Anxiety changes the way you think. Sometimes it can make you think more negatively. Sometimes it can make you obsess over things you shouldn't obsess over. And sometimes, anxiety can cause you to have racing thoughts that you cannot seem to control.
Racing, rapid thoughts can make you feel like you're going crazy. But they're actually a somewhat normal anxiety symptom. This article will explore the idea of racing thoughts and what you can do to help control it.
Are Your Racing Thoughts From Anxiety?
Lots of issues can cause racing thoughts. Some of them may be serious, such as in the case of bipolar disorder. When racing thoughts occur with other anxiety symptoms, then anxiety is often the culprit.
My free 7 minute anxiety test will help you determine if you have anxiety, how severe it is, and what treatments are recommended based on its severity.
Cause of Racing Thoughts
Racing thoughts most often occur during an anxiety attack, although many different anxiety disorders appear to cause thought racing even when no attack is present. Rarely do racing thoughts occur alone, so make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to see what other symptoms of anxiety you may have.
Each person sees "racing thoughts" differently. One person may not notice a problem, and may simply be distracted by the wonders of life. Others may experience profound stress at their inability to hold a thought.
Not all racing thoughts are anxiety related, but some have secondary relationships. Some of the examples of issues that cause racing thoughts include:
- Panic Attacks During a panic attack, it can be nearly impossible to shut off the mind. Racing thoughts are often about health, symptoms, experiences, and worries over the future. Anxiety attacks can also cause lightheadedness, which may make it harder to focus. Anxiety attacks commonly lead to racing thoughts.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder For reasons that are not entirely clear, stress can cause racing thoughts to occur - especially at night - and daily stress is common with GAD. What's interesting is that the thoughts may not be negative. Some people may simply have songs stuck in their head while they think about dozens of other things, yet these things may not be related to the stress or anxiety. These thoughts may make it very hard to sleep.
- Lack of Sleep A related issue is that a lack of sleep can lead to racing thoughts, because your brain often struggles to focus when you're sleep deprived. For those whose anxiety keeps them awake, this can be especially bothersome. In addition, sleep deprivation can contribute to further anxiety, leading to a somewhat vicious cycle.
- Unwanted Thoughts Those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may also have unwanted thoughts that appear like racing thoughts. These are when the mind is so distracted by the unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that it can't seem to focus on other things, and the mind races as a result.
Those with depression may also have racing thoughts during manic stages, and it's possible that ADHD leads to racing thoughts as well. Only a psychologist can diagnose if you're suffering from any of the above disorders.
When Racing Thoughts are a Problem
Obviously, racing thoughts pose no danger. Thoughts are simply thoughts. When they have become a problem is when one of the following occurs:
- Racing thoughts are preventing you from sleeping.
- Racing thoughts are causing significant distress.
- Racing thoughts are making it harder to focus.
- Racing thoughts are about topics that cause you shame.
- Racing thoughts occur with other anxiety symptoms.
It's not the thoughts that are dangerous, but how you react to them. If your thoughts are racing to such a degree that it's causing you sleeplessness, distress, or any other emotional problems, then it's very important that you learn how to control them.
Ways to Treat Racing Thoughts
Treating your anxiety is the only surefire way to stop racing thoughts from anxiety. But in the interim, there are some strategies you can try that may be effective.
Writing Out Thoughts
One of the theories about why the mind races is that it doesn't want to forget the thoughts you're having. The idea is that your brain is essentially keeping these thoughts in your mind to ensure that you don't forget them, because it's worried that if you stop thinking about them it will go away.
It's not clear about whether or not this theory is true. But what many people find effective as a way to preventing this problem is writing out all of their thoughts in some type of hard document, like a journal.
Your brain is a complex organ, and one that can do things without your knowledge. When you write out the thoughts you're having on a permanent piece of paper and keep it with you, your brain knows that it doesn't have to focus on them anymore, because it knows that even if you forget it, you'll still be able to remember it again when you read the journal or paper.
This is an interesting, and surprisingly effective way to calm the mind - especially before bed if your thoughts are keeping you awake.
When you can't focus your thoughts, you may find it valuable to find something you can focus on. In a way, you need some type of mental distraction that makes it harder to think.
That's where something like television or radio can come in handy. Many people with tinnitus - an ear disorder that causes an irritating ringing sound in a person's ear - use auditory distractions to make it harder for them to focus on the irritating noise.
You can do this by trying to find some type of media that won't keep you awake, but will distract your thoughts. One option is podcasts. Most smart phones have a podcast feature, and you can listen to podcasts while you sleep. Try to turn them as quiet as possible where you can still hear them, but only if you listen very hard.
This takes you out of your head and causes you to focus on something else, and once you're focusing on something else, the racing thoughts should conceivably have less of an effect on your ability to fall asleep.
Exercise may also be a valuable tool for racing thoughts, primarily because when you exercise it doesn't matter that your thoughts are racing. Exercise is a forgotten anxiety treatment strategy, but one that is incredibly effective at controlling not only anxiety, but also the thoughts that cause it.
When your body tires out, your mind tends to tire with it. Those that suffer from racing thoughts may find that by the time they're done exercising, they have trouble having any thoughts at all. Once their thoughts start back up again, they may be calmer than before.
Another strategy is to simply train yourself not to care. Often racing thoughts become worse when you try as hard as you can to stop them. When your thoughts are racing, remind yourself that it's a part of your anxiety - an irritating part, but a part of your anxiety nonetheless.
If you notice that you struggle to sleep every time you have racing thoughts, don't try to stop the thoughts. Rather, get up for a bit, and find a way to occupy your time. If your thoughts start racing, go back to bed. If they don't, then you'll have to deal with the effects of insomnia, but at least you'll have gotten stuff done in the meantime to reduce your stress in other ways. Getting upset over your racing thoughts but staying in bed will generally only make you more upset and cause your thoughts to race further.
Finally, make sure that you're giving yourself boring routines. Those that have racing thoughts during the day need a strategy that is so boring, their thoughts stop bothering them. It may be going for a walk in a quiet area, doing math, making art (although this is not necessarily boring) - anything that doesn't "excite" the mind and body. Do your best to stay off electronics.
For those that have these thoughts before they sleep, a long routine before you go to bed that is free of light and technology is important. About 30 minutes before you sleep (or more if you can), turn off all technology and start preparing for sleep. Make sure that your routine is long enough that you're not done for all 30 minutes - this will give your mind time to wind down. By the time you go to sleep, many of the things that excite the mind will be taken away, and sleeping may be easier.
Racing Thoughts During Anxiety Attacks
You may also experience racing thoughts during anxiety attacks. Often these thoughts are about your health or wellness, and focused on the attack itself. Some people worry they're going to die or panic over what they're feeling, and it can feel very difficult to get those thoughts under control.
Unfortunately, waiting it out is the only option. Try to slow down your breathing so that your anxiety attack is less stressful, drink a bit of water, and see if there is someone you can call to take your mind off of the attack. Once the attack winds down, your thoughts should get back under control.
The Only Way to Stop Racing Thoughts Forever
In all cases, there is only one way to make sure that your racing thoughts stop: cure your anxiety. As long as you're still dealing with anxiety every day, you're going to still be at risk for racing thoughts.
I've worked with thousands of people that experience different types of racing thoughts. I need to know your symptoms before moving forward. Take my anxiety test to compare your symptoms to other people living with anxiety, and get recommendations for the best way to relieve it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.