Racing thoughts are uncomfortable and sometimes repetitive thoughts that come nonstop, one after the other. In some cases, they may indicate an underlying physical or mental health condition, such as anxiety, OCD, or ADHD. The guidance from a medical professional, certain lifestyle changes, and coping skills can help a person manage their racing thoughts.
What Are Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts occur when one’s mind creates thoughts in quick succession, without relenting. The thoughts can relate to one subject or many, but often come with some element of distress (such as embarrassing memories or worries about the outcome of an event). They may come in related sequences or feel unrelated and random. A person who experiences racing thoughts at night when they want to sleep may experience insomnia as a result.
If you’re experiencing racing thoughts, you may feel like:
- Your mind cannot stop and you cannot relax.
- Your thoughts will not slow down.
- You catastrophize or think in worst-case scenarios.
- You have no control over your thoughts.
- You are stuck in a thinking “loop” or downward spiral.
- You cannot focus on anything else.
What Causes Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts can occur for several reasons and may possibly be linked to a number of mental health conditions. It’s important to look at the overarching view of your own combination of symptoms in order to determine how to best address your thoughts. If you are struggling to do so on your own, a licensed therapist or doctor can help.
Possible causes of racing thoughts include:
Stress or toxic stress can be a contributing factor to racing thoughts, which may stem from relational, financial, or work problems. When a person’s body has a stress reaction (fight, flight, freeze), their mind may later analyze what happened in order to avoid that stressor again in the future. If one struggles to find a solution, they may experience racing thoughts.
Anxiety disorders induce feelings of extreme overwhelm that make functioning difficult, and a cornerstone symptom of anxiety is racing thoughts. For example, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can include racing thoughts about anything and everything. Individuals with panic disorder may focus their mind on severe things (like death), while a person with social anxiety or a specific phobia may experience racing thoughts about a specific stressor.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is a mental health disorder composed of intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that are typically followed by an action (compulsions) to manage associated distress. As a symptom of OCD, obsessions can often occur as repetitive and insistent racing thoughts about a particular topic.
A person with bipolar disorder experiences emotional and mental ‘high-highs’ (mania) and ‘low-lows’ (severe depressive episodes). Increased bipolar symptoms are often linked to one’s internal thoughts, with racing thoughts sometimes being indicative of one entering a hypomanic or manic stage.1
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
The symptoms of ADHD commonly include struggles to focus on tasks and an inability to maintain stillness. A recent study found that ADHD not only includes restless physical activity, but racing thoughts as well.2
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a mental health disorder that may develop after someone experiences one or a series of traumatic events, whether personally or secondhand. Trauma heightens the automatic stress responses in the body, which can result in intrusive memories and racing thoughts.
Agitated depression is characterized by intense conflict, distress, irritability, and mood swings.3Typically, the disorder results in anger and restlessness, rather than sadness and lethargy. The inner turmoil and distress can be linked to racing thoughts, and vice versa.
Medication Side Effects
If someone is taking medications specifically designed to alter thinking patterns, such as medications for ADHD, it is possible for them to experience racing thoughts as a side effect. In some cases, taking a prescription that is not needed can have a similar effect.
12 Tips for How to Stop Racing Thoughts
While addressing racing thoughts can be challenging, there are healthy ways to cope. Incorporating specific lifestyle changes can help to alter the mental environment that encourages and reinforces these thoughts. Developing healthy coping mechanisms can equip you with the tools needed to manage racing thoughts when they come up.
Below are 12 tips for coping with racing thoughts:
1. Use Physical Grounding Techniques
Grounding is the process of disengaging from your thoughts to reconnect with your body in the current moment. These activities help you focus your attention on your environment and self, rather than racing thoughts. Grounding techniques involve engaging with sensory information, such as holding an ice cube.
2. Learn Breathing Techniques
By intentionally engaging in breathwork, a person is able to reset their body’s automatic stress response. This is done by increasing oxygen supply to the brain. Slow and rhythmic breathing send signals throughout the body that it is time to be calm and relax. Mindful breathing can help you decrease the anxiety that may be contributing to your racing thoughts.4
3. Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is practiced by clenching a muscle tightly before releasing the tension all at once. A person follows this process throughout the different muscle groups in their body until they are more relaxed. Doing so has been shown to increase a person’s overall relaxation, and also give them a place to channel the feelings that racing thoughts may create.6
4. Find Pleasant Distractions
Racing thoughts often “suck you in,” making it hard to disengage from them on your own. Distracting yourself with something calming and enjoyable can disrupt the stream of thoughts and also help in self-regulation. Some examples to consider could be coloring, completing a difficult or challenging task, or listening to a podcast.
5. Try Exercising
There are many mental health benefits of exercise. In terms of racing thoughts, physical movement can serve as a way to ground yourself into your body, process your stress, and boost feel-good brain chemicals. Pro-tip–if your racing thoughts are distressing, it can help to match the intensity of your thoughts with your physical activity.
6. Externalize Your Thoughts
Sometimes racing thoughts can be repetitive about a certain thing or topic. Removing these thoughts from your mind into an external source can help you re-examine and disrupt the endless stream. Some options could include writing your thoughts down in a journal or talking them through with someone you trust.
7. Use Thought Stopping Techniques
Thought stopping is the intentional act of ordering your mind to cease a thought, and can be either said mentally or out loud. This is done with the hope that your mind will eventually stop returning to this thought in the future. While thought stopping can be a hard practice to learn, many people find it helpful.
8. Try Mantras & Meditation
Mantras are short phrases and helpful reminders that are meant to be encouraging. These may sound like, “I can do this”, or could include a single phrase such as, “Calm.” Mediation is similar, although more complicated. Meditation is the act of focusing one’s attention in order to calm mental chatter and foster stillness. Mantras and meditation can be used together or separately, but work to help decrease the frequency of racing thoughts.
9. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a lifestyle approach that includes being fully present in each moment as it unveils, instead of being lost in one’s thoughts. While the idea is simple, it can be difficult to build this habit. By engaging more with your body, you are more likely to effectively regulate any anxiety that comes up before and after you experience racing thoughts.
10. Notice Your Triggers
Once you have worked to calm yourself, it can be helpful to think back to see if there was anything that might have triggered your racing thoughts. Common anxiety triggers can include anything from a messy home environment to social interactions. By knowing your triggers, you can better prepare for them in the future.
11. Eliminate Stress Before Bed
Oftentimes, engaging in something stressful or thought-provoking before bed can be a trigger for racing thoughts. A bedtime environment should be quiet and free of distractions, meaning there is nothing to keep racing thoughts at bay. Avoid thought-provoking activities– such as reading a suspenseful book, making decisions, or having emotional conversations–before you end the night to help prevent racing thoughts.
12. Adjust Your Sleep Routine
Developing a healthy and stable sleep routine can have a major impact on mental health and racing thoughts. By maintaining a regular schedule, your brain becomes accustomed to the timing of your sleep. This helps your brain wind down and stay asleep, working to improve your overall quality of sleep (and life!).
Treatment Options for Racing Thoughts
If you have tried to manage your racing thoughts on your own without avail, it may be time to consider working with a professional. Options may include treating underlying physical health concerns, starting therapy, beginning medication, or requesting a combination of medication and therapy.
The goal of therapy is to increase your understanding, confidence, and ability to manage negative symptoms you may experience. One benefit of therapy is that the process can help change your way of thinking. A stable client-therapist relationship is crucial for successful treatment, and there are many factors to finding the right therapist. If you think you may be ready to start therapy, you can begin your search via an online therapist directory at any time.
Therapy options for racing thoughts include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT primarily focuses on teaching clients to notice unhelpful thoughts and replace them with healthy alternatives.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT is a form of CBT where a person learns to tolerate distress with different skills meant to regulate emotions and relationships.
- Trauma processing: If racing thoughts are related to a past trauma, trauma-based therapies (such as EMDR, Brainspotting, or Narrative Therapy) can help to tackle the underlying issue effectively.
- Psychodynamic therapy: Sometimes racing thoughts are the brain’s way to try to process things it does not understand. Working with a therapist who specializes in psychodynamic therapy can help you work through these issues with better clarity.
Medications can help to manage racing thoughts, particularly if they disrupt sleep or are due to a neurochemical imbalance. When speaking with a doctor, it is important to share every aspect of your current and past health history. Your clinician will prescribe a medication best suited for your individual needs. Medication is usually not necessary, but will likely be more effective when paired with therapy.
Medication treatment options for racing thoughts may include:
- Antidepressants: Many people who take medication for depression report experiencing an increase in motivation, excitement, confidence, and ability to concentrate.
- Anti-anxieties: Medications for anxiety can help a person feel calm and physically stable in their breathing and heart rate.
- Mood stabilizers: Mood stabilizers aim to regulate emotional mood swings and changes, which can help people feel more calm and confident in recognizing internal mood changes.
- Antipsychotics: Antipsychotic medications help to stabilize mood and neurotransmitters in order for a person to feel more grounded in their world and bodies.
Racing thoughts can be disruptive and stressful, but there are options available to help you cope. By making healthy lifestyle changes, developing coping skills, and seeking the help of trained medical professionals, it is possible to manage racing thoughts and disrupt the dysfunction these create.
For Further Reading
- Hims / Hers
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- SAMHSA’s National Hotline
- Crisis Text Line
- Support Groups Central
- Mental Health America
- 15 Best Mindfulness Blogs to Help Reduce Stress
- 21 Best Books On Mindfulness: Helpful Resources For Learning & Practicing Mindfulness
- Holistic Wellness: Caring for the Mind, Body, & Spirit