Is there a hobby, activity, question, or idea that you find is taking up considerable amounts of your time and energy? Is it draining or life-giving? How do you feel when you’re engaging in or thinking about that thing?
On the surface, hyperfixations and obsessions have a couple things in common. They use a lot of time and energy. However, they are quite different. One causes extreme, even debilitating distress, while the other typically offers joy and purpose.
Keep reading to learn what a hyperfixation is, what an obsession is, and what the differences are between these often confused experiences. In the final section, you’ll learn more about how obsessions are treated (and hyperfixations, too, if they’re interfering with your life).
What is a hyperfixation?
A hyperfixation, as explained by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, therapist and clinical trainer at NOCD, is “an extreme interest in something.” It can latch onto “almost anything,” because it just comes down to what a person happens to be into at any given time. When someone is participating in their hyperfixation—which can also be described as just a “fixation,” depending on which word an individual relates to more—they are “in flow,” Kilduff says. “All your energy and attention is going to that thing.”
Hyperfixations are typically enjoyable and do not bring distress or hindrance. They can regulate stress and bring feelings of relaxation, purpose, and joy. Though anyone can have a fixation, they are especially common among folks with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic people.
Consider the following example of a hyperfixation:
Kara has always loved sports, especially softball, which she played throughout grade school. She now volunteers for her local elementary school’s softball league. She knows the stats of her favorite teams, brings up the sport in everyday conversation, and since softball cards are less common than baseball cards, she makes her own. She’s a part of multiple Facebook groups for softball fans, and enjoys connecting over this shared interest. Much of her life is centered around the sport, and it even brings her a sense of purpose.
Notice what Kara’s fixation is adding to her life: connection to the value of working together as a team, serving as a mentor to young people, and connecting to a social circle over a shared interest.
What is obsession, and how is it different from hyperfixation?
Though the word “obsession” is used commonly in conversation, it has a very specific diagnostic meaning. Kilduff says, “Though obsessions also demand a lot of time and attention like fixations, obsessions are always going to come from a place of fear and anxiety.”
Obsessions are one of the defining symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and consist of repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, or feelings. Obsessions tend to involve extreme doubt, an intolerance of uncertainty, and a lot of distressing “what if?” questions.
“By definition,” Kilduff echoes, “obsessions are intrusive and unwanted, whereas a hyperfixation is something wanted and invited. Obsessions do not bring feelings of enjoyment or pleasantness.”
Obsessions target the things people value most and therefore bring feelings of distress, as they feel like their sense of self is being threatened. Some of the more common themes of people’s obsessions include:
- Relationships: One becomes concerned that they’re in the wrong relationship, that their relationship is not “good enough,” that they’re not attracted “enough” to their partner, that their partner doesn’t really love them, among other doubts.
- Contamination: One worries that they will contract an illness, spread an illness, or that they will never not feel “contaminated” or “dirty.”
- Harm: One fears that they are secretly a violent person and/or that they will one day “snap”; alternatively, some fear becoming the victim of harm.
- Sexuality/gender: One becomes fixated on finding certainty about their “one, true” sexuality or gender; this can affect people of all sexualities and genders.
- Sensorimotor/somatic: One fixates on autonomic processes such as breathing, blinking, or swallowing, concerned that it’s not “normal” or that they’ll never be able to stop noticing it.
- Scrupulosity/religion: One becomes worried that they’re breaking a moral, ethical, or religious code that is important to them; they worry they’re a “bad” or “wrong” person.
- Existential: One cannot stop thinking about questions of life and death; they desire certainty about things like the meaning of life, knowing whether or not they’re “real”, and what their “purpose” is.
Note that obsessions contradict what someone values and is interested in—being a virtuous or moral person, for example—as opposed to hyperfixations, which align with one’s interests and values.
Consider the following example of someone suffering from obsessions:
Lillian spends hours a day thinking about death. She is so anxious about death that she wants to learn as much as she can about it—that way, she figures, she can gain some certainty. She is terrified of the possibility that there is no afterlife and, specifically, wants definitive answers on what happens after we die. She reads books about it and conducts endless online research. Every time she reads something that claims there is an afterlife, her anxiety is temporarily assuaged, before her doubt creeps in once again and she needs more reassurance.
This example depicts the second half of OCD: compulsions. These are physical or mental actions done in attempt to relieve oneself of the uncomfortable feelings—anxiety, fear, panic, guilt, shame—that come from their obsessions. In Lillian’s case, she compulsively gathers endless information via books and online research.
Given the example of hyperfixation and the example of obsession, it’s clear that despite some minor overlap, they are quite distinct.
Do I need help for hyperfixations and obsessions?
Fixations do not normally require treatment and are not inherently problematic. However, there are some cases where they can warrant intervention. Kilduff gives the example of a fixation with video games.
“When it becomes all-consuming and stops one from doing other things,” she says, that’s a signal that help is needed—not necessarily to eliminate but to reduce or manage this behavior. For autistic people or those with ADHD, it’s important to seek help from someone with specific, specialized knowledge and training in autism or ADHD.
Obsessions, on the other hand, should always be addressed by seeking qualified help, as OCD typically worsens the longer it goes untreated. No matter the theme of obsessions, they are all treated the same: with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP teaches people with OCD to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety by resisting the urge to engage in compulsions for a false sense of relief.
To begin, you will gain understanding around the specifics of your obsessions. What do they sound like, and when do they pop up? You’ll also work together to identify all the compulsions you engage in, mental or physical. From there, you and your ERP-trained therapist will develop a hierarchy of therapy exercises—you’ll start small and work your way up to ones that bring higher levels of anxiety.
While the treatment of obsessions tends to bring an initial spike in anxiety, this is strategic—it gives you the opportunity to get used to anxiety and realize that it can’t actually hurt you. You learn to be less reactive to anxiety and uncertainty, changing your relationship with obsessions entirely, loosening the grip they have on your life.
No matter what you’re dealing with, there are trained professionals who know how to help you. If obsessions and compulsions are taking up a significant amount of your time, energy, and mental space, there is hope that you can eventually divert that time, energy, and space to the things you value instead.