Hyperfocus and Navigating Big Cognitive Signals with ADHD

Episode 76

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As ADHD people, we pay most attention to the things that generate the biggest signals. This week on the Translating ADHD podcast, we dive deeper into this signal-based attention system.

We discuss our tendency as ADHD adults to rely on the Adrenaline Response Cycle (ARC) and hyperfocus as primary tools for getting to action. The challenge here is that these tools are only effective for the biggest signals, those generated by emotion or urgency. This leaves us ignoring the more nuanced signals, the ones that often speak to what really matters to us.

Cam and Shelly discuss how many of our clients come to coaching with the limiting belief that their previous strategies “no longer work”. The reality here is more nuanced – as life gets more complicated and our goals get more lofty, relying only on paying attention to the biggest signals and the subsequent ADHD response of adrenaline or hyperfocus no longer works because these reactive tendencies don’t allow for forward progress.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Shelly. (And I’m Cam.) And this is the Translating ADHD podcast. Before we kick off this week’s episode, we have an announcement! Transcripts are now available for every episode of Translating ADHD, starting with episode 74. You can access those by visiting the website, translatingadhd.com, click on the episode number. And at the bottom, you will find a full transcript of the episode. And we will also be working on transcribing older episodes as time allows. So give us time there, but it is in the works.

This week, we’re going to stay with this topic of our ADHD brains signal based attention system. There’s a lot here, and this is going to be the theme of the next several episodes.

Today, we’re going to be looking at the signal based attention system as a whole. And we’re going to be looking at how our contextual processors, the fact that our brain is wired for context amplifies certain signals. So when we talk about big signals, the things that grab our attention, the things that are the loudest, the things that we tend to pay most attention to absent doing some work to get to those more subtle signals. It’s because of the context. We process by context. So it makes sense that the signals that have the most, or the loudest context around them are the ones that generally have our attention.

Cam: [00:01:49] Yeah. So it’s that contextual based processor that we processed by context and how things are related and how we are related, how we’re connected.

So take that and couple it with these challenges around inhibition, that there is no modulator on the rate at which we sample information it’s coming fast. It’s so funny when we say attention deficit. It’s anything but deficit. It’s an overabundance of attention. It’s coming at us from the outside. It’s getting sampled and tagged with meaning on the inside.

And it’s almost like this kind of amusement park ride that just starts going around and around faster and faster. And there’s no break on that thing. There’s no inhibitor. So it’s coming fast and we start to assign again, the signal starts to get enhanced, bigger and bigger. So we’re going to dig into that and actually do a little Mount Rainier work too.

Because a client sent me an email about an article on hyperfocus and it was a fine article, but it kind of again, talked about hyper-focus from this manifestation perspective of this is what it is. This is what you tend to do. And here’s some nice strategies that you can use to manage your hyper-focus.

So we’re in the Valley, we’re below the lunch counter here, people. At effect. And with ADHD, the challenges really connecting effect with causation. So hyperfocus is a perfect example of this. It’s this viewed or observed behavior. And as some of them are, again are they’re okay. But they’re kind of limited in their reach of what you can actually do.

They don’t really actually engage with what’s really going on. We thought that this is a perfect place to bring in this whole idea of a signal based attention system and how it connects and tethers to hyperfocus below the lunch counter. So the typical ideas there are to develop some external cues to notice when you’re in it, and be able to stop it or manage it.

But if you don’t really know what’s going on, it’s really hard to manage something like hyperfocus, because hyperfocus is basically, you’re getting pulled into one of these big signals. You’re getting pulled into a big positive, or you’re getting pulled into a big negative, the drama or something that happened, and you get in there and you’re locked on and you’re not going anywhere.

It’s too powerful to be able to move out of that mode. We talk about ADHD being this, we have these preferred modes, so we step into a certain way we’re locked on and it’s like, we’re on this amusement park ride we just don’t want to be on.

Shelly: [00:04:49] Cam, I want to add one. We can get locked into hyperfocus when we’re avoiding the signals too.

And so the article you described is that prescriptive behavior based type solution. And as coaches, when we get our clients are articulating about something like hyperfocus, what is actually going on for that client is so highly individual. And it depends on the thing they’re hyperfocusing on.

Cam: [00:05:21] Exactly.

Shelly: [00:05:22] I have a lot of clients who have really positive language around their hyperfocus. I’m in the zone.

It’s like a super power. We talked about this on the hyperfocus episode a while back, but what they’re not realizing, what they’re not distinguishing is the negative effects of that hyperfocus. And the fact that that hyperfocus is always pointed towards loud signals.

Cam: [00:05:49] Exactly. Positive and negative. So we’re going to dig into the manifestation or examples of positive signals and negative signals in the next episodes.

 Today, just want to really lay out this picture of what’s creating those signals. Last week, we talked about orienting ourselves to the dilemma, because that’s part of the problem with ADHD is that we don’t see the whole picture. There’s a veil up between us and new awareness and new learning, because that’s that barrier between cause and effect.

So perfect example of showing how something like hyperfocus that is so prevalent. We know we’re in it. We try to summon it to get that report done. And yet, what is actually going on in the brain to make that happen? So ready to get into that balloon and get above our Mount Rainier to see what’s happening above the lunch counter, to create these scenarios where we fall into hyperfocus.

I want to go somewhere else briefly though. Just this sort of, humans have certain needs. Just remember this listeners, everyone, not just people with ADHD, but humans in general. We all have stuff to do. Number one, we wake up and yes, we have our ADHD, but we have things to do. We got to get the kids to school or get them on, you know, the Zoom for their remote learning.

We have things to do around the house or the apartment. And then we have our things that we have to do for our work in order to make a living. So, number one, we have things to do. We all have this desire to have some kind of success in doing those things. It’s just a natural human thing. Thirdly, we use what we have.

We will use what we have. So this comes back to the ARC pony. We all have an ARC pony. ARC is Adrenaline Response Cycle. That pony that’s parked in that stable that we pull out and have used. All of you listeners are well aware of your ARC pony, and you’re trying to pull that damn pony out of that stall right now probably.

 Right, to get the things done, the stuff that you have on your list to be successful. So I want to say this because I don’t want people to say or think like, ah, geez. I’m ah, they’re telling me something that I shouldn’t be doing. No. You have your life to live. So keep living your life and keep doing it the way that you’ve been successful in doing it.

This is about accentuating. This is about additive. Don’t, put away that ARC pony. What we want to do is add to that stable other ponies that we can draw out. So with that, the other thing I want to say, Shelly is just, don’t beat yourself up for the way you do things or the way you’re successful.

Beating yourself up, guess what? It creates a big signal. It pops a signal up above the lunch counter that gets enhanced and amplified and comes down and then there were living with it. So if you’re listening to this and it’s creating big negative signals for you, don’t let it. I’m asking you. Don’t create guilt or shame right now as you’re listening to this.

Okay. So we’re going to get that clear to listeners. All right. So we place value around the things that tend to work. It’s very much of a human thing. You’ve got that pony, but as you’re working with that pony and riding that pony, all things kind of have limitations and have kind of some negative side effects.

If we do something too much for too long, When you ride that ARC pony, you’re actually opening up this portal to your emotional part of the brain, this fight flight center, the limbic system. You’re tapping into this emotional center in order to activate, typically out of fear or anger, frustration, that’s our activation.

So you’ve already opened up this portal to this big signal area. It’s like, we’ve got the direct line. So the big signal area, number one. Now I want to go back to above the lunch counter. Why do we hyper-focus why do we generate these big signals? We generate big signals because it’s really hard for us to prioritize, that everything tends to present two dimensionally to us.

It’s like a giant mural. It’s on a wall and you can kind of see these things, but they all present equally. So choosing which one to work on is really difficult, really challenging. That, that’s ADHD. So what do we do? We have stuff to do Shelly, and we want to be successful. And we use what we have. What we have is this, again, frother, this agitator, this thing to create interest, attention around whatever we can cobble that around.

So what do we do? We use emotion to create that we enhance the signal. It either as enhanced for us, or we enhance it ourselves. And this big signal floats down into the Valley area. And then like, Oh, I got a big signal. Now, at least I can navigate to it either go into it or avoid it at all costs.

This is in part, because it’s really tough for us to prioritize. This is a coping mechanism for prioritizing to get things done. But there’s real severe limitations here because it’s, then we’re just addressing the biggest signals, the latest and loudest and falling into things that are interesting to us.

As we said last week, as you brought up, those signal generators of interest, novelty, urgency. And there’s so many other things. Those Q2 are important, not urgent things they’re never good at. We’re never going to generate a big signal around that. So this is about developing ways to have awareness of those big signals, but then starting to see these more nuanced signals and how to bring those in to our repertoire.

Shelly: [00:12:33] Cam, as you were talking, I was sitting here thinking about my clients and the point in which they come to coaching. So most of my clients are in their forties or fifties and they come because riding that signal based attention system, riding those same old ponies is, is no longer working for them. What I was thinking about is why is that what’s going on for those clients at this stage of life?

And there’s a few things. I think this is really interesting. Number one is complexity of life itself. Their life is more complicated than it was in their twenties or early thirties. Number two is the loftiness of what they want to achieve. They’re coming with this really strong, big agenda. This thing that they’re really passionate about, that they want to do, whether it’s within their current career or starting something new.

And they’re realizing that this very reactive mode of reacting to signals with whatever we can draw out of the well at the time is not going to create the forward progress, the action on the Q2 stuff that they are looking for.

Cam: [00:13:59] Ooh that’s so solid Shelly. I love that. Love that, because you’re really getting to their dilemma, the complexity of their life and the loftiness of what they want to have happen.

What they have in their toolbox is no longer working for what they want to achieve. So you’re, recontextualizing that around what we do in coaching.

Shelly: [00:14:26] Yeah. And what’s really interesting from the client perspective is they often think it’s like a switch that got flipped. This really worked for me right up until it didn’t.

Until we start to examine their past lived experience, and we start to uncover and distinguish the things that didn’t work so well for them. So the clients that call hyperfocus, you know, being in the zone or my super power, examining hyperfocus from a balanced perspective with curiosity and seeing not just the upsides, and there are some upsides.

Cam: [00:15:05] Absolutely.

Shelly: [00:15:06] I love it when I can get in the zone and the right time and right place. But there are downsides as well. So sort of recontextualizing the past before we try and move forward in the future so they can understand it’s not like a switch flipped. It’s not like life worked for me and now it doesn’t.

Life has never quite worked for you in some ways. And so let’s start there and create change from that place.

Cam: [00:15:35] That’s a great perspective. And it’s also, it’s scary kind of to lose that fuel source or have this, again, we talked about understand, own, and translate. There’s an element of owning when they come to coaching realizing, okay, what was working is no longer working.

That’s a bit of a scare. That what I’ve relied on for all these years, I’m going to that source and it’s not providing me with what I need and what I want to have happen going forward. So this is a scary, scary place. It’s a place of being untethered, this sense of disorientation. And the first thing we want to do is kind of like, we just start swimming.

We just start thrashing and about and getting into action and people come like, I want to get back into action Cam. It’s like, Hey, before we get back into action, let’s assess where we are. Let’s build our card catalog of awareness.

Of, what are these typical valleys that you fall into? What are the big signals do you get drawn into? What are those little black holes or we call them rabbit holes or black holes that you get sucked into? Is it a drama? Is it a perspective of, you know, the world’s against me and that just kind of lines up for you every single day? What’s the point? I’m behind. That’s powerful, powerful in a very limiting way.

Shelly: [00:17:11] I was sitting here laughing, as you were describing, “help me get back into action Cam”, because if you recall, when I came to coaching with you, that is precisely the place that I was.

Cam: [00:17:25] I love it. I love it. Look at that. The golden circle. Sorry.

Shelly: [00:17:31] We’re leaving that in. Absolutely.

Cam: [00:17:36] Yeah. What goes around comes around. I’m sorry. I just, I got my contextual processor, just like, you know, the lid came off and just, you know, I blurred it. Go ahead. No, now,, go ahead now Shelly.

Shelly: [00:17:52] Oh my goodness. When I think about the place I was at when I came to coaching. My now ex-husband and I had just moved into a new house that was three times the size of our previous house.

And I was self-employed working as an organizer, but I was doing that part time because we had a three-year-old who was not adapting well to the move, by the way. She had a major potty training regression and it was a nightmare. And so all of the systems and routines and habits that I had built up in this small house that worked for me…

Because I’ve mentioned this in previous episodes, one of the ponies I used to ride was organizing. I tried to out organize my ADHD for years. And in a really small house, I was able to do that. But in this much bigger space, there were too many signals all the time. And so everything came to a screeching, grinding, halt. I was frozen in my business. I was frozen in my home life.

I didn’t know how to move forward from that place because nothing, and I mean, nothing, that had worked for me previously was working now. It was terrifying. This was near winter. I’m prone to a bit of seasonal depression. It hit me hard that year. I don’t know if you remember this Cam, but when I first came, it was, “I can’t even get off the couch most days”, was where we started with coaching.

Cam: [00:19:32] Right. And that’s overwhelm.

Shelly: [00:19:33] Yeah.

Cam: [00:19:34] Yeah. Again, overwhelm is this state of there’s too much coming over the transom. There’s too much information and we cannot process it fast enough. So the thing that I want to say is this sounds like a big infomercial for get a coach.

And it isn’t , it’s not that at all. It’s about recognizing where you are, and stop doing what’s not working. To pause and consider, and to be curious about these signals that are getting generated. As I said back at the beginning, we’re trying to just get through our day. And we’re going to use what’s available.

So keep doing that, but also be open to how are those signals getting generated for you? How are they getting enhanced? Are you creating some drama around there? Are you attaching meaning to it? Often this is out of a need for control. We just want to have control and agency. And then when we don’t, we panic and then, you know, it’s the classic thing we learn in advanced lifesaving.

You don’t approach the person that’s thrashing in the water right there. He’s going to take you down with them, but to kind of float on your back and relax and pay attention. Bring some attention away from all those big signals and trying to process the big signals and avoiding signals to just what’s coming over that wall.

What’s coming down from the Heights of Mount Rainier? Turn your attention up there, people. Look up out of the Valley and notice what’s the source? What’s bringing these signals? What are they? To start to walk around them. We talk about the melon patch, walking around your melon patch. Not diving in to pick up a project and go. Same thing with these signals.

What are the positive ones? What are the negative ones? And what kind of amplifies them? What gives them the juiciness or the scariness that is a part of them? That’s keen observer work, that’s cause and effect work. So you’re not in this reactive mode and Lucille Ball at the end of that conveyor belt, trying to pick up those chocolates. Just let them come and observe. And as you observe, you will learn.

Shelly: [00:22:06] Well said, Cam. And I will add that no, this show is not an infomercial for coaching, but what it is is it’s a big fat PSA for this model of creating change with ADHD. And the coolest thing about doing this show is we succeeded in our goal of bringing that experience to a bigger audience, an audience outside of our coaching clients.

Because we can only coach so many people, but we have listeners doing their own work, having the kind of outcomes that they would have in coaching, just using this show. We got to hear a lot of that in our first group coaching Project X meeting last week when we had everyone share a Translating ADHD moment. So powerful.

So, coaching can enhance the work that is being done here if you’re listening and doing your own work weekly, but it’s certainly not required.

Cam: [00:23:09] Yeah. I love that! Big fat PSA!

Awesome. Hey, you know what, as we finish up, I’ve been reading some reviews, and they’re just so solid people. So thank you for those reviews that you’re writing someone. There was a ding, you know what the ding was, Shelly? Does anyone else notice how slow they talk? So that was the ding. And thank God you can speed that up.

We will not be offended. We will not be offended by speeding our voices up a little bit.

Shelly: [00:23:45] Not at all. And that’s intentional. My podcast voice. So it’s a friend of mine that edits the podcast, and he gets a kick out of how different podcast voices from my normal voice, but it’s because I’m slowing down so that I’m intentional in what I say and I’m not just flying off the rails with my contextual processor, which does mean our speech a little slow.

So by all means, put us on one and a half. When I review the show to do the show notes, I listen to it on one and a half. Speaking of reviews, if you haven’t left one yet, that is the number one way that you can help the show.

Number two is you can financially support the show by becoming a patron. Visit the website, translatingadhd.com. Click on the Patrion link in the upper right-hand corner. And for $5 a month, not only are you supporting the show, you can join in our Discord community where our listeners are doing their own work and supporting each other in that.

Finally for those of you that were not able to get in on the first Translating ADHD group coaching, the form is still up and we’ve added a question for time-zones. So fill it out. Let us know what time zones work for you. And if you’re a good fit for a future group, you will have first crack at being included in the next group we do.

And you will help us decide what time the next group will happen so that we can accommodate the people for whom this timing did not work. And we know there’s quite a few. So until next week, I’m Shelly and I’m Cam, and this was Translating ADHD. Thanks for listening.

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