How to Slow Down Your Racing ThoughtsIf you’re tired of those thoughts that just won’t quit, this is for you.
Ready for a real-life nightmare? It’s 1:12 a.m. About an hour ago I rolled over in bed, got up to use the bathroom, and haven’t been able to drift back to Dreamland since thanks to an unwelcome flashback to an embarrassing work moment earlier that day. Now, I’m stuck thinking about that and every other random thought that enters my mind like, What should I have for dinner tomorrow night? Maybe I should wear my cool new pantsuit to that wedding next year instead of my go-to ’fit. I wish I had a Costco membership. Wait, where the hell is my social security card?
This certainly wasn’t my first experience with racing thoughts, and I know I’m not alone. Racing thoughts are fast-moving, all-consuming thoughts that zip through your mind and make it super hard to live in the present moment (or get some sleep), says psychotherapist Liz Beecroft, LCSW. We all have thousands of thoughts daily, but racing thoughts make you feel incapable of doing anything other than being all up in your mind until they go away, adds licensed psychotherapist and Founder of Therapy In The City, Aliza Shapiro, LCSW.
Racing thoughts share similarities with other thought patterns, like intrusive thoughts (unwanted thoughts and images that come from nowhere) and rumination (when we chew over a past experience or repeatedly imagine a frightful event from the future), explains psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD. Racing thoughts can also feel like your mind is stuck running on a treadmill that it can’t hop off of. And all these types of thoughts can combine to make you feel distressed, Dr. Howes says.
So, why do racing thoughts happen in the first place? You might be more susceptible to these thought storms if you generally find it hard to manage your emotions or quiet your mind, says Shapiro. (That could explain why these thoughts tend to pop up when you’re just trying to chill out.) Stress is another big trigger—whether you’re trying to process something that recently happened or you’re mentally prepping for something about to go down. Feeling anxious can also add fuel to the fire, because anxiety tends to make you feel like you’ll have more control if you can think about every possible outcome of a particular situation, says Shapiro. Basically your brain thinks it’s doing you a solid, but really, it’s a whole lot of noise. Some mental health conditions, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, are often associated with racing thoughts too, Dr. Howes adds.
So, how can you deal with this irritating yet inevitable thought pattern? We’re so glad you asked.
1. Don’t try to fully ignore them.
You probably don’t need us to tell you this but trying to just stop thinking about something rarely works. When it comes to racing thoughts, simply avoiding them is counterproductive and can actually make matters worse, especially if your racing thoughts are rooted in anxiety, shame, anger, or sadness. “The more you try to suppress emotions and thoughts in general, they’ll come back stronger and with a vengeance,” Shapiro says.
Because you can’t turn your mind off, the goal is less about nipping racing thoughts in the bud and more about seeing them for what they are. Start by accepting that they’re happening and try not to judge your thoughts or feel angry or ashamed about whatever is on your mind, Shapiro says. To help you see them more like a passenger while you’re in the driver’s seat of your brain, take some deep breaths as you sit with those thoughts. Or try box breathing, which requires even more attention on your breath: inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold for four seconds. Repeat that for four rounds.
All this mindful breathing can help shift your focus away from your racing thoughts while also bringing your body out of fight-or-flight mode, Shapiro says. “The body communicates with the mind all the time,” she adds. “We feel our emotions in our body, and we can hack the system and work it the other way around. When you calm your body and nervous system, your thoughts follow suit.”
2. Hit the metaphorical snooze button on your racing thoughts.
Sometimes racing thoughts are your mind’s way of begging you to notice something, even if it’s the wee hours of the morning and you’re trying to sleep. But, oftentimes, just promising yourself that you’ll revisit these thoughts tomorrow can let your brain off the hook long enough to get some rest, Dr. Howes says. Try keeping a notepad by your bed so you can write down anything you’d actually want to remember the next day or schedule a reminder in your phone so you don’t stress about potentially forgetting what you wanted to process later. Just “make sure Morning You does Night You a solid and actually looks at the notepad in the morning,” Dr. Howes suggests. “This helps reassure Night You that you really will follow through on your promise."
3. Schedule some intentional worry time.
One way to keep racing thoughts from barging into your day at the worst time possible is to actually have time in your schedule already dedicated to them. Start with just 15 minutes during a calm part of your day, Shapiro recommends. You can take this time to write down whatever is in your head. Getting your thoughts down on paper often helps drain them of their power and lets you view them more objectively. They might feel a little less scary and a little more manageable this way. That said, if they’re bringing up a lot of big emotions, let yourself feel those things too, says Beecroft.
Having this regular-ish time blocked off in your schedule to indulge in your concerns can pay off in the long term, says Beecroft. So send yourself a calendar invite to have these mental health check-ins more often and plan something like a workout or a call with a friend that gives a hard stop to your worrying and keeps it from becoming an uncontrollable spiral, Beecroft recommends.
4. Practice some healthy mind control.
Our brains are really good at serving up an onslaught of thoughts, but mindfulness exercises like meditation can help you deal with one at a time, Beecroft says. One of Beecroft’s favorite mindfulness activities involves envisioning leaves on a stream and thinking of each thought like a fallen leaf in the water. Notice one racing thought and then imagine it floating away instead of getting stuck in your brain. Once a thought drifts down the stream, visualize letting it go before moving on to the next one that’s bugging you. In time, the raging river of thoughts in your mind might trickle out.
Letting go of your thoughts might be easier said than done, but you’ll get better with more practice. It’s also possible that focusing on your thoughts makes your mental stream flood with even more thoughts, but try to let those ones float away too, and don’t judge yourself for having a super active mind, Beecroft says. If you’re dealing with upsetting thoughts about a certain scenario, consider reaching out to a trusted friend to help walk you through this exercise (you can even verbally say each thought to them) and to give you some outside perspective about what you can and can’t control over the situation, Dr. Howes suggests.
5. Have a productive brain dump.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a huge week coming up, and all you can do Sunday night is toss and turn while thinking about every single thing you have to get done and what might happen if you drop the ball. When your racing thoughts are centered around productivity and responsibility, try to formulate these thoughts into an actionable to-do list, Beecroft says. Brain dumping in the form of a list and being realistic about how much time each task might take can help get you out of your head and grounded into reality again, Dr. Howes adds. So once you scribble down all your to-dos, split them into “Must Do,” “Would Be Nice To Do,” and “Meh, Can Probs Skip” categories to help you prioritize and bring some control back into your life.
6. Focus on your senses.
Because racing thoughts make it tough to stay present and focused on what’s right in front of you, using your senses can be an easy way to bring yourself back to the here and now. Beecroft is a huge fan of the 5-4-3-2-1 Method, which helps you engage with your five senses in a purposeful way. To do this, identify five things you can see, four that you can touch, three that you can hear, two that you can smell, and one thing that you can taste. Maybe you can smell that great scented candle you’re burning or taste the coffee that’s currently bringing you life. Maybe you can see birds outside your window and hear cars on the street. If you follow this exercise, you’re forced to focus your attention on the present moment and let go of whatever random racing thoughts may be nipping at you.
7. Get a change of scenery.
If you can swing it, a quick little walk in the fresh air can be a great way to get out of your head and get a new perspective on something, Beecroft says. So whether it’s a 20-minute walk, shooting baskets in the driveway, or an hour feeding the ducks, getting outside for any amount of time can often give your brain a rest.
8. Think about what your racing thoughts are trying to tell you.
If your racing thoughts tend to center around a specific theme—like your job or living situation—then it’s worth paying attention to that and carving out space to address this. Otherwise, it’s likely that this issue will keep showing up in your racing thoughts. “If you have the freedom and opportunity to make that change, take a little time to explore the benefits of changing jobs or moving, for example,” Dr. Howes says, adding that it can be helpful to chat this out with a friend. “You might find that the issue is a poor fit with a significant area of your life, and not just difficulty managing your thoughts.”
9. Chat with a mental health professional.
Just like a doctor can’t do surgery on herself, it’s OK if you need someone to help you when you’re struggling with these racing thoughts, especially if they’re negatively impacting your life or causing you to lose sleep or miss deadlines and important life events. Having an outside observer, like a mental health pro or your general practitioner, point out your thinking traps and patterns can be mega helpful, Shapiro says.
If you need help finding a pro to talk to, start with using resources like therapy directories that match your demo (NQTTCN and Asians for Mental Health are great options, for example). If finances are an issue for you, consider checking out this advice for finding cheap therapy and asking therapists about “sliding-scale options,” which are basically adjusted rates based on your situation.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.