Updated: Apr 17
People with ADHD are master ruminators. Our racing negative thoughts take hold of us. And then we even try to ruminate our way out of rumination.
In this post, you'll learn how to recognize this damaging habit and how to break free from the complete agony of ADHD rumination. Being able to interrupt your racing negative thoughts can greatly improve your quality of life and your relationships.
Practice the time-tested tricks below to outsmart your rumination right now.
A barrage of racing negative thoughts gets stuck in our head
Many of us with ADHD report being accosted by a barrage of (often negative) thoughts. And some of those thoughts tend to get stuck in our heads, repeating over and over and over again. This is called rumination.
We can get pulled into ever deeper spirals of thinking about our thinking and even ruminating about our rumination.
As my wise teacher, Caroline Maguire, says: "You can't think your way out of rumination."
Our innate negativity bias
Humans, even neurotypical ones, come with an innate negativity bias. We notice the negative more than the positive.
This made sense evolutionarily, as our ancestors would have died if they missed a relevant danger, hence not passing on their genes. If they missed a sweet berry, on the other hand, their genes could still be passed on.
Our negativity bias kept humans alive in the past, but today it can often make us miserable.
First, recognize to then interrupt
The first step is to recognize that you're ruminating. This is not as simple as it sounds when you're stuck down there in the rumination pit.
Putting up reminders you won't miss asking "Am I ruminating?" can be helpful. Regularly checking in with your body helps, as does any form of mindfulness, but who remembers to do that when we're ruminating?
Small wins add up. Every time you catch yourself ruminating, you're strengthening the new habit of recognition. Don't give up; it truly gets easier with time.
A dirty little secret about ADHD rumination
Before we go on, let me share a dirty little secret about rumination in people with ADHD. Nothing is worse for the ADHD brain than boredom. Even rumination is more tolerable.
So we've sometimes actively fueled our rumination habit to entertain our brain. It's like kids acting out to get attention, where they prefer negative attention to no attention. For us, rumination was better than boredom.
Awareness of this as an adult is key to being able to stop feeding this painful habit.
Creative interruption skills - instant tips
Now, let's look at the key part: how do you interrupt your rumination once you recognize it? We've already established that more thinking will not get us anywhere. So how do we stop?
The main trick is to get out of your head and back into your body - back to the here and now. This may require rather drastic and mildly unpleasant measures.
Try out the following pattern interrupts to see which ones work for your ADHD rumination:
Dunk your face into a sink filled with cold water
Suck on an ice cube
Jump up and down like crazy
Shake out your body
Turn on music and do a wild dance
Chew on sour or spicy candies or gums
Run cold water over your forearms
Once you know which of these techniques work for you, write them down and keep your notes handy so you know what to do when rumination takes hold. Don't think you'll remember in the moment. Trust me, make yourself the prompt.
Bonus: curiosity is your secret ADHD weapon
Many of us with ADHD have curiosity as one of our superpowers. It can work wonders to help us stay in the moment once we've pried ourselves loose from rumination.
Stay curious about your body sensations, the thoughts that may be trying to suck you back into the rumination vortex, the sights, sounds, and textures around you.
Curiosity can allow us to say "hmmmm, interesting....", a skill that's taught to cope with cravings and anxiety (reference below) and can help an ADHDer cope with the pull of rumination as well.
A caveat: co-existing depression or anxiety may be stronger than these skills
I want to end this post with a word of caution: If you or the other ruminators in your life have depression or anxiety, the skills described in this post may not be sufficient to break out of rumination.
Furthermore, depression may prevent us from even being able to try out any of these skills. If this is the case for you or your loved ones, this may feel like yet another shameful failure.
Please seek the support of a medical professional and do not "should" on yourself. We're all doing the best we can. Get the help, treatment, and care you need, and do not suffer in silence.
Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, Vermillion, 2021