Worrying or stimming? Looking at an overactive mind from a neurdodivergent point of view

It’s fair to say, I have an extremely overactive mind, a trait so built into me that it predates any “need” to worry about anything very much in my life really, however tempting it is to try and dig up reasons why my infant nervous system may have been sent into fight or flight on a regular basis. Overthinking is just part of the fabric of who I am and has delivered some of my most contented and self-contained times, going all the way back to earliest childhood. Looking at other people in my family, and not all of the same generation, I suspect its more of a genetic disposition to have a very busy mind and it is certainly a neurodiverse trait.

Since coming to recognise myself as neurodivergent and especially ADHD (more accurately, AuDHD and, when it comes to ADHD, I still prefer to use the name VAST or Variable Attention Stimulus Trait), I have been able to cast a much more, what feels like, appropriate light on the matter. Which isn’t to say I have never had any causes to worry (I’ve actually had tremendous reasons, at times, and my ongoing health issues give me plenty of excuses) but that worry isn’t always the core reason my brain gets stuck “on” when I want it to go to sleep, relax or focus on other things.

In fact, the worry theory has never sat comfortably with the fact I am a fairly balanced, reasonable, circumspect kind of person coming from a family whose collective trait is to very-much take things in our stride (this is most noticeable when you get us all together and find we are all so laid back we are almost horizontal). Trying to get a rise out of our family is often a complete waste of time as we just seem to take things as they come with a higher degree of calm and pragmatism and I am much the same.

Yet sometimes my brain gets stuck in fast gear and there is literally no stopping it, at the least convenient times too, which is a classic trait of ADHD. Which brings up another related topic; the urge to self-stimulate or “stim” that is also a big part of ADHD. Because when the mind is extremely active, it is its own form of self-stimulation. The constant whirring of my mind is like a portal self-stimming toy!

So, I’ve come to realise, I need to learn to differentiate between worrisome rumination and times when my brain is simply grazing around looking for a source of stimulation. Of course I worry, and have had some significant reasons to do this, past and present (and then some), in fact I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have some significant worries on my mind right now. One way I know that I am worrying is that my thoughts get stuck on loop…a closed circle, repetitious and unresolved…compared to my other thoughts, which spin outwards like a spider’s web, hopping from subject to subject in an exponential fashion. Even at the most worrisome of times, I spend more time in those kind of thoughts than the stuck ones.

I have also expended a lot of effort developing mindfulness over the years and am now far better at putting down worrisome thoughts until I am in a position to act on them, which usually isn’t until daylight hours; in fact, I do my very best to quash worrying topics between sunset and sunrise. Of course, some things get in under the belt and its often worry about other people, or my interactions with them, that are most likely to disturb my sleep, compared to any other types of worries, which is a sensitivity area common to a lot of people with ADHD as we are known to take things personally and find it hard to filter unwitting hurts that come our way (its known as rejection sensitive dysphoria, and is generally taken to mean an exaggerated emotional response but, I would say, such sensitivities are often quite justified by the way so many misunderstandings occur between neurodiverse and neurotypical people). However, as I keep interactions with anyone outside my inner circle to a minimum these days, this presents me with far less to ruminate now compared to when I used to work in a big office or be an active parent dealing with loads of people everyday.

So how can we tell if its worry on our mind or just a case of our overactive mind looking for a source of stimulation? Well, if it is moving around widely between topics, not held prisoner by one particular focus of rumination, then it’s likely to be the latter, in my view. This comes as some relief to me because I used to regard myself as the sort of person who worried about absolutely everything, the whole the weight of the world on my shoulders. Surely I must be because, if I was able to dredge up just so many reasons to stay awake thinking for half the night, my mind must be in a constant state of turmoil (I told myself, based on what I had read about anxiety conditions and because I was trying to find a root cause for my health crash). Once you start to see yourself as anxious, its all too easy to notice things that might be anxiety inducing and, suddenly, you are in a catch-22 situation, assuming this is what is going on in your head and grabbing the label of it (see my other thoughts on the dangers of labels). Thinking I was a highly anxious person for so many years really did me no favours. Now I see it more as a kind-of survivalist knack I have of turning thinking into a source of stimulation, wherever I happen to be or whatever time of day or night it is (like a child who is able to play with a box or piece of wrapping paper with as much fascination as it it was a Rubik’s cube), especially at times when my system is, frankly, uncomfortable or bored. No matter what is going on, I can always turn inward, to my mind, and there is a whole universe of highly stimulatory distraction waiting there for me. The fact I am “in my head” doesn’t mean I am anxious…but that I am off to my happy place!

So when I log onto thinking mode for no justifiable reason (or at the wrong time of day!), I suspect its often to keep me out of an infernal state of chemical boredom (a dopamine crash!) that feels almost like death to me, or like drowning into abstraction and hyper sensory awareness, which is often how my nervous system feels in the dead of night when everything is, allegedly, quiet yet I seem to sense all the more going on in the dark room because of that, because it allows me to focus more. In fact, when I close my eyes, my other senses only become more acutely aware of all the other things going on. Unless, of course, my thoughts are interesting enough, which is where the distractionary power of thinking comes in as a mightily useful tool.

So my brain goes scouring around for something to hook onto and can cover a massive area of highly ruminatory topics in no time, skipping seamlessly across subject intersections that make everything in the world seem connected. There’s a gift to it really…if it didn’t all feel like I am overdoing it at times and depriving myself of sleep into the bargain. In fact, the more externally stimulated I am, the more I go into a sort of free flow trance of thinking-ness that sits somewhere between daydream and meditation. Here lies a risk because it can fixate me, for hours, but it’s still not sleep and so it’s not restful in the same way, so it’s really not ideal for someone with a health condition that relies on quality rest and rejuvenation overnight. Sometimes, thoughts I have when I am in this state turn out to be extremely inspired or useful, insightful, even game changing. However, if I start to think these thoughts are useful or clever then all hope of sleep is lost because I feed the rumination, egging if on. Thus I merely hover in a state of half-asleep-ness because my mind prioritises the fascination factor over the desire to surrender back into the abstraction of actual sleep, preferring to remain in a state of lucidity and spectatorship of my own mind than off in the land of nod where I have no recollection or control. Lately, I know this tendency has fed into my ME flare-up and, now that I have a way of tracking sleep quality (using a device on my wrist), I notice the distinct pattern between disturbed or lower quality sleep nights and worse symptoms the next day!

So, akin to most people with ADHD, I just happen to have a brain that goes very fast and doesn’t know how to stop, and nighttime gives it a lot of free rein because of an absence of interruptions. This is that old “sports car with bicycle breaks” analogy sometimes used to describe ADHD. At no other time does my brain get the freedom to roam that it gets at night and I suspect it luxuriates in this, especially when there is a lot to think about.

In essence, because of my ADHD, what happens in the night (or any other time I get completely lost in my thoughts) is that I get stuck in my Default Mode Network (DMN), the part of the brain that allows expansive, imaginative, creative thinking, which is an explanation of ADHD massively simplified. Part of the DMN enables you to look back to the past, scouring over what is effectively your autobiography, dredging up useful information and drawing patterns and the other part allows you to think forwards to the future in an anticipatory way. Of course, those times that get we caught up in regretting the past or ruminating about “what if this happens tomorrow” can quickly turn into worry-type thoughts and can be the curse of a good night’s sleep. These kind of worry thoughts can sully the highly creative and unlimited playground of thought that is the DMN and mean that, almost every time you are in it, you are effectively in a state of worry or fear. Given we tend to spend a lot of our time in this state, this can mean that a person with ADHD who has a lot to worry about is, basically, never free of those worrisome thoughts as here’s the thing about the default mode network in our brains…we tend to spend almost all of our time in there, even when performing a task, whereas “normal” brains switch the DMN off and go into the task-performing part of the brain when busy doing something.

That task-related part of the brain is called the Task Positive Network (TPN) and enables us to focus on doing whatever we are meant to be doing. Whilst neurotypical people can apparently toggle between the two functions at different times, its known that people with ADHD can use both at the same time, as I just mentioned above (what Dr Hallowell, author of “ADHD 2.0 : New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving With Distraction–From Childhood Through Adulthood” refers to as a curse/gift) which leads to competition between the two, with the DMN often winning-out when it comes to gaining most of our attention, rather than our attention being kept appropriately on-task. Of course, being able to access the dreamy, playful part of the brain at the same time as performing a task gives us the creative edge in some situations but it can distract from the quality of our performance. Similarly, just as my DMN sometimes competes with my TPN during the daytime (and don’t I know it…I can get taken completely off task or spend far too long spinning out just one part of a task instead of getting the most important parts done in a timely manner), my DSM also seems to compete with my need for rest, recuperation and SLEEP at night by beguiling off into a whole world of over-thinking!

None of this increased understanding of how my ADHD brain works alters the fact of it happening like this but being better able to discern where the overthinking comes from does help me to take my foot off the gas of assuming there is a problem to be fixed. If my brain is just worrying for the purposes of it’s own conundrum-solving entertainment then I don’t have to take my “worries” all that seriously. I might also be able to distract it with some other form of stimulation or at least cease worrying about the worry so much, realising it’s just a knot I chose to unpick…possibly at the most inconvenient time, such as the middle of the night when I have a busy day ahead, but there it is, I can’t help that. All I can try to do is shift my brain sideways, to distract it in other ways.

Because classically, as already mentioned, my brain will most likely try to find its own kind of stimulation when it is feeling over-stimulated from the outside, to kind-of blank out the thing that is overstimulating it. Or, it will sometimes do it because it is so undertimulated it feels it might die.

The fact it is doing this can tell me that I probably overstimulated myself right before bed or am excited about tomorrow. It could also be something I ate, something I watched too late at night, too much sun as sunlight and heat can be really stimulating and, yes, it can even be a sign I didn’t get enough stimulation yesterday, as can sometimes be the case when I am crashed-out with ME, so its just as important to make sure I have things to engage my brain during the waking hours of my day, even when I can’t exercise much, or the backlash inevitably happens in the night when my brain needs to catch up on its quota of stimulation. (Remember, the ADHD brain is systemically starved of dopamine and this chemical shortfall, just like a shortfall of food in the day, can leave you extra ravenous for what you are missing in the middle of the night when the body goes through its inventoryt.)

The kind of thoughts that come up could just mean that I am going through one of my checklists, which tells me I’m not giving enough thought to my strategies during the day, perhaps my executive function is feeling extra burned out or challenged and the nighttime is when I suddenly remember all the things I need to give my attention to (or forgot yesterday) in which case there are daytime aids I can brush-up on to improve my sleep. It could even be a sign that I’m feeling somewhat better after a period of burnout, meaning my mind is ready and eager to get going again and thus being preemptive, trying to get back on board with a rocket launcher of overthinking, as sometimes happens. However if I let it trundle on with its overthinking in the night, I might just as quickly throw myself right back into meltdown or even burnout again from lack of sleep, so I do need to step in with some rules and strategies.

As anyone with ADHD will know, I can’t just shout “stop” to my thoughts and expect them to adhere so, when they persist, I need to give myself an outlet such as writing down a few thoughts on my notes app or listening to a short audio (nothing too engaging…but it also can’t be utterly pointless and dull or the desire to stim will only increase; think back to those boring read-aloud teacher voices at school that sent you into a fidget or escapist daydream when you should have been listening). If I can listen to something like a podcast that is interesting but not too stimulating, my brain will switch its engagement to that and then, hopefully, start to drop off to sleep sooner or later, which is one of my failsafe tactics…well, mostly failsafe. By contrast, I’ve tried listening to some of those “pointless” stories with no real ending that are specifically designed to cure insomnia and they only make the desire to self-stimulate worse because they are so boring as to be painful to listen to.

What I’ve come to realise is that the need for stimulation is no minor urge but more like an oxygen shortage to my brain…as in, it’s total panic stations situation when a shortage flags-up…so my brain will sometimes wake me up when that happens, primarily to get my urgent attention to the fact that it needs feeding or else it will “die”. Perhaps this speaks to the quality of my sleep, whether I am in REM or just floating in no-man’s land, who knows what makes my brain register that it is not having a happy time of it asleep this time around. The fact it happens to me so often, at a similar time of the night, tells me there is a factor in common, as does the fact that some well orchestrated stimming of my own is the only thing to get me back to sleep!

Differentiating this effect (of suddenly waking in the night because of the need to stim) from being in a supposed state of “chronic worry” has enabled me to see wood from trees…and realise I don’t have that much to worry about after all. I’m not depressed, not anxious, not traumatised, which are all those things I have tried on over the years to help explain my chronic health status…I am “just” neurodiverse and my brain has particular needs and foibles, which I have to learn about thoroughly in order to navigate the best route through my life.

So back to that need to find an alternate source of stimulation in the middle of the night in order to disengage from some other source of external stimulation or because my body is demanding something to stimulate it for reasons largely unknown. Sometimes I just need to physically stimulate my body by, for instance, frisking the skin of my torso, arms and legs with a rough towel, like dry body brushing, which can often help to reset me. Readjusting my clothes so they are more comfortable or tying back my hair can help. Cold water on the face or holding my hands under the tap is another one.I have even stood in the bathroom doing some qigong including vigorous torso twists. If I take the time to get up and do these physical things, I often find I fall back to sleep once I get back into bed, as though the alarm status has been cancelled.

It could be a matter of poor peripheral blood flow, as I already know I have issues with as I suffer from neuropathy and allodynia, amongst other things, and peripheral blood flow impacts so much more than just extremities and skin. Neuropathy (thought to affect 40% of people with ME) is known to affect sleep and is often pointed to as a reason for restless nights. Neuroinflammation and difference in pain perception are also said to be linked to ADHD (see study) and its even been suggested that people with fibromyalgia should automatically be screened for ADHD, such is the close link. Sometimes, the sudden wake up with a stim-urge does actually happen in conjunction with a dip in my registered blood oxygen, as now flags up because I am wearing a wrist device. It has been hypothesised (see article) that ME may involve low blood oxygen levels being delivered to muscle and organ tissue (so, a delivery issue rather than hypoxia per se), possibly due to an autonomic dysfunction resulting in vasoconstriction. Or, if its due to POTs it could be caused by stagnant hypoxia; both of these have the same result, being poor oxygen status in body tissues that need it, and sleep-time could potentially make this worse. Restlessness in the limbs can also be caused by the issues of pain and oxidative stress.

In my case, it has been very interesting to notice how closely the two things sometimes correlate as my most abrupt wake-ups are when oxygen levels dip below the acceptable marker in the middle of the night, so I’m guessing this is part of the autonomic disfunction that comes with ME and/or POTs. I may also be too hot or too cold (in fact, I often experience a sudden hot flush a few moments after one of these sudden wake-ups, like the waking act jolts my temperature gauge to hurriedly rectify itself, having ceased to function correctly whilst I am asleep). I sometimes need to raise my head or my legs to adjust blood flow, especially of my neck is causing vasoconstriction to the head or if there is any muscle cramping or nerve compression, all as a result of my hypermobility. I may desperately need more water or to go to the bathroom. In other words, my overstimulated brain is sometimes trying to alert me to one of these dysautonomic crises that so often require my involvement as part of my chronic health status and is therefore serving as genuine alarm call to keep me functioning.

When I address the physical need, my brain calms down (this applies in the daytime too…) and so I no longer need to out-stim the stimulation…because the cause of stimulation, if there is one, has been removed or reduced. One of the biggest culprits for this can be uncomfortable clothing or bedding, which can really overwhelm my neurodovergent sensibilities to such a high degree that my brain goes into overdrive to try and drown out the unpleasantness, until it is no longer aggravating me. When I am asleep, my conscious mind is unaware of how much my clothes or bedding are overstimulating me but who knows how much aggravation my nervous system is having to drown out with its own distractionary measures. Becoming much more aware of my body, of its likes and dislikes and ways I can assist it to become more comfortable, has been a massively important part of my “sleep hygiene” routine as well as my general health management protocol over the last few years, especially since I discovered and learned about neurodiversity.

Which leads to the obvious factor, common to lots of neurodivergent people, of responding to effects that are outside our control; environmental factors that stimulate. It’s a well recognised factor of ADHD, although there is still a real lack of research, that people with ADHD tend to have hypersensitivity traits, not just to emotional factors but to environmental ones. (As with emotional sensitivity, talked about above) we seem to pay attention to the subtlest things and lack the ability to filter them out, resulting in us noticing and being distracted by all sorts of things that other people have no awareness of.

For instance, as I often speak about, I am highly overstimulated by geomagnetic variables and, with the solar cycle currently at a ten year peak of activity, there is a lot of that about at the moment and much of it takes place at night. The other night, there was a lot of upwards geomagnetic activity as a result of a sideswipe from a CME headed from the sun and, though I didn’t confirm this until the morning, I surely felt it as I knew the signs of a highly overstimulated head and deeply uncomfortable body that no amount of adjusting of clothes or bedding seemed to rectify. As a result, my mind became very highly overstimulated and I lay awake for what felt like ages. Again, now that I have a way of measuring quality of sleep, I find it is almost consistently “poor” on those nights when space weather is most active. In other words, on nights when my system is trying to out-stim the sun, you can guess who loses out!

The irony is, it can sometimes take more stimulation to wind me down, as alluded to above. When life itself is profoundly overstimulating and you are very highly sensitive to this, there is a degree of “if you can’t beat it, join it” and of needing to take back some control. When you are the one choosing how to be stimulated, it can feel like regaining an element of control in a life model that can so-often leaving as though you have very few choices. If I continued assuming that wakefulness is this terribly wrong thing or that I must be anxious, I would still be desperate to get back to sleep at all costs or going about it the wrong way, for instance always trying to soothe myself to sleep when what I might find is more helpful is to stimulate myself back to sleep instead!

All of what I have shared here helps to shed a whole new perspective on the fact I am so often overstimulated, in the daytime but especially at night, because it means that allowing myself to be awake for a while and to go with the flow of my need to allow my overactive mind to have its outlet for a while isn’t necessarily a bad thing, within reason. It prevents me from drawing the wrong conclusions about this propensity to over-think and to allow it to be, in my own unique way, “normal”, even if it needs some guidelines putting in place in order to protect the rest of my health from exhaustion. Once guided in the right direction, with the aims in mind of harvesting any useful thoughts, resetting the nervous system and then, hopefully, drifting back into a better quality of sleep then this at least takes the stress off my shoulders of assuming worst case scenarios such as “I must be feeling anxious” or “there is obviously something to worry about”. My husband sometimes ticks me off for thinking about worse case scenarios and, try as I might, I can’t seem to explain to him that this isn’t a case of being a doom-merchant or worrying about them but of looking them in the eye as just one of the many different potential outcomes that, in having explored them, I actually feel less worried about because I feel more prepared, rather than if I had avoided thinking about them altogether. This feels like a uniquely ADHD way of looking at things, one I know at least one other ADHD person shares with me so maybe its all part of allowing the thoughts to run their course. Different rules obviously apply here, meaning the rules of thumb as to what constitutes a good and restful night have to be completely rewritten, the neurodiverse way.

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