How Can I Control Racing Thoughts And What Triggers Them?
Updated May 20, 2020
Reviewer Merlena James Leger, LPC
It's very common to experience a seemingly endless loop of mostly negative thoughts running through your mind. These repetitive thought patterns may replay past events associated with trauma, sadness, or loss, or they might focus on perceived threats and roadblocks to future success. For most people, these thoughts frequently occur during stressful situations when anxiety is high.
While it's normal to experience these thought patterns occasionally, prolonged repetitive thoughts that disrupt sleep or hinder normal function should be discussed with a mental health professional. They could indicate the presence of a mental health disorder, which can be addressed through behavioral or pharmaceutical therapies. Read on to learn more about racing thoughts and how you can manage them.
What are Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts typically occur as a rapid succession of mental images that continue without restraint and do not lead to a rational conclusion. These emotionally draining experiences can present as a frightening sense of being out of control, prompting a range of feelings from mere discomfort to paralyzing fear. These uncontrolled thoughts even have the potential to overcome a person's functional consciousness.
Racing thoughts may occur as a bar of music, sentence fragments, or thoughts that jump tangentially from one to the next. They may have no associated sound. It's important to note, however, that racing thoughts do not involve hearing voices, which is a symptom commonly associated with some types of psychotic disorders.
Sometimes they occur as an overwhelming repetitive focus on the past, and they often tap into latent fears and worries. These thoughts have the potential to disrupt consciousness, prevent sleep or concentration, and diminish your ability to live in the moment. Sometimes they're merely distracting, but they can also be debilitating.
What Problems Do Racing Thoughts Create at Night?
When the person experiencing racing thoughts attempts to sleep, they can experience mental images ranging from a series of fluid patterns to an unrelenting deluge of jarring thoughts. The inability to quiet these unnerving thoughts has the potential to create stress, which may disrupt sleep. It's not unusual for affected people to play word games for an hour or two just to settle their thoughts enough to be able to fall asleep. Racing thoughts can also occur during sleep, disrupting normal rest patterns and causing people to wake up and have difficulty falling asleep again. Because exhaustion and stress can exacerbate racing thoughts, the disruption of the sleep patterns can lead to more stress, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of restlessness and racing thoughts.
What Is the Connection Between Racing Thoughts and Bipolar Disorder?
People with bipolar disorder frequently experience racing thoughts, which can be a precursor to a manic episode. During these episodes, the person in question generally experiences mood instability that ranges from extreme highs and mania to severe depression.
Racing thoughts in the content of an impending manic episode may co-occur with pressured speech, a diminished need for sleep, irritable mood swings, restlessness, increases in risk-taking behavior, distractibility, and grandiose thinking. The presence of racing thoughts alone does not definitively indicate bipolar disorder or any another mental conditions. However, in conjunction with other symptoms, racing thoughts may help mental health professionals identify people at risk for eventually developing bipolar disorder. A mental health professional can also help people with bipolar disorder recognize racing thoughts, so they can prepare to address impending manic episodes.
What Triggers Racing Thoughts?
Racing thoughts may be indicative of mental illness, but they are not specific to any singular condition, and they can occur even if someone is not suffering from any mental disorders. They're associated with many disorders, including panic attacks, depression, anxiety states, and bipolar manic phases. The use of prescribed and illegal drugs can also cause racing thoughts. Specifically, amphetamines stimulate the central nervous system and may create them as a side effect. In addition, racing thoughts may occur during periods of stress caused by external circumstances, including the lack of sleep or other factors. Because there are numerous potential triggers for racing thoughts, people with racing thoughts should consult with a mental health provider to accurately identify triggers and develop effective care plans.
What Are Some Ways to Control Racing Thoughts?
After a professional assessment has been completed and a diagnosis has been made, there are many evidence-based techniques that can help people deal with racing thoughts. When appropriate, drugs may be prescribed. Non-pharmaceutical alternatives may also be explored in isolation or in conjunction with drug therapies. These alternatives may include some of the following:
People frequently convince themselves that worst-case scenarios are true even when they're not. Their minds tend to predict the worst outcome, even when it is not likely to occur. To combat this tendency toward the negative, cognitive dissonance is a focused effort to help people recognize positive alternate scenarios when assessing situations.
For example, a woman may convince herself that her husband is cheating, and her marriage is over. She may see him spending hours at the computer sending emails to a female coworker. He may also be staying late at work and missing planned family gatherings. The wife could decide that these factors are proof of infidelity. Therefore, she may develop racing thoughts like this: "I wish I was more interesting. All I do is go to work and come home to take care of the kids. Maybe I should have gone to the gym more often. I never lost weight after the twins were born. His coworker is a Zumba teacher. He must think that I look dowdy. I hate myself. I wish I'd finished college, so I could have an interesting job like his girlfriend. I'm ten years older than she is. No wonder he is leaving me. I should have tried harder on my hair and makeup. I don't make enough to keep this house. He is going to leave me, and I will have to move into a cheap apartment."
Using cognitive distance, the woman could assess the situation more clearly with a focus on facts. She could acknowledge that, although her husband has recently been spending more time with his coworker, it's also true that they were just assigned to work on a new project together. If the project is successful, her husband will be considered for a promotion that would improve the quality of life for their entire family. The project requires collaboration outside of office hours, including the use of emails and frequent meetings with other staff. In this case, cognitive distance is a helpful tool that will allow the woman to consider all of the possible situations and probabilities, so she can better manage her thought patterns and reactions.
People experiencing racing thoughts can sometimes benefit from a mantra, which is a simple word or words repeated to calm the mind. Research shows that repeating a mantra can slow activity in specific parts of the brain responsible for self-judgment and internal reflection. Calming this part of the brain can help people with racing thoughts to stop replaying troubling images about the past and reduce their worry about the future. Mantras can be any word or group of words that feels comfortable to the person using them. Try something like "This, too, shall pass." or "Everything is OK. I am OK."
Focus on the Present
Focusing on the present is another method to control racing thoughts. Professional counselors can help people learn to release negative images of the past and find positive things to focus on in the present. They can empower individuals to discern between what can and cannot be controlled to reduce worries about the future. People with racing thoughts are frequently unable to live fully at the moment and need professional support to leave behind memories of the past and worries about the future.
Write Things Down
Therapists and counselors often teach people to put their concerns on paper. When properly implemented, this process helps people control when and how they revisit their concerns. The act of writing focuses the mind and reduces the power that racing thoughts have over you. It also allows the person experiencing these thoughts to organize chaotic mental images into a format that allows the person to have greater comfort and control. Then the person can then decide when to revisit the written thoughts, if at all.
A mental health professional can explain the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system and the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system, but in short, it's hard to control your thoughts when you can't relax. Controlled breathing is an important way to manage these responses, and it has long been used to distract people who are experiencing physical pain, including women in childbirth. The same focused breathing techniques can help people calm their minds by detaching from racing thoughts. Breathing patterns are effective and can be repeated as needed anytime and anywhere.
BetterHelp Can Help
If you're struggling with racing thoughts, you may benefit from a therapist's support you while you learn to manage them. It takes time for people to form new habits, and it may take regular practice over a long period to see what works best for you. BetterHelp has over 4,000 licensed therapists who can help you find and utilize the optimal tools for your situation.
Read the reviews below to learn how BetterHelp counselors have helped people struggling with similar issues.
"She has given me some excellent tools to manage and correct negative thought patterns in my daily life. I am so grateful for her patience, understanding, and just for her listening to me and helping me work through my thoughts."
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Although everyone experiences periods when unwelcome thoughts disrupt daily function or sleep, persistent racing thoughts often require help from a professional. A licensed therapist can work with you to find the root of your racing thoughts, so you can overcome them. Take the first step toward a clear mind today.