Racing thoughts can make it hard to relax and sleep. Treatment can include practices you can try at home, such as breathing techniques, or longer-term solutions like medication and therapy.
Racing thoughts are fast-moving, often repetitive thought patterns. They can be overwhelming. These thoughts may focus on a single topic or represent multiple different lines of thought. You may have racing thoughts about a financial issue, an embarrassing moment, or a phobia. These thoughts may also escalate.
Racing thoughts can increase your anxiety or feelings of unease and can disrupt your concentration.
When you have racing thoughts, you may feel like:
- Your mind is going a mile a minute.
- You aren’t able to slow down your thoughts.
- Your mind isn’t able to “shut off,” and you can’t fully relax.
- It’s difficult to focus on anything else.
- You keep thinking about a problem that has been blown out of proportion.
- You start catastrophizing or thinking of worst-case scenarios.
Racing thoughts can result in insomnia. This happens when you can’t fall asleep because you can’t slow down your thoughts. Keep reading to learn about strategies to help you calm your mind, longer-term treatment options, and what may be causing your racing thoughts.
You can take several steps to manage or prevent racing thoughts if you’re having them right now:
1. Focus on breathing
Take several deep, careful breaths and focus on counting while inhaling and exhaling. This can force your mind to focus on something other than your racing thoughts. It can also have a calming effect on your central nervous system. This can reduce anxiety.
Some calming breathing patterns can include:
2. Try a mantra
You can use a mantra, repeated when necessary, to take your mind off the racing thoughts. Even one like “Everything will be fine” can be effective. Mantras can help ease feelings of stress, fear, and depression.
3. Eliminate stress before bed
If your racing thoughts typically occur at night while trying to sleep, make changes to your routine before bed so that you can relax and sleep peacefully.
Try to eliminate stress for at least 2 hours before sleep. You can meditate or practice gentle yoga, read a book or magazine, or take a bubble bath. Avoid all electronic screens and overly stimulating mental activity 2 hours before bed.
Longer term, therapy can help identify the cause of your racing thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be particularly helpful. It can teach you coping mechanisms and techniques to manage these thoughts.
These techniques may include:
A doctor may also recommend medications to help manage any underlying conditions, especially if racing thoughts seem to accompany triggers like anxiety attacks or bipolar episodes. These medications may include:
- anti-anxiety medications
- mood stabilizers
Racing thoughts are a possible symptom of several different conditions. While it’s most common in anxiety, other conditions can cause racing thoughts, too.
Anxiety commonly causes racing thoughts. While racing thoughts are extremely common during an anxiety attack, they can occur anytime. They may also precede or follow an anxiety attack.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by a pattern of inattention or hyperactivity. Some people will describe inattention as racing thoughts, especially when they’re overwhelmed with external stimuli. Wandering thoughts, where you cannot seem to focus on a single train of thought, may be more common in ADHD.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition in which you experience obsessions or compulsions that are difficult to shake. These obsessions can take the form of racing thoughts, where you can’t stop what feels like an avalanche of thoughts on a particular subject.
You may have a compulsion that soothes the thoughts, like washing your hands a certain number of times to stop racing thoughts caused by worrying about germs.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition in which your moods shift from extreme highs (mania) to lows (depression). Racing thoughts often occur during mania episodes, though they can occur with depression, especially in agitated depression.
Agitated depression is an outdated term for a severe subtype of depression. It’s characterized by feeling agitated instead of lethargic, the symptom that’s commonly associated with most types of depression. You may also feel:
- quick to react
Having racing thoughts may be more likely to affect those with agitated depression than other types of depression.
Medication side effect
Sometimes, medications may treat some symptoms of a condition but worsen or cause others. Medications used to treat depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can sometimes cause agitated depression, which can then trigger racing thoughts.
If you start a new medication and start experiencing racing thoughts, call your doctor so you can try a new medication or adjust the dosage as soon as possible.
Consider talking with a doctor or therapist if you’re having racing thoughts on a regular basis and they’ve become disruptive or prevent you from sleeping. You should make an appointment with a therapist as soon as possible to be evaluated for a mood or mental health disorder if you experience racing thoughts alongside any of the following:
- symptoms of depression
- strong irritability
- strong compulsions
- anxiety attacks
- panic attacks
- severe shifts in mood
Treatment can start once you have a diagnosis. Just like other health conditions, mental health conditions are more easily treated when caught early.