A short self-help guide to tackling rumination for autistic people (may also be useful for others)

Many autistic people get very stuck in loops of rumination and uncertainty, and the feeling of going round and round, the anxiety and worry, can be really unbearable. I call this ‘loops of concern’. This could be a result of our more monotropic minds, or it could be because we are more greatly impacted by uncertainties (or have more uncertainties to deal with) — or both. Often, these loops are centred around something we are not sure about: was that friend angry? Did I leave my phone on the bus or at home? Did I misinterpret or accidentally break a rule? Etc.

Thoughts can circle like fish in a small pond

If you think about it, it makes sense that if we are uncertain about something that could have unpredictable and potentially bad consequences, we would want to try to resolve the worry — it’s a natural facet of our problem-solving brains to try to adapt to uncertainty by figuring out possible scenarios and deciding what to do. Many non-autistic folks also get stuck in loops of concern, though whether it’s because they are less monotropic, and/or experience more certainty and control in life (I’m speaking in very broad terms here! This is obviously not true for many non-autistic people), it may impact them less harshly. There is a (I think reasonable) stereotype of autistic folks taking a problem or interest and working at it tirelessly with extreme focus. This can be great when it’s something we’re into, but not so great when we are stuck and distressed.

To resolve these loops of concern, it can be worth trying to tackle the uncertainties they might spring from via both feelings and information/planning, especially as one approach might be less fruitful at times, or another approach might be more unhelpful in the moment. As individuals, we also can often have a tendency to favour either feelings or logic — but both are important, and really you can’t have one without the other (much longer discussion needed on this!).

For example, it might not be possible to get definitive reassurance or information on an issue, you might still feel bad even with the info that you thought you needed (maybe your feelings will tell you what you actually need), and equally sometimes, an accessible piece of info is all that’s needed for the difficult feelings to go away. Interestingly, sometimes just identifying the root uncertainty (and it might not be an obvious one) can help resolve a loop, even while it still stays uncertain – perhaps having a clearer idea of exactly what we’re uncertain about gives us the ability to weigh up better how much threat there might really be, and feel more in control.

This is a guide I put together, initially for myself, to work through these loops of concern. I hope you might find it helpful.

Navigating Loops of Concern

Try to work through these questions slowly, whenever you feel like you are falling too much into a loop and getting stuck. You can do them in any order you like, and move back and forth between feelings, info and action if that is helpful. If focusing on these questions is proving too difficult, it’s possible that you are overtired/hungry/thirsty/have other bodily needs. Try to do some simple restful distracting things, go to the toilet, refuel, etc, and then come back to these questions later if they are still on your mind.

Return to these questions and your answers when needed, try to answer them further, or read back on what has been resolved, and what steps are being taken.

INFO

  • Summarise the main thoughts I’m looping through in bullet points. Can I turn them into questions?
  • Can I answer any of these questions? (add answers)
  • Can anyone else answer any of these questions? Who/how?
  • What am I certain about related to these questions?
  • What am I uncertain about?
  • What might be needed to resolve these uncertainties? (don’t worry if you can’t resolve all of them, or if what’s needed doesn’t seem feasible — we’re just looking at what it might take at this point)
  • Are there people I can/want to talk with about this? Who? Draft some messages/imaginary conversations here.
  • Add any reflections I might have on folks’ responses.

*Sometimes, I’ve found it helpful to look back at old messages or other written information, as it gives me a sense of certainty over what was written/said. If you have anything similar, you could quote them here, or save them in a folder on your phone or computer for easy access. Over time, you might find that you will only need to glance at the documents, or even just know they’re there, until you don’t need them anymore. (examples: someone telling you that they care about you; a clear list of instructions for a job)

  • What are the main themes or conclusions that are emerging?

FEELINGS

  • What am I feeling just now? Try to make some sentences starting with “I feel”… these could be physical or emotional sensations, images and metaphors.

*particularly if you struggle with identifying or naming your feelings, you might start with thinking about your bodily sensations: is there anywhere that feels tight or loose? Sore? Hot/cold? You could use analogies, music, images… (reaction gifs, even!). What are some other times when you have felt sensations like this? Do they give you some clues as to what’s going on for you? Try to stay with the feelings rather than over-analyse them cognitively.

(e.g. sometimes when I’m really anxious, I describe myself as feeling full of bees)

  • Some suggested emotion words that can lead to a feeling of agitation:
  • Worried
  • Sad
  • Excited
  • Joyful
  • Frustrated
  • Angry
  • Ashamed
  • Disappointed
  • Scared
  • Anxious
  • If I am feeling generally bad/frustrated/down/anxious, is this because of any of the uncertainties and feelings listed above, or is it because I am mentally exhausted / hungry / some other identifiable unrelated stress? What specific things can I do to take a break or resolve some of these feelings?

ACTION

  • What does my body need? Can I prioritise that? (rest? / food or water? / uncluttered spaces to look at? outdoors? exercise? fun? deep pressure? physical contact?)
  • Can I write about any of the themes above? Or use a different creative outlet such as music, art, poetry, etc?
  • Are there people I can check in with (either to resolve an uncertainty or to let off some steam)?
  • Is there information I need to find or tasks I need to do to help resolve the issues explored above?
  • List some very simple tasks based on the above points (broken down from larger tasks perhaps) for things I need to do. Tick them off if I do some.

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I’m a trainee counsellor, trainer, artist, and naturalist based in Edinburgh, UK. My work is largely focused on autism & mental health.