Most people think of anxiety as the presence of fearful or worrisome thoughts. But this is not always the core of the problem. Some people experience racing thoughts, where it feels as though their mind is going 200 miles an hour.
Sometimes the content of those thoughts is of a fearful nature. Sometimes this is not the case. But when you have racing thoughts it can be very stressful, which is why it's important to find ways to manage this symptom.
What Causes These Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts are a particular problem. It's not just the content of the thoughts that are distressing: 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 especially common for those that have panic attacks; and also in generalized anxiety disorder. It's also possible for this to occur when one is trying to go to sleep, which can be very disruptive. Some people find that their thoughts seem to be more rapid when they're trying to get some rest, and unfortunately when they occur during bedtime it can be very hard to fall asleep.
Racing thoughts may be linked to your neurotransmitter activity, or the way that your brain chemicals are interacting and responding. In people with anxiety and other psychological disorders, neurotransmitter activity is often affected. It may be these chemical changes - as well as increased levels of hormones such as adrenaline - that are in some way causally linked to the symptom of racing thoughts. Other factors which may trigger racing thoughts or make them harder to control include:
- An Absence of Distractions If your mind is not focussed on any specific task, you may be more likely to experience racing thoughts as a result.
- Blood Flow to the Brain Anxiety may also lead to hyperventilation, which can temporarily cause less blood flow to the brain. This is especially common during anxiety attacks. It's possible that this change in blood-flow triggers other changes in the brain (including a reduced ability to inhibit thoughts) that are linked to racing thoughts. Don't worry - this isn't dangerous on a medical level.
- 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.
While the factors listed here are all relevant, there is no 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 linked to the activation of your fight or flight system - a reflex that is designed to keep you safe from danger. Thinking quickly may actually work to your advantage in situations where you’re in danger and a quick response is vital. If you’re unable to focus deeply on any single idea, this may also be beneficial to ensure a quick reaction.
But in the case of anxiety disorders, the fight or flight response may be activated even when there are no real dangers present. In such as a case, racing thoughts can be unhelpful, stressful and distressing, possibly further exacerbating your anxiety.
Manage Your Racing Thoughts
Racing thoughts aren't dangerous in and of themselves, but they can make your life that much more uncomfortable. For example, they make it nearly impossible to focus, and without focus it's difficult to function at work, for example, or to think clearly about how best to manage your anxiety. That's why it's so important to manage your racing thoughts.
Different solutions may be appropriate depending on the situation that triggers your racing thoughts occur. They generally occur at three different 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 cover 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 related to your own health. 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 thought pattern more agitated.
Your goal is to essentially try to take yourself out of your own head. You cannot stop the adrenaline that pumps through you 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 managing 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.
Alternatively, do something calming and enjoyable, like taking a walk in nature or listening to relaxing music. Pay attention to the sensory experience - what are you smelling and seeing as you walk? Notice the range of tones and sounds in the music that you’re listening to.
- 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 Recital This is a potentially helpful for tool for those with racing minds in particular, because the act of making and listening to mantras can quiet the mind. A mantra is a short phrase that you recite to yourself in order to bring about a sense of calm, relaxation and positivity. Examples include: “I am fine”, “I am in control”, and “This will pass.” Ideally, you would want to create your own mantra - one which is personally relevant to you - and to recite this several times each day.
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.
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. For many people with anxiety it’s not just fear that causes them to stay awake at night - it's often a feeling of not being able to 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. Racing thoughts can put a lot of pressure on your mind, 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 noise" as a type of mental distraction. It works like other forms of sensory distraction. When your brain is focussing on the noise, this may help you to regain focus and reduce racing thoughts. White noise background tracks can be found on Youtube. 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 are less internally focussed.
Sleeping is also its own treatment. If you can find a few way 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. This is likely because getting a good night’s rest is a good way to start lowering your anxiety levels.
Racing Thoughts Occurring For No Apparent 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, but they occur seemingly out of the blue. Often you're still experiencing mild anxiety, 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, according to an article published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. So exercising and/or going for a good jog is incredibly valuable.
- Walking If you can't exercise intensely, 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 doesn't 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-Related Racing Thoughts
All of those tips are about reducing the length of time you suffer from racing thoughts and managing your symptom. You cannot simply stop them immediately because the more you try to fight them away, the more likely they are to continue. The answer, then, is to take approaches that target your underlying anxiety - the real factor which is leading to your racing thoughts.