Practicing Meditation and Mindfulness While Neurodivergent

AJ Tanksley
5 min readFeb 2, 2024
Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Hi, I have a Patreon now! If you like my writing and would like to see more of it (including my poems, essays about art and culture, and other pieces that fall outside the scope of this blog), or if you’d like to throw some coins my way on a monthly basis, please consider supporting me at patreon.com/AJTanksley.

Many neurodivergent people — myself included — struggle to sit still and quiet our minds long enough to meditate effectively. Having additional mental illnesses that affect our concentration, thought intensity, and energy levels can make having a regular mindfulness practice even more challenging. Yet many neurodiverse folks are often encouraged to practice both, sometimes with little guidance on how to start or maintain a regular ritual.

At best, we might receive an SEO-friendly link to a listicle, or the name of some NYT-bestselling author. However, the pseudoscience and vague language common in these resources can discourage rather than encourage regular meditation or developing a mindfulness practice.

Basing my practice in my body rather than my mind allows me to enter a mindful headspace, and has helped me manage intrusive thoughts and emotions with greater compassion and grace towards myself.

When your understanding of mindfulness and meditation is based on vague, generic, and quickly-churned-out advice with few specific directions given and many questions left unanswered, it can feel like meditation only really works for tranquil and neurotypical minds.

However, I’ve found that practicing body-oriented mindfulness rituals have done wonders for my mental health and meditation practice in the past month. I am not the easiest meditator; my mind is constantly chattering and I’m frequently prone to intrusive thoughts. Basing my practice in my body rather than my mind allows me to enter a mindful headspace, and has helped me manage intrusive thoughts and emotions with greater compassion and grace towards myself.

A quick disclaimer: this is not meant to be an advice article; I’m simply sharing my own personal experiences utilizing body-based mindfulness practices. The methods I discuss may not necessarily work for everyone. There is also a great deal of woo to comb through when researching this topic, often mixed in with legitimate scientific research, so research selectively and with a healthy dose of skepticism! Remember: if it feels like someone is selling you crap, they probably are.

Breathwork is one body-based practice that helps me a great deal as a neurodivergent person. I live almost perpetually in my head, and anxiety triggers tend to throw my whole self into a roaring wildfire of panic. Signals from my body become jumbled and disorganized, and I cannot easily separate physical discomfort and pain from intense emotional agony. When in an autistic meltdown, they feel one and the same to me.

Practicing the 4–7–8 breathing technique — where I inhale for four seconds, hold my breath for seven, and exhale for eight seconds — helps me find my body again. Not only does it slow down my breathing and stop me from hyperventilating, but it also acts as a sort of “reset” button for my internal systems (heart rate, blood pressure, etc). When my body functions are reset, it is then easier for me to ground myself and calm down.

I’ve found that practicing the 4–7–8 technique is most effective for me when practiced several times daily, not just when I’m spinning out. I think this is because my body becomes used to “resetting” on a regular basis, thus making it easier to do this process automatically when all systems are malfunctioning during a panic attack/meltdown. When my higher-level thinking process is offline, my body is able to stay online, thus helping out my brain, and so on.

The benefits of 4–7–8 breathing when meditating are equally wonderful. This form of breathwork helps my brain and body transition from “busy bee” mode to “slow down” mode: a state I definitely need to be in to meditate properly. When taking the time to make this transition, I don’t feel like a kid trying to sit still after consuming a bunch of sugar, and can actually focus on what my limbs are doing.

Another body-based practice that helps me enter a mindful state is yoga nidra. On days when I can’t get out of my head at all, this practice throws me right back into it. In yoga nidra, I go through each part of my body, briefly bringing my awareness to it before moving on. I find it best to practice using a guided meditation, as this can help me keep track of what limb I am on (trust me, it’s very easy to lose track when practicing solo).

Yoga nidra is as fantastic for insomnia as it is for mindfulness, as my muscles are able to naturally relax into sleep without requiring a chemical sedative. It is also very easy to get into physical position for, as it can be practiced lying down.

The biggest challenge to this practice can be maintaining focus, as my mind wanders very easily. Doing breathwork before yoga nidra helps my brain quiet down a bit, as does treating my thoughts like falling rain.

I had the epiphany to treat my thoughts like falling rain when listening to a lovely rain ambience video while in a deep state of meditation (or maybe I was stoned). Individual thoughts are like raindrops; when you have too many of them at once, they become like a rainstorm pattering down on your mind.

Imagining my racing thoughts as falling rain rather than as an angry swarm of bees has helped me be less annoyed by them when they pop up during meditation. I can simply say, “falling rain,” and they become soothing background noise to me. This cue phrase helps me manage my anxiety outside of meditation as well, especially when I am triggered or when my emotional endurance is being tested (ie when interacting with printers).

Either way, physical mindfulness practices and simple cue words have helped me reconnect with my body a great deal, and make daily life much more manageable. I would like to explore the intersection of neurodiversity with spirituality in greater depth, so I may touch on meditation again in a future article. In the meantime, feel free to share your own experiences with meditating and practicing mindfulness while neurodivergent in the comments — the good, the bad, and the ugly!

Memento mori.

Questions, comments, inquiries: ajtanksley96@gmail.com

Patreon: patreon.com/AJTanksley

Paypal: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/annajtanksley

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/annajoytanksley

Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe: all my articles are free!

--

--

AJ Tanksley

A lifelong learner and poet, AJ (they/she/he) writes about the intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, spirituality, and identity.