bipolar parent

Why Hyperfocus Can be a Form of Self-Harm

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Brains function in weird ways sometimes.

Because bipolar disorder runs along similar pathways to ADHD, people with either mental health challenge tend to have difficulties with focusing on tasks in front of them.

When faced with a task our brains deem “boring,” we get distracted and do anything else to avoid the task.

However, sometimes, when enraptured with a project that engages our brains in just the right way, we can enter a zen state of hyperfocus, or “flow.”

In a flow state, everything but the task fades away. I myself have taken advantage of flow states many, many times, having written fanfiction in a blitz of 2200 words per hour or cross-stitched massive projects for hours on end without noticing my hands getting sore.

The neurochemistry of a flow state is super interesting. During a flow state, your brain is flooded with endorphins–nature’s heroin–and all tension in your body disappears, only to be replaced with pleasure.

I usually listen to music with noise-canceling headphones when I’m trying to concentrate a task. One way I can tell I’ve entered a flow state–aside from the massive amount of productivity–is that I completely tune out my music.

You don’t have to have a mental disorder to take advantage of a flow state, though they are common in people with bipolar disorder and ADHD, especially during times of bipolar hypomania and mania.

And trust me, flow states feel good. I love knocking my tasks off my to-do list and producing hundreds of words per hour. I love the endorphin rush I get from conquering my tasks. And I love how I feel afterwards, loose and relaxed and accomplished.

But how can this be a bad thing?

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month, celebrated in the US, Canada, and most of Western Europe. During the awareness month, mental health organizations around the world concentrate on informing the general public about non-suicidal self-harm, especially in youth.

Which why it’s a good time to explain how a hyperfocused, uber-productive state can be a form of self-harm.

Self-harm? Really?

But hyperfocus can be a good thing! You might be thinking. How can such a productive state be a form of self-harm?

It’s true that hyperfocus can be an excellent state to be in for productivity reasons. But hyperfocus can absolutely end up doing more harm than good.

Let me explain. When I’m laser-focused on a desirable activity, I narrow my attention down to what I’m doing in the moment to the exclusion of all else. I neglect to eat, drink, or even use the bathroom. I can’t recognize the flow of time, so it passes without my recognition.

And I get wired from the creativity and endorphin rush, making sleep difficult, which is dangerous for a person with bipolar disorder. Especially bipolar I, where manic episodes are more intense. If I don’t sleep, I quickly trip into mania, which helps me hyperfocus, which makes me manic… It’s a cycle.

When I’m hyperfocused, I not only neglect my own physical and mental needs, I also neglect the needs of my children. I get so wrapped up in projects, I forget to feed my kids until they not-so-gently remind me to do so.

I also hate people interrupting my flow states. When I’m jerked out of a groove, I get irritable and snappish. I have trouble pulling away. Changing gears to do things like “feed the five-year-old” is extremely difficult for me.

So flow states, though they feel great, are often sources of dysfunction for me–precisely because they feel so wonderful.

How to Manage Flow State Dysfunction

Even though I acknowledge these serious consequences from my dysfunctional patterns, I am reluctant to give up my flow states. They are addictive and a lot of my self-worth is wrapped up in my productivity, something I’m working on.

So while I’m keeping the flow states (when I can enter them), I’m setting limits on how long I produce in one.

Someone else watches my daughter from 1pm to 3pm on weekdays so I can study. This means I have a hard deadline to stop. I must stop working at 3pm.

And I am practicing patience by reordering my priorities. My children are more important than the studying, blogging, painting, sewing, or writing fanfiction–the sources of work or pleasure that sometimes trigger a flow state for me.

So I keep my children’s needs at the forefront of my mind and pull away from my screens thirty minutes before set meal times (8am, 12pm, and 5:30pm), so I can properly feed my kids.

We aim to eat at the same times each day. This regular schedule of cooking and eating meals means I have prescribed times to work on other things and maybe enter a flow state.

And I try not to work on fun, creative things–where I’m more likely to enter a flow state–until all my work is done first. I hold myself accountable and keep myself honest about what I accomplish on a daily basis, which helps with self-worth.

Limiting myself works for me. It may work for you, too. Try setting up a regular schedule of work, pleasure, and attending to your physical needs and the needs of others you’re responsible for. And set alarms if you need them–several if you’re in the habit of ignoring them.

Final Thoughts

Flow states–or hyperfocused states–feel wonderful.

They’re an endorphin rush for sure. While everyone can get into a groove, flow states are especially tempting for people with bipolar disorder and ADHD, who usually have trouble concentrating on and motivating themselves to perform day-to-day activities.

People with mental disorders need to be careful that flow states don’t become dysfunctional, which is more common than you might think. What’s more, if you find yourself entering flow states more and more often lately, track your other symptoms, as you may be entering a manic episode.

But you don’t have to give up flow states entirely. Just limit yourself.

Set alarms. Work on a regular schedule with hard stops. Hold yourself accountable for finishing work first before embarking on fun activities that are more likely to trigger a flow state.

I know it’s hard. If you’re anything like me, you’d prefer to be in a hyperfocused state all the time. I get it.

But you deserve better than your own neglect. And if you have kids, they do, too.

You can do this.

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bipolar parent

How to Spot Depression in Children, Even Preschoolers

Trigger Warning: Brief discussion of suicidal ideation.

Preschool depression is often overlooked, because the symptoms are difficult to spot or may be explained away by hopeful parents and teachers. Depression in adults is widely known, but can preschoolers suffer clinical depression? Science says they can.

Scientists began studying depression in preschoolers 20 years ago, and the research continues today. According to the conclusion of a new study led by Dr. Joan Luby of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, preschoolers suffer depression. Luby’s team examined 306 children ranging from 3 to 6 years old. This study demonstrated that 23% of the 3-year-olds endured depressive symptoms every day for two consecutive weeks. As the age of the child increased, the rate of major depressive disorder diagnoses also increased. The 4-year-olds suffered depressive symptoms at a rate of 36%, while the 5-year-olds showed a rate of 41%. The children who had suffered extremely stressful or traumatic events in their lives also had a higher incidence of depression than the controls.

Preschoolers generally can’t describe their emotional states. They’re still learning what emotions are and they lack the ability to vocalize them. This is the difficulty in diagnosing depression in preschoolers, and why you may need help spotting it. In order to allow the study participants to express how they perceive themselves and get a sense of what young children were feeling, Dr. Luby’s team asked a series of questions using puppets. How the children responded gave the researchers a clue about how the kids were feeling.

Further complicating the picture is the prevalence of other conditions along with depression, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In Dr. Luby’s study, about 40% of the study participants also dealt with ADHD, which tends to drown out symptoms of depression, because the symptoms are similar. This can even persist later in life. Children who suffer depression are more than four times as likely to suffer an anxiety disorder later in life than kids who don’t suffer depressive symptoms.

preschooler
A preschool-aged boy in blue hoodie sprawling on a parent’s lap. Credit to flickr.com user Quinn Dombrowski. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

But what does depression look like in a 3-to-6-year-old?How can you, as a parent, spot it? Well, depression in children looks a lot like depression in adults. For example, anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities, can show up in adults as a lack of enjoyment in things like golfing or writing. Preschoolers with anhedonia find little to no joy in their toys. Both adults and children with depression are restless and irritable. Depressed kids whine a lot, and don’t want to play.

When they do play, children may decide that their stuffed animals decided to “die” today and decide to bury them. Anytime you see a preschooler demonstrate methods of suicide or death with a stuffed animal without mimicking an episode of your life, such as a death in the family, your antennae need to come up. That could indicate suicidal thoughts.

But the most common symptom of depression in children is deep sadness. Not someone who’s sad for a day, but all the time, no matter who he or see is with or what he or she is doing. Sadness in the face of goals that have been thwarted is normal. But depressed children have difficulties resolving the sadness to the point where the misery affects their ability to function regularly. If your child appears to be sad to the point of inability to enjoy anything or regulate their other emotions, then get a recommendation from your pediatrician for a child psychologist or a behavioral therapist.

Other notable symptoms of childhood depression are an exaggerated sense of guilt, shame, and insecurity. Depressed preschoolers generally feel that if they do a naughty thing or disobey, that means they are inherently bad people.

Here’s a breakdown of the symptoms of depression in children of any age, including preschoolers:

  • Deep and persistent sadness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Difficulty sleeping or focusing
  • Refusing to go to school and getting into trouble
  • Change in eating habits
  • Crying spells
  • Withdrawing from friends and toys
  • Fatigue
  • Anhedonia – inability to derive pleasure from enjoyable activities, like playing with toys
  • Whining
  • Low self-esteem and insecurity
  • Shame and guilt
  • Timidity

Preschoolers may be especially vulnerable to depression’s consequences. Young children are sensitive to emotions, but lack the ability to process strong feelings. Early negative experiences–including separation from a caregiver, abuse, and neglect–affect physical health, not just mental. Multiple studies have linked childhood depression to later depression in adulthood.

This is why properly diagnosing and treating these children early is so vital. One established intervention for treating childhood depression is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT. Originally developed in the 1970s to treat violent or aggressive behaviors in preschoolers, PCIT is a program where, under the supervision of a trained therapist, caregivers are taught to encourage their children to manage their emotions and stress. The program typically lasts from 10 to 16 weeks.

The Bottom Line

Dr. Luby’s research is met with resistance. Laypeople typically think the idea of preschoolers suffering depression ridiculous, and even some doctors and scientists don’t believe children are cognitively advanced enough to suffer from depression. Preschool depression remains a controversial topic, which makes it harder to diagnose in your child.

But depression in children 6 years and older has been well established by decades of data. Is it really so hard to think that preschoolers might suffer depression as well? Dr. Luby and her team have been looking at the data for 20 years, and have concluded that preschoolers can suffer depression, just like older children and adults.

Admitting that your child is depressed may make you feel like you’re a failure. After all, if you can’t protect your children from depression, who can? But clinical depression is chemical. This is not your fault. You may have been told that depression doesn’t exist in preschoolers, or that you’re overreacting. You may be called a helicopter or hovering parent. But trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to go against stigma for your child’s benefit.

Up to 84,000 of America‚Äôs 6 million preschoolers may be clinically depressed. If your child is one of them, you are not alone. There is no shame to depression. The condition is not your child’s fault, just as in adults. No parent likes to see her child suffer, and getting help for depressed children is vital to their well-being.

If your child suffers depressive symptoms, especially anhedonia, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation for a behavioral therapist or child psychologist. Typically, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the results.

Good luck.

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