Most people think of anxiety as the presence of fearful thoughts. But it's not always fearful thoughts that are the problem. Some people experience racing thoughts, where it feels as though their mind is going 200 miles an hour. Sometimes those thoughts are fearful. Sometimes they're not. But when you have racing thoughts it can be very stressful, which is why it's important to find personal ways to stop racing thoughts.
Stop Anxiety to Stop Racing Thoughts
There are tips that can help you stop racing thoughts in the moment, but you need to cure your anxiety if you want these thoughts to stop racing forever. Learn more about how to cure your anxiety by taking my free anxiety test.
What Causes These Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts are a strange problem. It's not just the content of the thought. It's how it feels as though your thoughts are firing at such a fast pace that you cannot even remember what the last thought was, and by the time you have a new thought another one immediately takes its place.
Racing thoughts may affect anyone with anxiety, but it's most common for those that have anxiety attacks. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about your attacks and how to stop them. Racing thoughts may also affect those with generalized anxiety disorder, and may affect nearly anyone with a disorder when they experience severe anxiety.
It's also very common at sleep. For some reason, many people find that their thoughts seem to be more rapid when they're trying to get to bed, and unfortunately when they occur during bedtime it can be very hard to fall asleep.
The causes of racing thoughts are likely related to the way your neurotransmitters interact during anxiety, along with the surge of adrenaline you get when you have anxiety (which may make your brain far more active). Adrenaline, especially, causes your mind to be over-active while simultaneously making it harder to focus. Other causes may include:
- No Distractions One of the reasons they occur when you're trying to go to sleep is because there are no distractions. When you're left with your own thoughts, your thoughts often go unchecked, and eventually they spiral out of control.
- Blood Flow to the Brain Anxiety may also cause hyperventilation, which can temporarily cause less blood flow to the brain. This is especially common during anxiety attacks. It's possible that your brain is actually simply not functioning as well, and your inhibition ability isn't working to stop the thoughts. Don't worry - this isn't dangerous.
- Lack of Sleep Anxiety can also cause sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation may also lead to racing thoughts. This can often be a self-fulfilling issue, since anxiety leads to lack of sleep which leads to racing thoughts which leads to a lack of sleep. That's why many find the experience to be recurring and very stressful.
Thoughts in general are difficult to understand. There isn't a set "cause" for racing thoughts. It's likely that anxiety causes your mind to both react more quickly while also limiting your ability to control those thoughts and focus on any single one of them.
Remember that anxiety is supposed to be the activation of your fight or flight system - a system that is supposed to keep you safe from danger. Thinking overly quickly is actually to your advantage, and not focusing too much on any given thought may be beneficial as well to ensure a quick reaction.
But since you have an anxiety disorder when no fears are present, it's not uncommon for racing thoughts to be stressful, and possibly even lead to more anxiety.
Stop Racing Thoughts
Racing thoughts aren't a sign of any danger, but they are obviously a significant problem. They make it nearly impossible to focus, and without focus it's almost impossible to cope with anxiety. That's why it's so important to stop your racing thoughts.
The solution tends to differ a little depending on when your racing thoughts occur. They generally occur at three times:
- During the height of an anxiety attack.
- When you're trying to go to sleep.
- For no reason at all when you have anxiety.
Let's break out some tips for controlling your racing thoughts based on when they occur.
During a Panic Attack
During a panic attack, your thoughts are often racing and health related. You pay attention to every little change in your body, wonder what's happening, and often experience this degree of confusion that only makes your thoughts worse.
Your goal is to essentially try to take yourself out of your own head. You cannot stop the adrenaline that pumps through your mind when you're experiencing an anxiety attack, but you can utilize strategies that make the racing thoughts less upsetting and possibly fight the anxiety that causes them. Some strategies include:
- Sensory Distraction Distractions are a key component for curing racing thoughts. They're actually an incredibly important one. You need to find a way to distract your mind from itself so that your racing thoughts do not become too severe. In order to "get out of your own head," try something simple like calling a friend that knows you have panic attacks and talking to them. Maintaining a phone call requires a lot of your thoughts, and can decrease the amount of attention you can give your anxiety, thus decreasing your racing thoughts.
- Slow Breathing Hyperventilation is one of the possible causes of racing thoughts since it causes a lightheadedness that may make it harder to focus. You can reduce this by slowing down your breathing so that your carbon dioxide levels increase. Don't hold your breath, but do take very slow, controlled breaths and fight any urge to yawn or over-breathe.
- Mantra Meditation Meditation has long been touted as a relaxation tool, but for those with racing minds it may be especially useful, because the act of making and listening to mantras can quiet the mind. Mantras are elongated sounds that cause your neck to vibrate. Close your eyes and start making mantra noises while breathing slowly and you may drown out the thoughts until they slow down.
Panic attacks often need to run their course before they can be fully controlled, because a panic attack is by its very nature a temporary loss of control. But the above tools will help you reel in your thoughts a bit, and then when the panic attack passes you can get back to normal thinking.
Learn to Cope With Anxiety Attacks
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Trying to Sleep
Anxiety and racing thoughts when you're trying to sleep can be very distracting, and unfortunately they tend to build on themselves causing greater stress that ends up keeping you awake. Ask most people with anxiety what causes them to stay awake at night and it's not usually fear - it's usually a feeling as though they cannot turn off their brain.
Not everyone experiences negative thoughts either. Some simply experience an incredibly active mind that doesn't have a clear focus, even though the thoughts themselves are harmless. This may not even be caused by anxiety either, but unfortunately those with anxiety tend to respond to these racing thoughts with more stress and anxiety, which still makes it harder to sleep. Consider the following strategies:
- Write Out the Thoughts It starts with trying to write out any of these thoughts on some type of paper or journal. Something that few people realize is that the mind tries very hard to remember things, especially before sleep. The mind also doesn't worry about remembering things when it knows there is a note of them somewhere. Racing thoughts may occur because your brain is trying to remember the thoughts you can control, so write them out on a piece of paper to give your brain a break and help you relax.
- Get Up and Do Something Else Your active thoughts are caused not only by your anxiety. They're also caused by you trying to fight the thoughts away and sleep. If you find you can almost never sleep when your mind starts to race, go give yourself something else to do or think about. Often you'll find that all you needed was a distraction, and some other activity can be a great tool for ensuring that you have a calmer mind when you try to go to sleep later.
- Distracting White Noise Many people use what's known as "white knows" as a type of mental distraction. It works like other forms of sensory distraction. When your brain is being used on the noise, it cannot focus as much on its thoughts. An even better tool is listening to something like boring talk radio at a volume so low you can barely make out the words. This will give your mind something else it needs to focus on so that your thoughts cannot be as active.
Sleeping is also its own cure. If you can find a few days to try to make up any sleep deprivation you may have, you'll often find that your thoughts don't race as much as they used to.
For No Reason
Finally, what should you do when your thoughts don't seem to race for any real reason other than mild or daily anxiety? This is when you seem to have racing thoughts every once in a while at no specific time. Often you're still experiencing anxiety (otherwise it's difficult to call anxiety the cause of your racing thoughts), but you're not necessarily in the middle of an anxiety attack.
Tips to stop racing thoughts include:
- Exercise/Jog Jogging is an outstanding tool for tiring the mind. Fitness doesn't just tire muscles. It makes your brain more relaxed as well, by releasing chemicals that provide a relaxation/calming effect. So exercising and/or going for a good jog is incredibly valuable.
- Walking If you can't intensely exercise, walk. Walking provides a great deal of sensory distraction (new sights, sounds, and smells anywhere you walk - even if you're in your own apartment) and provides a bit of extra blood flow that may be useful for calming your body.
- Give Yourself a Task Find something you can do for a while as your mind continues to race. Tasks give you something to focus on. Don't worry too much about your thoughts racing if you try to stop it, you'll actually make it worse. Instead, give yourself something to do that puts your focus on something that doesnt require as much thought, like catching up on your favorite website. That focus will ease your mind back into reality and should slow your thoughts down considerably.
The Only Surefire Way to Stop Anxiety Racing Thoughts
All of those tips are about reducing the length of time you suffer from racing thoughts. You cannot simply stop them immediately because the more you try to fight them away, the more likely they are to continue.
The only proven way to stop your racing thoughts is to stop your anxiety. I've helped thousands of people with racing thoughts keep their anxiety from coming back by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is an effective way to learn more about your symptoms and use them to prevent anxiety.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.