Racing thoughts are fast-moving and often repetitive thought patterns that can be overwhelming. They may focus on a single topic, or they may represent multiple different lines of thought. You may have racing thoughts about a financial issue or about an embarrassing moment or a phobia. These thoughts may also escalate.
Racing thoughts can increase your anxiety or feelings of unease and can disrupt your concentration.
When you have racing thoughts, you may feel like:
- Your mind is going a mile a minute.
- You aren’t able to slow down your thoughts.
- Your mind isn’t able to “shut off,” and you can’t fully relax.
- It’s difficult to focus on anything else.
- You keep thinking about a problem that has been blown out of proportion.
- You start catastrophizing, or thinking of worst-case scenarios.
Racing thoughts can result in insomnia. This happens when you struggle to fall asleep because you can’t slow down your thoughts at night. Keep reading to learn about strategies to help you calm your mind, longer-term treatment options, and what may be causing your racing thoughts.
Here are several steps you can take to manage or prevent racing thoughts if you’re having them right now:
1. Focus on breathing
Take several deep, careful breaths and focus on counting while inhaling and exhaling. This can force your mind to focus on something other than the racing thoughts. It can also have a calming effect on your central nervous system, which can reduce anxiety.
2. Try a mantra
You can use a mantra, repeated when necessary, to take your mind off the racing thoughts. Even one like “Everything will be fine” can be very effective.
3. Eliminate stress before bed
If your racing thoughts typically occur at night when you’re trying to sleep, make changes to your routine before bed so that you can relax and sleep peacefully. Try to eliminate stress for at least two hours before sleep. You can meditate or practice gentle yoga, and read a relaxing book or take a bubble bath. Avoid all electronic screens and overly stimulating mental activity in those two hours before bed.
Longer term, therapy can help identify the cause of your racing thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be particularly helpful. It can teach you coping mechanisms and techniques to manage these thoughts.
These techniques may include:
- doing deep-breathing exercises
- writing out thoughts on paper or in a diary
- using mantras to calm your mind down
- focusing only on the present and things you can control right now
Your doctor may also recommend medications to help manage any underlying conditions, especially if racing thoughts seem to accompany triggers like anxiety attacks or bipolar episodes. These medications may include:
- antianxiety medications
- mood stabilizers
Racing thoughts are a possible symptom of a number of different conditions. While it’s most common in anxiety, there are other conditions that can cause racing thoughts, too.
Anxiety is a common cause of racing thoughts. While racing thoughts are extremely common during an anxiety attack, they can also occur at any time. They may also precede or follow an anxiety attack.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by a pattern of inattention or hyperactivity. Some people will describe their inattention as racing thoughts, especially when they are overwhelmed with external stimuli. More common in ADHD is wandering thoughts, where you struggle to focus on a single train of thought.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition in which you experience obsessions or compulsions that are difficult to shake. These obsessions can take the form of racing thoughts, where you can’t stop what feels like an avalanche of thoughts on a particular subject. You may have a compulsion that soothes the thoughts, like washing your hands a certain number of times to stop racing thoughts caused by worrying about germs.
Bipolar disorder is an emotional disorder in which your emotions skyrocket to extreme emotional highs (manias) and plummet to severe depression. Racing thoughts most often occur during the mania part of a bipolar episode, though they can occur with depression, especially in cases of agitated depression.
Agitated depression is an outdated term which refers to a severe subtype of depression. It’s characterized by feeling agitated instead of lethargic, the symptom that’s commonly associated with most types of depression. You may also feel restless, angry, and quick to react. Racing thoughts is more likely to affect those with agitated depression than other types of depression.
Medication side effect
Sometimes, medications may treat some symptoms of a condition but exacerbate or even cause others. Medications used to treat depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can sometimes cause agitated depression, which can then trigger racing thoughts.
If you start a new medication and start experiencing racing thoughts, call your doctor so you can try a new medication or adjust the dosage as soon as possible.
Call a doctor
You should call your doctor or make an appointment with your therapist if you’re having racing thoughts on a regular basis and they’ve become disruptive or are preventing you from sleeping. You should make an appointment with a therapist as soon as possible to be evaluated for a mood or mental health disorder if you experience racing thoughts alongside any of the following:
- symptoms of depression
- strong irritability
- strong compulsions
- anxiety or panic attacks
- severe mood swings
Only once you’re diagnosed can treatment start. Just like other types of health conditions, mental health conditions are more easily treated when caught early.