Upon getting my diagnosis of Asperger’s, one of the very first things I learned about was something called perseveration. In fact, I learned about it during the actual assessment. The person who was doing it was able to give a name to something Nee had been describing about me, and helped us get some perspective.

See, I obsess a lot. My brain just seems to like doing that. In some ways I view that as a good thing, such as my defense of obsessions from a while back. However, this tendency is not always good. Sometimes it’s just amusing or neutral, like when a word or phrase gets stuck in my head and I wind up repeating it over and over and over again for several minutes straight. Other times a conversation or event will get stuck in my head for some reason, and I’ll wind up going over it repeatedly.

That last one is what I want to talk about. When something gets stuck and it’s like it’s on instant replay for days, weeks, and sometimes even months on end. Even this is not always bad. I mean, I usually wind up replaying things in my head several times over. It helps me process and it’s part of how I think through things and come up with solutions if there’s a problem.

Sometimes, though, it’s just torment. I’ll be stuck going in these little mental circles going nowhere at all. No processing is happening, I’m not progressing through a thought pattern, I’m not coming up with solutions (sometimes I already have a solution but I still can’t stop thinking about whatever it is). I’m just stuck. That, I have been told, is perseveration.

Learning that there was a word for this and learning what it is actually helped clear up some friction in my relationship with Nee. He would see me go over the same thing again and again and again, he would see that there was nothing to be gained by it, and he would see that it was causing me unhappiness. What he did not see was that I couldn’t help it. He thought that I should just be able to stop thinking about those things and that I was willfully going in circles. So learning what it was also meant learning that it was not a choice on my part, which helped him to adjust to me.

As for me, when I am able to put a label on something, I often feel like I have a better handle on it. This allowed me to identify the behavior pattern much earlier and much more easily than I had been before. It gave me a context to help me understand some of how I worked that I had not understood before. I still needed to sort out when my going over things repeatedly was working for me and when it wasn’t, but now I had a box to use for When It’s Not Working. For me, that is a very good and useful thing to have.

Apparently perseveration is a thing with the autism spectrum. I’m not alone in this, and I wonder how it impacts other people’s lives and relationships, and how different people deal with it. For me, I write. I write both to help me process, and I’ve taken to writing when I’ve noticed that I’m perseverating and not getting anywhere. It actually helps me quite a bit. I’m able to turn it into words and put the words somewhere I can see and read them, and it seems to calm my brain down. Sometimes it means that I can make progress in whatever I’m thinking about, and sometimes it means I actually get to think about something else after days of nothing but the same thing on repeat.

At this point I look at perseveration as one manifestation of an overall tendency to obsess. Obsessing can happen in a number of different ways, and I honestly view many of them as beneficial. Sometimes, though, even a beneficial trait can go sideways and then I need to find some way to handle that.

Do you perseverate? What ways have you found to cope with it?


Filed under issue, personal

9 responses to “Perseveration

  1. Iris Johansson, a high functioning Swedish woman, whose book “A different childhood” I have translated, writes about her solution to the problem as follows:
    If nobody gives me a task I forget that others exist around me and then everything floats without direction and without substance. I end up in a type of feedback within myself. The outer world disappears and isolated thoughts spin around hundreds of times, for example: “It doesn’t matter, because I’ve got no money.” These thoughts actually come in English. It might also be a verse from a hit song, or a line from a film. As a child I called them crazy thoughts because I knew they had no meaning for me. While such a thought is buzzing around I am unaware of time and place, and when it stops of itself I may discover that an hour or six have passed. I have difficulty breaking the thought cycle myself, but sometimes I can by giving myself a task, for example to iron some clothes. When I have been ironing a while the thought disappears. Therefore I always keep a stack of un-ironed clothes available. Somebody coming to see me or the cell phone ringing can also break the cycle.

  2. Great post.

    Yes, I experience ‘mind going around in circles’ and replaying things over and over with many different things. Parts of experiences, especially conversations, keep replaying over and over in my head – specific sequences including visual, verbal and auditory elements get stuck on replay. That mostly happens with things I didn’t understand, or things that enhanced my understand of other things, so I consider it a sort of longitudinal after-processing where the experience is slowly being broken down into smaller components and each of them analyses, imitated, categorised, integrated and related to other things. That is the positive side.

    Uncertainties can get my mind stuck in a destructive and wasteful replay-loop for a long time, basically it never stops until the issue is clarified (and even then, it can take a while to wind it down). It can be a future event I’m nervous about which an unclear schedule, or faulty logic (where some information is missing), or just something I’m speculating about and where I don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion, so I keep changing my mind between a set of possible conclusions in and endless loop. That is a very destructive tendency that drains a lot of energy and can make me totally miserable and confused, and I wish I wasn’t like that.

    Other typical ‘mind loops’:

    Movie flashbacks can dominate my mind for days or longer after I see a movie. Specific sequences keep replaying over and over in my head, and I relate almost everything I experience to aspects of the movie, as if the purpose of the movie is to explain everything else in life. A scary movie can cause ‘shock flashbacks’ long after I saw it and pretty much inevitably causes nightmares right after. Seeing multiple movies within one day/short time doesn’t work for me because I get mixed flashbacks where my mind gets stuck trying to synthesise the movie plots and understand their combined logic… Not working! but I can’t not do that.

    Music is another one, one I think is typical. Music I hear often continues to play in my head, or often a single strophe keeps playing over and over (sometimes I keep humming it, eg if I’m driving). Some songs I practice and sing in Church also keeps replaying in an indefinite loop. I don’t mind that… I like it actually, it is just a free inner music player:-)

  3. I forgot to say, I disagree with your use of the word perseveration though, because to persevere is just the ability to persist with a course of action or a project in the face of difficulties and without external rewards, it doesn’t necessarily mean to be stuck in repetition of a simple action over and over like a loop.

    • Fair enough, you are certainly welcome to reject it. I had quite a lot of trouble with the word for a while.

      I will, however, say that while ‘perseveration’ is related to the word ‘persevere,’ they are not the same. Also, while I recognize that an argument via appeal to authority is not a great one, my use of the word perseveration is one that my therapist insisted on – not just that it’s about repetition and being in a loop, but that it’s about when the repetition/looping is being a problem. If I’m repeating something as part of processing or I find it pleasurable, then apparently it doesn’t count.

      On a more personal level, I have found that it is useful to have a specific word for when a bit of obsession is being a problem. I like words; I find them useful.

      Finally, the dictionary:

      • I find it very useful to have specific labels too; I objected because I don’t find perseveration specific enough. If I use the word, it won’t mean the same thing, but if the word works for you as a label for destructive/problematic obsessiveness, then I don’t have an issue with that.

        Looking at the dictionary reference you link to, your therapist’s use of the word may be an adaptation of the psychiatric definition (number 2 of 4), which I was not aware of. I would still however personally choose a word that doesn’t have a common general meaning it can be confused with. ‘Loops’, ‘replays’, and ‘obsessions’ do too, but not as broad and/or in a different context, so they are less likely to cause any ambiguity.

  4. Ross

    Very interesting blog topic. I’m currently going through the diagnosis stage for Aspergers as my most recent PDoc is pretty certain it’s the cause of a lot of my “quirks”. The more (and more and more) I read about it, I’m pretty convinced she’s correct and it’s actually like somebody has handed me a user manual for my own brain.

    I’m 27 and have had problems all of my life, even my mother was not surprised after reading some of the information about routines and directed thought etc as I used to have routines for everything growing up and if even one thing went wrong, the whole neighbourhood knew about it and I had to go back to the start to begin again.

    I found your blog after searching for this exact problem, (I’ve found a lot of information about myself now I know what to look for) it’s something I’ve always had that nobody ever understands and a lot of exs and close friends have made me feel pretty bad for obsessing over things in my mind like this. Sometimes the simplest thing will get stuck in there, like I’ll hear somebody say a word or phrase which attracts my attention for no particular reason, then for the rest of the day it’s all I can think about, repeating it over and over in my head.

    Like Mados, I also get scenes from TV shows or Movies looping in my head for days on end, or a song I’ve heard somewhere will keep playing on repeat. Sometimes with music I do end up listening to the song on repeat for hours because I can’t get it out of my head so it helps quiet my brain a little, though it drives those around me crazy.

    Thank you for giving me a word to associate with this particular ‘quirk’. I shall now go research it some more. 🙂

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  6. Your article sums up how I normally feel after every meeting I have attended, particularly as I have got older and I have found it more difficult to control my coping mechanisms. I’m still currently playing over a meeting from last November.