived consequences for failure worsened and became unrealistic. By the end, what started as “it will be a bad look” turned into the existential “this project could end my career and leave my wife and I destitute.” I won’t deny that these irrational fears also kept me hyperfocused on my work.
Day to day, when I wasn’t working, I just felt exhausted. I’d have trouble focusing, I was forgetful, and I found it almost impossible to muster the energy required to start day-to-day tasks like cooking and cleaning. All other aspects of my life, including things I truly enjoyed, started to fade away. Once I started working again, that exhaustion faded away, or at least I didn’t notice it.
When I did break, it was sudden — as if the branch that I had been perched on all this time had suddenly snapped, leaving me broken on the ground. From one day to the next, I could barely get out of bed. My mind was foggy, my memory was non-existent, and I couldn’t make coherent sentences, let alone work. That extreme state lasted for the next five weeks. I then spent the next five years clawing my way back, only to still be half of my former self; I worked part time and struggled to keep up with the demands of life. The effects of traditional burnout, meanwhile, apparently resolve after a few months.
With the help of my therapist, here’s where I landed: Traditional burnout is triggered by a mismatch between time, demands, resources, and rewards. Symptoms occur on a spectrum and increase over time as pressure and lack of reward increase.
Hyperfocus burnout, on the other hand, is triggered only by an overabundance of pressure or demands, particularly on a high-focus activity.
In traditional burnout, there are efforts to detach and turn away from an unsustainable situation. In hyperfocus burnout, we engage and turn into the unsustainable situation. We push through until the situation ends or we break.
My therapist, who has seen her fair share of clients with ADHD who have burned out like I have, says those who reach their hyperfocus breaking point push themselves past their limits due to a strong sense of responsibility and a failure to recognize the mental and physiological strain that is accumulating to an inevitable peak.
Hyperfocus, ultimately, is just another problem with attentional shifting that characterizes ADHD. It’s why many of us will forget to eat or go the bathroom when absorbed in a task. When unchecked, hyperfocus can cause us to sacrifice many life functions in the pursuit of a particularly salient goal.
Traditional burnout, it seems, is a protective mechanism that helps a person recognize when they’re reaching their limit and are close to breaking. That mechanism failed, in my case, because of my ADHD and attention regulation challenges.
There is another element to my story: Though I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, I had gone without treatment for most of my adult life, as I had enough strategies to keep the “traditional” inattentive symptoms at bay. My therapist strongly encouraged me to start taking ADHD medication, and I’m glad she did. Medication has reduced my emotional ADHD symptoms (symptoms I hadn’t even been aware were part of ADHD). My existential fear of failure disappeared almost overnight. Stimulant medication reduced my anxiety and increased my resilience to stress; it was much more effective than the SSRI I had previously been prescribed.
All in all, starting medication allowed me to increase my working hours longer than I have in years, without sacrificing the rest of my life. Now I’m also better able to recognize instances of unhelpful hyperfocus, and I’m much more likely to disengage and use coping strategies — something I struggled to do before. Still, medication is not a fail-safe; I have to be careful about slipping back into old patterns.
I wish I knew then what I know about extreme hyperfocus. I wish I knew that it could turn into a positive feedback cycle that gets harder to escape the longer you’re in it. I wish I knew that relentless hyperfocus would break me and result in a very long and painful recovery. Maybe if I had this information, I would have listened to my wife and friends; maybe I could have helped my manager realize that I was in serious trouble, even though I was still very effective at my job and not showing the traditional (dare I say, neurotypical) signs of burnout. Maybe I could have prevented my hyperfocus burnout.
This piece was a joint effort between Matt and his psychologist, Dr. Petra Hoggarth. Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, Dr. Hoggarth specializes in adult ADHD assessment and therapy.
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