12 Ways to Calm Your Overactive Neurodivergent Mind - Part 2
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
Last week I talked about why neurodivergent people may be prone to an overactive mind. I introduced examples of repetitive thinking that can contribute directly to an overactive mind, such as overthinking, rumination, and perseveration.
Now that you are familiar with some of the types of thinking that can contribute to overactivity and why neurodivergent people may struggle with this, I’m going to offer tips for slowing things down and restoring a sense of peace.
Since every neurodivergent person is different and the causes of their overactive minds vary, not all of these will work for everyone in all circumstances, but there is a little something for everyone.
1. Use Proven Body Relaxation Techniques
Relax your body and your mind will quickly follow. One great way to help calm an overactive mind is to use techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and yoga.
Progressive muscle relaxation relaxes each part of your body by tensing muscles and then releasing them one by one. Yoga helps you synchronize movement with breathwork, allowing you to access a deeper level of relaxation that benefits both the body and mind.
These techniques can be done anytime, whether it’s in the morning before you start your day or late at night when worry keeps you up, helping to reduce stress levels so that our minds can relax.
YouTube is a great resource for sampling these techniques. If you find something especially helpful, there are apps that can help you take your practice deeper and build consistency, which is key. You might even consider taking a class to connect with other people working on the same goals!
2. Try Different Types of Breathwork
Breathwork refers to various practices that use intentional breathing as a tool to improve physical, mental, and emotional health. Breathwork practices can range from simple deep breathing exercises to more complex techniques that incorporate elements of mindfulness, visualization, and movement.
Deep breathing helps to slow your heartbeat, reduce stress hormones, and soothe your mind. The simplest technique to calm your mind is to breath in deeply and then make sure your out-breath is longer than your in-breath.
This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the body's rest and digest response. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it can help to calm the mind and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and tension.
There are also many phone apps that will guide you through different breathing exercises. One of the most popular in the Wim Hof Method® which you can also find on his website.
Meditation can be a highly effective way to settle an overactive mind. Not only has regular practice been shown to encourage a healthier mental and emotional state, but it can also provide much-needed moments of clarity during a busy day.
To begin most simply, it is important to find a comfortable place and position where you won’t be interrupted for about 20 minutes. Then take time to simply observe your breathing as you shift your focus on each part of your body from your toes to your head. By gently gaining awareness of the rhythms and sensations of the here and now, your scattered thoughts will gradually drift away.
It’s important to be aware that becoming more mindful can sometimes trigger anxiety in some neurodivergent people. For some, increased awareness of their physical sensations and surroundings can lead to sensory overload and feelings of overwhelm.
Another common reason for anxiety with meditation is that mindfulness can also bring to the surface previously ignored or suppressed emotions. For individuals who have difficulty regulating their emotions, this can be overwhelming and result in increased anxiety.
For me personally, transcendental meditation (TM) has been the biggest game-changer in calming my monkey-mind. The goal of TM is not to become more mindful of the here-and-now, but to achieve a state of deep relaxation and inner peace by “transcending,” or going beyond, the active and thought-filled mind. One TM session is like taking a fast-acting anti-anxiety pill.
This technique involves the use of a mantra, or sound, which is repeated in a specific way to quiet the mind and promote a state of deep inner calm. It is recommended that you practice TM for 20 minutes twice a day, which is a huge time commitment in a busy life, but I find the benefits self-reinforcing.
The biggest downside to TM is the cost. It’s taught one-on-one by a certified teacher. There is a sliding scale available, though, and grants are available for those on federal assistance. You can find out more here.
With regular practice, there's no limit to the potential benefits meditation may bring in calming a busy mind.
4. Laugh it Off
Laughter is often seen as the best medicine, and it’s well-known that it can calm an overactive mind.
We all have days where our thoughts are running away from us, making us feel anxious and overwhelmed. A great way to combat this is to laugh it off! This can mean just taking a little time out of your day to laugh at a funny movie or TV show or listen to a favorite comedian.
A comedian who is publicly identified as being neurodivergent might be particularly helpful. Check out Adam Hills, Ashlynn Conner, and Todd Grimes who talk about having ADHD or Michael McCreary or Davine Ker who talk about being autistic.
Even if you don’t feel like laughing in the moment, forcing yourself to do so for a few minutes will often improve your mood and help ground you back in reality.
The feeling of joy that laughter brings us is powerful and also has long-lasting effects on our mental health.
5. Figure Out the Best Next Step
If your mind is overactive because you are overwhelmed by an enormous task, one simple way to help calm your mind is to break down the bigger goal into smaller steps.
By breaking down complicated tasks or scenarios into smaller, more achievable parts, it reduces the overwhelming feelings often generated by looking at everything all at once and gives you a plan for attacking the bigger goal.
The next time your mind starts spinning, try taking a step back and looking at the different parts that need to happen to achieve the bigger goal. Breaking things down can quickly bring clarity and lower levels of stress while helping you stay focused on specific goals.
Many neurodivergent people struggle with breaking things down into smaller steps, and if this is you, an autism life coach like me can help.
6. Do Something – Anything
When faced with an overactive mind, it can often feel like there's no end in sight and that nothing can be done. However, that isn't the case. If you can’t figure out what to do next, an important but often overlooked step to calming your overactive mind is just doing something – anything.
As former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt said: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
Taking action doesn't necessarily mean achieving a meaningful accomplishment or solving the problem that needs solving, and it won't always lead to success. Instead, it may simply lead to you feeling empowered and more confident, a huge benefit by itself. And if nothing else, it may provide a temporary distraction from repetitive thoughts.
So, if your mental hamster wheel is spinning, try doing something, anything, and see where it leads you.
7. Do What Makes You Feel Best
When life gets overwhelming and it seems like you are carrying too heavy a load, one of the best things you can do to calm your overactive mind is to take time to do what makes you feel your best.
Whether it's going for a walk, reading a book, or spending time doing an activity that you enjoy, taking advantage of little moments to be still will help provide clarity and bring a sense of balance back into focus. The trick though is to make sure you are not using this as an escape you never come back from!
For me hiking is like a one-stop shop for feeling great, whether I’m overwhelmed, tired, burned out or just can’t stop the hamster wheel in my head. Fortunately, it also helps with physical fitness, which contributes to number 10 below.
Making the conscious effort to stop and give yourself permission to do what feels right will make all the difference in managing stress levels and allowing your mind some much-needed rest. Taking care of yourself first is incredibly important in helping restore a sense of peace and order in your life.
8. Try to Ditch the Negative Thoughts
Ditching negative thoughts is one of the most effective ways to calm an overactive mind. When you find yourself in a situation where your thoughts are spinning out of control, it's important to have some practical strategies in place to get back on track.
One approach that has been proven to work is identifying the damaging and destructive thought patterns, and then challenging them with positive alternatives.
This can be done by consciously questioning each negative thought you have, by asking yourself questions like, "Am I sure this is true?" or "Is there anything else that could be equally true in this situation?" Doing so will help you reframe your thinking and stay in control of your mind.
One useful spin on this is when it feels like bad things are happening TO you, it helps this shift your thinking toward things happening FOR you, as in for your benefit. It’s often hard to see this in the moment, but going through tough experiences, including being neurodivergent, builds resilience and has other benefits.
This helps you find meaning in the tough experience, such as gaining the ability to help others someday who go through the same thing. It may also enable you to better focus on finding a solution to a problem or just accepting that life includes challenges to be overcome.
Ultimately, developing such skills allows us to tap into a sense of inner peace even when faced with difficult emotions and circumstances.
9. It's Okay to Give In, But Avoid the Spiral
The next step to calming an overactive mind is often the hardest: giving in to feeling overwhelmed. For most of us, this feels counterintuitive, and any initial relief can quickly spiral into a growing endless loop of worry and self-scrutiny fueled by anxiety.
It's essential, however, to accept the initial emotions that come with feeling out of control, realizing it's okay to feel broken or scared as this can open the door to peace and clarity in your thinking.
While doing so should be done for reasonable amounts of time, being able to do this can ultimately create space for constructive solutions that help manage long-term mental wellbeing.
10. Pay Attention to Your Overall Lifestyle
One of the most effective and long-term solutions to calming an overactive mind is to pay attention to your overall lifestyle.
This includes all of the typical recommendations for optimum health – getting plenty of restful sleep, exercising regularly, eating nutritious foods, staying hydrated, and taking care of yourself in other ways. For neurodivergent people this includes accommodating their sensory needs.
Not only will this help you get better quality sleep and have more energy during the day, it will also help you manage stress levels so that your mind does not become too overstimulated. Plus, regular physical activity increases endorphins in your body which helps relieve tension and encourages a sense of peace.
11. Build Regular Breaks Into Your Day (and Night)!
Making small changes in your day-to-day life can make the inner peace you seek more achievable. Under the same category of lifestyle is taking regular breaks, but this merits its own mention because neurodivergent people often need more breaks throughout the day than neurotypical people.
Taking regular breaks throughout the day, both scheduled and as needed, is key. Staying in tune with your energy level and sense of overwhelm – and responding appropriately – can do a great deal toward preventing an overactive mind.
Also important is setting aside time for relaxation each evening, especially before bedtime, and allowing yourself time to rest your mind without stimulating input like intense video games, television shows, YouTube videos, audiobooks, or conversation with others.
12. Pay Attention to Your Repetitive Thought Triggers
One of the best ways to gain control over your overactive mind is to start paying attention to what triggers them and taking steps to reduce your triggers.
Taking a few moments throughout the day to recognize repetitive thought patterns can be an effective way to get in tune with your own thought processes and help take back control of your scattered and overwhelming thoughts.
You can also use this exercise as a starting point for better self-awareness and eventually, increased self-regulation and relaxation.
Many people who are neurodivergent struggle with overactive minds. Repetitive thinking is sometimes a useful response to normal life situations, but when it becomes excessive, it can cause suffering.
Whatever the cause, there are ways that you can learn to relax your mind and prevent the suffering that comes with repetitive thoughts. These techniques take practice, but with time and patience, you will be able to find relief from your hamster-wheel mind!
If you try these techniques and they do not bring relief, a neurodiversity-informed mental health professional is your best next step. They can help you identify which techniques to use in specific situations and help you hone your technique so you can experience the peace of mind you are seeking.