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Neurodivergent Anxiety Symptoms: An approach to breaking the Rumination Spiral

Whirlpool illustrating the anxiety ruminations a person can get stuck in

"The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth". (Edgar Allen Poe, 1910 from his short story 'Descent Into the Maelstrom', Illustrated by Harry Clarke.

Is your brain stuck in a spiral? Do you often feel like you’re going round in anxiety circles trying to resolve things but not getting anywhere? And the thoughts spiral and get bigger and bigger, leading to frozen indecision where you’re getting sucked deeper and deeper into it all?

Anyone can experience this at times in their life. For neurodivergent people, this can be exacerbated by having monotropic focus, more uncertainty in social interactions, difficulties with cognitive processing and an easily dysregulated nervous system. The whole thing can be pretty unbearable!!

It's important to acknowledge the determination of the brain! It cannot help fixating on an issue. If a situation is unresolved, the brain can’t help coming back to the issue again and again. It wants a resolution - it wants escape out of the unbearable anxiety symptoms!


Step one: Slow the spiral down

What’s the point of slowing down? Basically, you’re getting your thinking brain back online, the parts of the brain to do with language, cognition and decision making. To get into the slow zone, attend to your body. Anything that moves the body can help e.g. cleaning for a bit, going up the road to get some shopping, getting fresh air, walking the dog, talking to your cat, doing some handiwork etc. basically, anything involving something manual which brings you into the present moment.

Step two: Step back and detangle the spiral

How do you step back? Using a different medium can help you step outside the spiral e.g. writing, poetry, images on pinterest, spider diagram, talking to someone etc.Also, summarise your spiral and see if you can turn it into a number of questions.

See if anyone else can help answer your questions. Who would you feel safe asking, and what would feel like the easiest next step. If the next step feels too big, how can you make it small enough to be a step you can take.

If you can’t ask people in real life, try asking them in your imagination. See what people say and what your reflections are on what they’ve said. Can you spot any black and white thinking or emotional beliefs in your responses and question if they're really true?

What are you certain about related to your questions?

What are you uncertain about related to your questions?

What are the main themes or conclusions that are emerging?

Step three: Find the feelings in the spiral

Make some sentences starting with the words “I feel…” and see what happens. You might notice sensations, images, memories, metaphors, movies, songs come into mind. Anything that pops into your head is a clue as to what you might be feeling about all this. Opening up to a curiosity about it all can bring more information that can help with untangling the spiral.

If you struggle with identifying or naming your feelings, try generally noticing what’s going on in your body – there may be a tightness of a heaviness. Try to stay with this and use whatever words come to mind that describes the sensation (e.g. cold, hot, spiky, dark, sticky) rather than analyings them cognitively. The Hapiful app can help in identifying words for feelings.

Step four: Take action

Ask what does my body need for this situation to be resolved? Do I need more space, connection with others, food etc.

See if you can check in with someone to process externally (very useful for ADHD where external processing helps)?

See if you need more information that is missing to make this spiral move forward a bit?

List possible actions and then take action, or ask someone to help you take action. Taking action is the most powerful way to dissolve a spiral!


Even though I've written steps, it isn't actually a linear process. The main aim is go back and forth between thoughts, feeling and action to bring some movement, but the most essential ingredient is to bring an approach of open curiosity towards the whole thing.


Even if no resolution comes, taking the steps to define the issue and identify associated feelings associated can in itself bring relief. This is what often happens in counselling.


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