4 Ways to Cope With Invasive, Racing Thoughts
Mental health pros share their preferred techniques for slowing down your mind.
Imagine: You're winding down after a long day. You've completed your skincare routine, put on a pair of cozy pajamas, and snuggled up in bed. But instead of sailing off to sleep, you're wide awake thinking about a dozen things. Did you forget to lock the door? Did you send out that important work email? How will you complete that project in time for the big meeting? When do you need to renew your passport? Your calf is cramping—should you look up the symptoms online?
If this sounds annoyingly familiar, chances are you're experiencing the all-to-common phenomenon of racing thoughts. When you have racing thoughts, it feels like your mind is going 100 miles per minute—and there's no way to pump the brakes. (In many cases, racing thoughts can lead to insomnia.) While racing thoughts can be a byproduct of clinical mental conditions like ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, or depression, it's often a symptom of anxiety.
"Anxiety is the emotion tasked with problem-solving and responding to crises," explains Tiffany N. Lindley, MS, LPC-S, NCC, owner of Epiphany Lane Counseling in Texas. "Sometimes our brains aren't really clear on the difference between a problem and a crisis. Our fight, flight, and freeze responses [are] there to protect us from danger and create physical changes to prepare our body for battle or retreat."
But just because you experience racing thoughts doesn't mean it always has to be this way. To help, we asked mental health professionals for their expert-approved strategies for breaking out of the cycle of detrimental racing thoughts.
1 Schedule designated worry time.
In a perfect world, your mind would be free of racing thoughts. But in reality, slowing your mind down takes patience—it’s a skill, but the good news is, it’s a skill you can learn. Lindley says that thought-stopping techniques require preparation, awareness, and an external reminder. Peace of mind won’t happen overnight, but you can wean yourself off the habit little by little.
“One technique I use is scheduling time to think anxiously,” Lindley says. “It creates space to explore your worries while also giving them a time limit. It tricks your brain's tendency to jump to conclusions and go into response mode.”
Instead of letting those racing thoughts run rampant throughout the day, limit them to a 20-minute time slot. To establish firm boundaries, carve out time on your calendar and set a timer. Use that allocated time to focus and work through whatever is bothering you. Once the time is up, move on to an activity that brings you joy, such as cooking or working out. (As Elle Woods famously said, “exercise gives you endorphins,” which has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
Again, anxious thought loops aren’t something you can turn on and off. If you do encounter them during the day, WorryTree recommends writing them down in a journal so you can address them at your allocated “worry” time. Another tip: Try to schedule your “thought sessions” at the same time every day. That way you can slowly but surely work on bringing some order to your racing thoughts and regaining some sense of control.
2 Enlist your senses.
Anyone who’s experienced racing thoughts knows they can creep up at a moment’s notice, and it can be hard to squash them when you’re, say, on the subway or a turbulent flight.
“Racing thoughts are sometimes caused by thinking of the future and what could potentially happen,” says Bryan Bruno, MD, the medical director at Mid City TMS. “To calm them, try to ground yourself in the present moment and think about the things happening right now.”
Bruno recommends combating racing thoughts with the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which encourages you to tune into your senses: “Five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste,” he explains. “This will calm your mind and give you a task to focus on.”
By focusing on your senses, you can slowly but surely take your mind off of whatever’s bothering you. Speaking of pivoting your focus, deep, slow, gentle breaths can help, too.
3 Prioritize positivity.
More times than not, racing thoughts are rooted in negativity and often occur when we’re feeling stressed. (In fact, the National Science Foundation found the average person has 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day—and 80 percent of those thoughts are negative.)
“When we’re under stress, we’re experiencing something to have negative thoughts about. Then when we experience those negative thoughts, we often lack the mental energy necessary to address them before they become negative racing thoughts,” explains Margaret DeLong, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in New Jersey.
To keep those negative, racing thoughts at bay, DeLong recommends practicing gratitude. Practice replacing pessimistic worries with something you're thankful for or something that makes you happy. “Thinking about one thing you’re grateful for helps to prevent the energy of a negative thought from turning into racing negative thoughts and spiraling out of control,” she explains.
The National Science Foundation study also found 95 percent of negative thoughts are repetitive from the day prior. Another way to banish recurring thoughts is to repeat a mantra. “A mantra can distract from the racing thoughts, and the more you repeat something to yourself, the more you can implement it into your life and make it real,” Bruno adds.
Reciting a mantra that reminds you that you’re in control or safe from negative situations can help put your mind at ease.
4 Don't hesitate to seek professional help.
When you’ve tried all of these exercises without any progress, consider seeking out a professional who can offer more strategies for chronic, anxious ruminating and provide you the space to work things through.
“Sometimes people can try to use these coping mechanisms and they don’t work,” explains Kelley Kitley of Serendipitous Psychotherapy. “Seeking professional help or considering medication has [great results].”