Looping thoughts, also known as perseveration, and repetitive thinking, are torture for many of us neurodivergents.

Whereas our ability to hyperfocus – to find that flow state – taps into the very best of what we are capable of, when we can block out everything else and achieve great things, looping thoughts are the equivalent of being stuck in an exhausting mind rut.

No matter how painful, stressful, fruitless and sleep-depriving these repetitive, whirling, swirling thoughts may be, our minds just will not stop returning to them. Over and over and over and over again – hours, days, months, even years later – here we are still replaying events that the rest of the world has long since forgotten (if they even gave them a thought in the first place). It doesn’t seem to matter how many times we do so, those thoughts just sneak back in when we’re least prepared for them and demand our attention. They make us anxious and miserable because we’re powerless to change the outcomes. Does that stop us from returning again and again? Nope, because we’re not even doing it consciously and we can have been having those thoughts for a long time before we even realise we’re back there.

Often this mental torture involves re-playing the same scenes in our minds – scenes that we’ve experienced that we’re worried didn’t go well, this could be our fears that it didn’t go well or the actual fact that it didn’t.

For instance, we may have met up with an old friend and the conversation went awry and ended on a sour note. We replay it over and over, trying to establish our true role in that scenario. Should we trust ourselves? We felt absolutely justified in what we said at the time, but now we’re having self doubt. How often I’ve wished I’d had a video camera on my head (rather than in it) so I can establish the facts after the event. After a lifetime of being told we don’t fit in, we’re odd, we’re inappropriate, we can be very suggestible when it comes to doubting our positions.

It may be that we know we have been in the wrong, or behaved inappropriately or out of character. Alternatively, we may have had a meltdown and have blurred memories of the event, which just adds another layer of self doubt to the whole sorry business. It may be that these looping thoughts don’t even relate to a real situation – but an imagined one that stops us from being able to move forward. Whatever those thoughts are, they stop us in our tracks and can change our mood without us even realising it is happening.

For me, looping thoughts, rumination, perseveration – call it what feels right for you – I think plays the role of me trying to reach a different outcome to the one that actually happened. This, of course, is utterly pointless! Does that stop me? Nope.

We can take what has actually been a positive social interaction and disassemble it so completely that we can convince ourselves that the occasion has been an unmitigated disaster. And this is where our ability to dissect, analyse and video-play on repeat really does work against us. This skill can bring out the best in us – as it has done with me recently – writing an 80 page report on the failings of the healthcare services that resulted in my uncle’s death. It’s no less painful than looping thoughts – but that constant replaying of information is what revealed the facts that I could only have unearthed with this particular mindset.

With the positives of our neurologies in mind, it’s worth reading my entry on perseveration (which is looping) and how closely related it is to hyperfocus, hyperfixation, special interests etc. It’s a double edged sword – the ability to go over and over the same information until it feels that it’s driving us crazy. It is this tunnel vision approach that gets results, but if there is no hope of changing a situation that cannot be resolved, then it results in nothing but mental torture (often in the dead of night, of course).

So many people have told me that they too suffer really badly with repetitive, unhelpful thinking, not all neurodivergent, but this is definitely something that we suffer with more than most.

So, what do we do about this? Well, the first challenge is to identify that this is what is going on, and that is harder than it sounds. Some people find mindfulness helpful – theoretically, if we are living in the moment, we can’t be ruminating on negative thoughts. Tried that – too hard! For me, I find talking to someone I really trust about those dark and circling thoughts is so helpful, as is my wonderful therapist. Somehow, bouncing my thinking off someone I really trust not to judge me releases it and stops me going completely up the wall. I also use really primitive techniques when I’m trying to go to sleep – I literally repeat the phrase ‘think nothing, think nothing, think nothing’ because even that takes effort to think about and somehow I just drop off, eventually. Beyond that, I’m a work in progress, and would really love to hear from any of you if you have found ways of combating this common feature of neurodivergent thinking.

Whatever our methods, those challenging thoughts will return, of course, unless the situation is resolved. But at least we may get some much needed sleep in the meantime.