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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Why Neurodivergent People May Be More Prone to an Overactive Mind - Part 1

Updated: Jul 5

By Patty Laushman


Welcome to the first part of my two-part series on neurodivergence and overactive minds. In this post, I'll be sharing some insights into why neurodivergent individuals like those with autism, ADHD, and AuDHD may be more prone to an overactive brain that is like a hyperactive hamster running in a hamster wheel.


The hamster wheel metaphor is used to describe a state of mind that is consumed by repetitive, obsessive, or negative thoughts that can be tiring or overwhelming, and they can interfere with one's quality of life. These thoughts are repetitive and unproductive, much like a hamster running in a wheel, being busy, and seeming to work hard, but never achieving anything important or reaching the end of a task.


Then next week in part two, I'll be sharing some practical tips for calming the hamster wheel mind and returning to a sense of peace.


So sit back, try to relax, and let's dive into autism, ADHD, AuDHD, and overthinking!

autistic female adult feeling overwhelmed with eyes closed and head resting in hands

Why Neurodivergent People May Be More Prone to an Overactive Mind

Life happens, and as humans, we often find ourselves in a struggle to stay mentally grounded and balanced.


Some of us, however, are more prone to experiencing an overactive mind, where we have difficulty turning off our thoughts and are constantly consumed by mental activity. This can result in increased levels of stress, anxiety, and difficulty with focus and attention.


The research behind the relationship between neurodivergent conditions, such as autism and ADHD, and repetitive thinking is still being explored. However, there are a few theories and studies that suggest that differences in brain structure and function may play a role.


Neurodivergent people may experience one or more of the following:


Overconnectivity

Some research suggests that neurodivergent individuals may have more connectivity in certain brain regions, due to less synaptic pruning during adolescence and adulthood. This leads to an overabundance of information moving through the brain at the same time and more challenges related to filtering out irrelevant information. Though more research is needed, this could contribute to repetitive thinking and perseveration.


Executive Functioning Challenges

Other research has suggested that repetitive thinking in neurodivergent individuals may be related to difficulties in executive functioning, which includes the ability to plan, prioritize, and switch between tasks. When these abilities are impaired, an individual may have difficulty moving on from a thought or task, leading to repetitive thinking.


Sensory Processing

autistic woman having difficulty processing sensory information head resting in hands

Additionally, some research has suggested that repetitive thinking may be related to sensory processing difficulties in neurodivergent individuals. For example, an individual with autism may experience sensory overload, which can trigger repetitive thoughts or behaviors as coping mechanisms.


It is important to note that while these theories provide possible insights into why neurodivergent individuals may be more prone to repetitive thinking, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship.


What Does Repetitive Thinking Have to Do With It?

If you find your mind often racing and you struggle to tame your busy brain, you may be suffering from repetitive thinking, a term that encompasses all forms of excessive thinking. The terms below are often used interchangeably, but they each refer to something a little bit different.


Let’s explore the different types of repetitive thinking. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather common ways neurodivergent people engage in repetitive thinking.


Overthinking

Taking in enough detail to make a good decision about something is wise, but sometimes we think too long and hard about a situation or problem, which can lead to stress, anxiety, and difficulties with decision-making. This would be considered overthinking.


Rumination

autistic adult ruminates on negative thought

Rumination specifically refers to the repetitive and negative thoughts that can occur when an individual is in a passive or contemplative state, such as when lying in bed or relaxing. Rumination is often associated with depression and can lead to increased stress and anxiety.


Perseveration

Particularly common in autistic people, perseveration refers to the repetition of a particular thought, action, or behavior, often in response to a trigger or stressor. Perseveration can lead to repetitive behaviors and routines.


What Triggers Repetitive Thinking?

Repetitive thinking can be triggered by a variety of factors, including stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, and other emotional or psychological factors. Some common triggers of repetitive thinking include:


Traumatic events

Traumatic events can have a significant impact on the brain and can trigger repetitive thinking. The intense emotions and memories associated with traumatic events can become stuck in the mind, leading to repetitive thoughts, flashbacks, and intrusive memories.


These repetitive thoughts can cause significant distress, anxiety, and emotional pain.


Additionally, when a person has experienced a traumatic event, their mind may focus on the event to try to process it and make sense of what happened. This can result in repetitive thoughts and a constant preoccupation with the traumatic event.


It’s important to consider that just being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world can be traumatic when the environment in which you operate is not a fit for your needs.


Stressful situations

autistic male adult appears serious as he contemplates past events

Chronic stress can lead to repetitive thinking, as people worry about the future or dwell on past events. Stressful situations can trigger repetitive thinking because the brain is trying to process the situation and find a solution to the problem at hand.


When the situation is perceived as challenging or threatening, the brain goes into a state of heightened alertness and starts to think over the details and consequences of the situation in an attempt to find a way to resolve it.


This type of repetitive thinking can become persistent, leading to excessive worry and anxiety, which can, in turn, lead to difficulty in finding a solution or making a decision.


Furthermore, repetitive thinking can lead to a negative feedback loop, where one's thoughts are focused only on the stressor, leading to a continuous cycle of rumination and stress.


Perfectionism

Perfectionism can trigger repetitive thinking as individuals who struggle with perfectionism often have an excessive focus on details, which can lead to rumination and excessive self-criticism.


This type of thinking can cause them to revisit past mistakes and focus on the potential for future mistakes, leading to an increased risk for repetitive thoughts and negative self-talk.


This repetitive thinking can become a vicious cycle, causing increased stress and anxiety, which in turn reinforces the perfectionistic thoughts and behavior.


It's important for individuals who struggle with perfectionism to recognize and address this pattern of thinking in order to break the cycle of repetitive thinking and reduce stress and anxiety.


Unresolved Conflicts

autistic woman experiencing a conflict at home with another woman

People whose brain wiring is different from the majority of people they interact with often find it difficult to understand and respond to social norms, which results in a greater potential for conflicts and misunderstandings.


Unresolved conflicts or interpersonal issues can trigger repetitive thinking as people try to work through their feelings and find resolution. The person may continuously think about the conflict and replay scenarios in their mind.


This type of thinking can cause the person to get stuck in a cycle of rumination, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. The person may not be able to move forward and find closure, leading to ongoing repetitive thoughts about the conflict.


It can also cause the person to become obsessed with finding a solution, leading to further stress and negative thinking patterns.


Boredom

Boredom can trigger repetitive thinking because when the mind is not actively engaged in a task or stimulation, it can start to wander and focus on repetitive thoughts.


This is especially common when a person feels unfulfilled or unsatisfied with their current situation, which leads them to focus on the same thoughts repeatedly.


Additionally, if a person does not have healthy coping mechanisms to deal with boredom or unfulfilled feelings, they may resort to repetitive thinking as a way to pass the time or distract themselves from their feelings.


Negative self-talk

Repetitive thinking can be exacerbated by negative self-talk, as people ruminate on their perceived shortcomings and shortcomings of others.

sad autistic woman crying on the couch experiencing negative self talk

When we engage in negative self-talk, we are essentially having a continuous, internal dialogue that can be critical, harsh, and self-defeating. This type of thinking can create a vicious cycle, where the negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, which in turn reinforce the negative thoughts, leading to further distress.


Repetitive thinking can occur when these negative thoughts become so ingrained and automatic that they are difficult to shake, leading to an overactive mind that is constantly ruminating on negative thoughts and emotions.


Final Thoughts

It's important to understand that repetitive thinking can be a normal response to certain situations, but sometimes neurodivergent people become stuck in their thinking, and this is when it begins to cause distress.


An overactive mind in neurodivergent individuals may be due to differences in brain structure and function, executive functioning challenges, and sensory processing difficulties. These can lead to repetitive thinking in the form of overthinking, rumination, and perseveration.


While it may seem overwhelming at times, it's important to remember that there are practical solutions to slow or even stop the hamster wheel and return to a sense of peace. Stay tuned for next week's post, where I'm excited to share tips to help you slow and even stop the hamster wheel in your mind.


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