A discussion on hyperfixation and burnout, and how the two can affect each other.
Are hyperfixation and burnout linked?
When on the internet for any given time, there are numerous terms that others throw out when referring to facets of them being neurodivergent. Among these terms, hyperfixation and burnout are among the more widespread. For example, there was a 460% increase in search volume per month for ‘hyperfixation’ alone since February 2020. However, there are some ways in which these two phenomenon interact that I don’t see talked about when researching the two individually. In this blog I will attempt to explain both hyperfixation and burnout, as well as how they can play into each other.
What is hyperfixation?
Hyperfixation is a type of repetitive or obsessive focus on a particular subject, object, person, or idea. This is often to the point where individuals will often ignore anything outside of this focus.The psychology research behind hyperfixation suggests that it may be related to neurochemical imbalances in the brain, particularly the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating pleasure, motivation, and reward in the brain. When we do things that make us happy (for instance I personally enjoy listening to music or playing video games) the brain releases dopamine to allow us a feeling of happiness.
What is burnout?
Burnout is often the result of chronic life stress and a conflict of expectations and abilities without adequate support. It is characterised by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus. Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE) conducted a qualitative study to better understand and define autistic burnout.
The study involved interviews with autistic adults and analysis of public internet sources. The research participants describe the experience of autistic burnout as chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus. Many first experienced autistic burnout during times of high stress and significant change within their lives.
How do the two interact?
As you can imagine, burnout can occur when the needs of a neurodivergent person’s hyperfixation are not met. This could be due to the individual’s skill levels in a certain activity not increasing at a rate they perceive it should in accordance to the time spent on the hyperfixation. The hyperfixation will also cause the individual to have a harder time trying to recover from burnout. They will have difficulty shifting focus to something different in order to decrease the effect that burnout has on them. This difficulty in refocusing is further made harder when linked to burnout. The reason for this is due to exhaustion and lack of reception to stimulus. This will make it harder for any individuals to overcome their hyperfixation.
While these interactions between hyperfixation and burnout are bad enough, it’s made worse when the individual then shifts to an alternate topic or thing as an attempt to circumvent the normal process of getting over both of them.
That leads to further burnout from this new hyperfixation, yet will still be under the effects of a previous burnout.
Sometimes this can result in a cycle of the two phenomenon. This will be extremely difficult to overcome.