(originally published July 31, 2009, updated April 15, 2021)
Rumination. Racing thoughts. Stuck thinking. Worrying. Perseverating. These are just some of the names adults with ADHD use when referring to their inability to move on from thoughts that are causing them a great deal of distress and not serving them in any productive way. ADHD rumination is real and can get in your way.
For example, maybe you blurted out something in your meeting with your colleague, Ali, you now regret. Now, not only are you replaying the scenario over and over, but you’re also thinking about the potential for any future fallout. You may wonder whether Ali will want to work with you on future projects, whether this will affect your chances of promotion etc.
Yet, you’re not doing anything proactive to address the situation. You’re just, well, thinking about it. And, consequently, because your energy is taken up with these runaway thoughts you might not be able to focus and attend to whatever else is on your plate. Sounds familiar, right?
Before diving into the causes and solutions it’s important to note that this stuck thinking is not the same as “productive hyper-focusing.” Because one of the superpowers for some ADHD adults is being able to intentionally think about one thing to the exclusion of other tasks. This can be productive thinking and something you don’t want to lose, for sure.
OK, now we can get on to looking at your nonproductive rumination.
Why Do You Want to Manage Your Overthinking?
The most obvious reason you want to stop the endless loop of thoughts is to reduce your anxiety and feel more grounded, of course. Another reason to manage your overthinking is so you can spend more time doing what’s essential – meaningful – to you. Being productive.
And you know rumination steals your time and energy, as it crowds out your ability to think creatively and do what is meaningful to you. These runaway thoughts can also take away from your ability to address whatever is prompting your rumination. All in all, this is time and energy you don’t want to and really can’t afford to lose.
What other reasons do you have for wanting to decrease you’re overthinking? Whatever the payoff, whether it’s something you want or something you want to avoid, understanding what causes this rumination can help you create the most helpful workarounds.
How Your ADHD May Impact Your Rumination
One byproduct of your ADHD may be what Dr. Charles Parker calls ADHD cognitive anxiety. For clarity’s sake, it’s important to note that this is not the same as clinical anxiety. If you have clinical anxiety, which is a common comorbid condition with ADHD, you’ll want to treat your anxiety with specific targeted strategies.
OK, now that I’ve given you the disclaimer, let’s look at how your ADHD can contribute to rumination.
First, remember because of your ADHD working memory challenges your brain has a limited capacity to hold and process information in the moment. And, according to Dr. Parker, because you are not able to hold and consider multiple ideas at once, you may engage in counterproductive excessive thinking — rumination.
While you may want to transition and focus on something else, you just can’t seem to turn off your thoughts. It can definitely happen at the most inconvenient times, right? As Dr. Parker notes your prefrontal cortex becomes relatively frozen in time and you have what he calls unmanageable cognitive abundance.
This ADHD stuck thinking, according to Dr. Parker, can present itself in one of three ways:
- Frozen Thinking Without Worry: In these instances, while you aren’t emotional, you still think a lot about stuff that just isn’t that important, leaving yourself feeling exhausted. You may, however, try to micromanage in an effort to minimize the thinking.
- Frozen Thinking – Abundance with Indecision and Worry: With this type of thinking you may often get stuck in your thinking, unable to make a decision, or making it too late, leading to negative consequences in your personal and professional life.
- Frozen Thinking with a Feeling of Anxiety: if this happens to you, the anxious feelings come from thinking too much. And then you’ll become indecisive and worry until you can feel it in your body, maybe your head, chest, or stomach.
Can you think of recent times when you have experienced any of the above?
Other Factors That Can Contribute to ADHD Rumination
You know there are also other factors that may be contributing to your tendency to ruminate. Yet, while you may want to manage these factors for other reasons, you may not have yet thought about dealing with them as a means of decreasing your rumination. But you’ll want to…
For example, what happens when you:
- are sleep deprived?
- do not get enough exercise?
- are not eating well or getting enough water?
- don’t feel connected and validated by others?
You may become easily stressed and frustrated, leading to more rumination, right? Not taking care of your physical and emotional needs can also exacerbate your ADHD symptoms, including cognitive anxiety – rumination. And this, in turn, can leave you feeling more stressed and overwhelmed. And then what happens? Possibly more rumination!
You get the idea. It’s important to take care of both your physical and emotional needs if you want to manage your ADHD symptoms and minimize your rumination. How can you practice better self-care as a means of decreasing your runaway thoughts – rumination?
Understand Why You’re Ruminating
Now that you have an understanding of at least some of the factors that may be contributing to your tendency to ruminate, the next step is to:
- identify where you are ruminating.
- what that rumination is about.
That is, you’ll want to figure out what purpose the rumination is serving.
Sometimes your ADHD brain is just doing what it does, trying to find stimulation. So, the rumination may just be that – candy for your brain. In those instances, if you can distract yourself long enough, with your wonky memory, you might just forget the endless loop of thoughts. Problem solved! 😉
Whereas, if you’re ruminating about a problem that may or may not need a solution, and you’re not acting/deciding, you’ll need to figure out what’s getting in your way of moving forward. And then tap into your resources to figure out how or whether to solve the problem.
Ready to see how to do this?
Often the first step is to do nothing. Really.
Whether you decide there is a problem that needs to be solved or not, it can be helpful, especially for ADHD adults, to have time and space before deciding to act. Otherwise, as you know all too well, unless you pause first, you may impulsively act or say something you’ll later regret.
So, unless it’s a true emergency, take a beat for whatever amount of time makes sense given the context. It could be an hour, a day, a week or more. Of course, how you decide to take this space and time away from the thoughts that are occupying you will depend on your circumstances.
Start with a mindfulness practice to center yourself so you can be present in the here and now. Rather than living in the past or future due to your rumination. Listening to music, doing some art, practicing yoga, walking in nature, meditating, etc. are few options you can try to do this. And, yes, ADHD adults can meditate. 😉
But, if you need to keep working and don’t have time in the moment to engage in the above activities, you might be better able to focus on your primary task by giving your floating attention a job to do, using one of the strategies below:
- use white noise (SimplyNoise) or music ([email protected]) in the background
- play with a fidget object
- doodle or take notes
- have your meeting while walking
The goal, whether engaging in a mindfulness practice or trying to continue working, is to not act hide your runaway thoughts. At least not immediately.
Managing Your ADHD Rumination – Stay Tuned
Above are some of the reasons you may be ruminating and a little bit about the importance of pausing before jumping into action. In Part 2 – 7 Strategies ADHD Adults Can Use to Stop Ruminating I’ll share both some strategies as to how you can explore your rumination and what could help minimize it.