Have a mind that can go a hundred miles an hour? And feel too easily swept up by your thoughts? Racing thoughts can be a common annoyance that can invade your sense of inner peace.
As the term suggests, racing thoughts refer to fast-moving thoughts that come one after the other. They may focus on a particular problem, or can be a stream of unrelated thoughts. Sometimes your mind might be trapped in the past and replay past memories. Other times it will be in the future, playing out worst-case scenarios.
Racing thoughts can feel overwhelming as they can create a sense of being out of control. It can make it difficult to relax or focus on anything else.
For some of us, it can be just passing worries. However, racing thoughts can be more than background noise if accompanied by other symptoms.
If you have an anxiety disorder or phobias you will experience racing thoughts. Such thoughts are often fuelled by excessive worries or fears, which can make you feel more anxious. It can potentially lead to a panic attack, or mean you limit your life to avoid things that trigger your anxiety.
When you have bipolar disorder, you will sometimes experience 'mania' or 'hypomania'. These are periods of over-active and elevated mood swings. These include racing thoughts .
If your racing thoughts are telling you to do one thing so another thing doesn't happen, such as, 'wash your hands or you will die", or, "touch everything twice or something bad will happen to your family"? Then you might be suffering obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Having racing thoughts at night is one of the most commonly reported problems among those who have trouble sleeping. In 2021, a study found that racing thoughts at bedtime contribute to sleeping disorders such as insomnia. It's sometimes referred to as 'night anxiety'.
Some of us have racing thoughts during both the day and night, while others may only experience them before bed. One reason is that at night we are often not as busy or preoccupied as we are during the day. Thoughts and emotions we didn't have time to acknowledge during the day tend to resurface when there are little to no distractions.
Even if the thoughts themselves aren’t worrying or bad, they can still cause difficulties when trying to fall or stay asleep as they distract us.
Here are some useful strategies to help you gain back control.
One way of calming a racing mind is to jot down your thoughts and feelings on paper. Not only is writing a great expressive tool, but research shows that it has stress-relieving benefits. Not to worry about grammar or spelling. The aim is to empty your mind of any cluttered thoughts that are overwhelming you.
As well as freeing up headspace, writing down your thoughts is also good way of keeping track of any reoccurring worries. Or you might recognise potential triggers for your racing thoughts you can then work on.
When racing thoughts occur, it can be easy to get worked up, especially when feeling anxious. Taking slow deep breaths can reduce your stress response, signalling your nervous system to calm down. Practising before bed can increase feelings of relaxation, easing into a better night’s rest.
Traditionally used during meditation, a mantra is a syllable sound, word, or short phrase that is repeated to calm your mind. It’s particularly useful for racing thoughts as it can centre your focus on the present moment.
Research shows that silently repeating a single word to yourself reduces activity levels on a specific part of the brain associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering.
Simply find a sound or word that suits you best and repeat the mantra slowly and in unison with your breath. It can be said silently or out loud if that’s what helps you to focus. If you notice your attention starting to wander, just gently bring your awareness back to your mantra.
Racing thoughts can be overwhelming, especially if you have them on a regular basis. If it’s interfering with your life, it’s worth considering working with a counsellor or psychotherapist. With a therapy like cognitive behavioural disorder (CBT), you can gain a better understanding of what triggers your racing thoughts, and discover what tools work best to help calm them.
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Claudia Cole is a London-based mental health writer. She is passionate about wellbeing and is a mental health advocate.