Racing Thoughts – Anxiety Symptoms That Make It Difficult to Fall Asleep
Anyone who’s ever experienced this symptom of anxiety knows just how debilitating it can be. These speeding thoughts can drain your energy, interrupt your concentration, and create a loop that feels impossible to break out of.
If you’re struggling with racing thoughts, there are some effective techniques for controlling them. These include distractions, mindfulness strategies, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
1. Breathing Exercises
Racing thoughts are the kind that make you feel like your brain is going haywire, spinning with ideas at a dizzying speed. They can be frustrating and debilitating, draining your energy, making it difficult to concentrate and preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep.
Deep breathing exercises have been shown to be a powerful way to calm racing thoughts. Also called diaphragmatic breathing, it slows down your body’s stress response by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to reduce physical symptoms of anxiety like muscle tension and chest tightness.
Another helpful way to combat racing thoughts is through sensory distractions. Try a walk in nature, a hobby, or even just sitting quietly and listening to music. You can also get a change of scenery and refocus your attention on something else, such as the birds chirping outside or cars driving by.
2. Relaxation Techniques
Racing thoughts — fast-moving and often repetitive thought patterns that can feel overwhelming — are a common symptom of anxiety and other mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, and phobias. They can also occur as part of a normal stress response.
Changing how you think can help combat your racing thoughts. Focusing on things that are happening now or on what can be controlled rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future can lower your anxiety levels, Dr. Beecroft explains.
Another calming technique is mindfulness, which involves focusing on your surroundings and the sensations you can perceive with your senses. Try sitting in a quiet room and shifting your awareness to what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste until your mind begins to calm down.
Racing thoughts can be caused by anxiety, but they also happen to anyone who has ever tried to fall asleep and found their mind to be too active. Whether it’s the undone tasks on your to-do list, worries about the day and week ahead, catastrophizing a problem that has been blown out of proportion or imagining a worst-case scenario—racing thoughts can make sleeping feel impossible.
Fortunately, meditation is one of the best ways to combat these kinds of thoughts before bed. Try to focus on one thing at a time and use a meditation practice that has you writing out your thoughts to help you recognize them. Then, at your designated worry time, address these anxious thought loops so you can calm down and fall asleep.
4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Racing thoughts at night can be debilitating, making it difficult to sleep. However, you don’t need to suffer indefinitely. There are some simple strategies you can try to combat anxiety-related racing thoughts and rumination, such as scheduling worry time or “zooming out.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidence-based approach that helps people change unhelpful patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It uses practical self-help strategies that are designed to improve quality of life immediately.
During sessions, you and your therapist will work together to identify negative automatic thoughts and determine if they are realistic or unhelpful. You will also learn healthier ways to think and behave. You may be given “homework” between sessions to help you put these skills into practice.
5. Getting Help
Racing thoughts can signal an underlying anxiety disorder, so it’s important to get help from a doctor or mental health professional. They may recommend therapy and/or medication to treat the underlying condition.
Try to distract yourself with healthy distractions like exercise, reading, or writing in a journal. Avoid stimulants like drugs and alcohol, which can actually reinforce the anxious thought patterns.
Many people who struggle with racing thoughts ruminate about past or future events. They might replay conversations in their mind, think about medical conditions or job situations, or worry about unlikely doomsday scenarios.
It’s also helpful to schedule intentional “worry time” in your day, Shapiro says. This helps drain the power from the thoughts and allows you to see them as more objectively.