Racing Thoughts at Bedtime? Causes and Solutions

Last updated: December 3, 2019

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Many people with insomnia complain about “racing thoughts” that they can’t control. It’s like an intense movie marathon that just goes on and keeps them awake for a long time – sometimes until sunrise.

These thoughts could be linked to a particularly stressful period someone is going through or they could be a sign of mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.

You can try some helpful tactics if you’re suffering from racing thoughts that keep you up. They include relaxation techniques, exercises, constructive thinking, and a diet change. You can also search for counseling and therapy options that could work for you. 

How to calm your mind before bed

It’s not only about your nightly activities. Good sleep hygiene even includes how you start the day, what you consume and then, of course – what you do in the evening. Here are some strategies that can help you calm your racing mind; but make sure to read on for sleep-related tips that can help you stabilize your emotions and thoughts in the long run.

Breathe

Take deep and slow breaths. A racing mind can give you an increased heart rate and faster breathing. By regulating your breathing, you can help your body and mind calm down. Breathe in for 3-5 seconds and then breathe out even slower. At the same time, do your best to reign in your thoughts.

Focus on the present moment

Your thoughts may have taken you away to an unpleasant place but the truth is – you’re not there. Say to yourself that you’re not in the future and not in the past. For example, you can think: I’m in my room, in a safe and comfortable environment. It’s warm, I have fine conditions for living. I’m okay. 

Think about things that are up to you – your plans, your clothes, your habits, your schedule – they are worth thinking about, not something you can’t change such as past and future.

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Pursue a hobby

Find what calms you down. For some people, it’s an art form like writing, painting, or music. It could also be gardening, cooking or something else. Having a calming practice can go a long way in relieving destructive thoughts.

Take up exercise

Daily exercise and physical movement (especially in bright sunlight) give you a boost of confidence, optimistic mood, and a good night’s sleep. Exercising and daylight set your circadian clock (internal timekeeper) which makes it more likely to get you in the healthy sleepy mode at night.

Eat healthy stuff

A good diet rich in antioxidants, unprocessed food, and overall a balanced diet has a positive impact on mental health. Some studies even show that consuming good bacteria-rich yogurt on a daily basis decreases stress and improves sleep even during stressful academic periods.

Enjoy calming teas and absolutely avoid alcohol and caffeine in the evening. People who are sensitive to caffeine should avoid it altogether; others should stop coffee consumption after 2 pm.

Face your problems, causes of stress

Your racing thoughts may be coming from trying to avoid thinking about and solving certain problems. And when you finally get some quiet time, usually before bed, all your thoughts, emotions, and worries will surface and overwhelm you.

This is why you shouldn’t avoid them. There’s something that’s worrying you? Face it; analyze and worry; just do it during the day or early in the evening. 

If it’s complicated, write down the problems, give them a name, divide them into separate units and then think about possible solutions for those smaller chunks.

Let’s imagine you’re having problems at work. Nothing seems right. If nothing is right, then nothing can be solved! This type of trouble would give anyone a headache. Now let’s try to sift through your experience at work. What’s the main problem? Is it about a coworker? Are operations poorly planned or managed? How does that make you feel? Then think about how those individual points can be addressed and what you can personally do about them. What’s stopping you, if anything? 

After you check this off your list, try not to return to those thoughts at night – you’re done with them and will revisit any additional ideas the next day.

Practice good sleep habits

Here are the basic rules for a good night’s sleep and emotional stability. If you can’t abide by all of them right away, do your best to shift your behavior little by little until your sleep habits are close to this list.

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  • Keep your sleep-wake time consistent on working days, weekends, and holidays. A solid schedule guarantees an improved quality of sleep.
  • Allow yourself at least 7 hours of sleep opportunity (ideally 8) every night. 
  • Dim lights in the evening and do not use technology before bed – shut everything down at least one hour before bed. Some people may need even more ‘off’ time. LED lights and screens postpone sleep and social media sites are likely to cause anxiety.
  • Avoid unpleasant phone calls and conversations in the evening. It doesn’t matter how tempting it is to turn on your TV, have a big meal, a nightcap, check emails, or do something else – just try to keep it simple and calm prior to bed.
  • Have a warm shower 30 minutes before bed. This helps us relax and lowers the core body temperature, which increases sleepiness. If you pair this with calming tea or warm milk, you’re more likely to doze off soon.
  • When you lie down, relax your muscles group by group. You can start with legs and work your way up, or start from the neck and work your way down. Sometimes our body is tense and we aren’t even aware of it. Relax your body and relax your mind. Think about something pleasant or simply try counting – and even when random thoughts break in, chase them away and keep counting. 

What are racing thoughts like?

Racing thoughts are like a fast train that pulls all kinds of loads. This “load” can consist of related or completely unrelated thoughts. You may worry about the future, reminisce unpleasant past events or think about something completely different. Racing thoughts tend to be repetitive, just like a vehicle on a circular train track. 

One thing is for sure – they make you anxious and overwhelmed. Racing thoughts feel like your brain is in a fast-forward mode and they typically prevent a person from focusing on a task or simply from focusing on staying calm.

Why do racing thoughts happen?

There’s a number of reasons. They can be a consequence of stress – for example, if someone lost a loved one or went through a stressful event at work or in private life. We can’t always easily cope with what life gives us so racing thoughts can be a negative response to stress or poor sleep. After this period is over they typically go away. Certain medications can also cause racing thoughts.

Sometimes racing thoughts are one of the signs of a mental health problem. These mental health conditions are associated with racing thoughts:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Panic disorder.
  • OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

And these:

  • Amphetamine addiction.
  • Hyperthyroidism – overly active overlythyroid gland.

Please bear in mind that sleep and mental health are tightly connected. It’s almost impossible to have one impaired without the other bearing at least some of the consequences. A long history of poor sleep almost always causes anxiety and depression. The latest research points out that ADHD may primarily be a sleep problem as about 75% of all ADHD patients have sleep problems.

Your mental health will reap numerous benefits from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). What’s behind this fancy name is simply educating yourself on what’s good for your sleep and what are the undesirable things you are doing. Then you need to put your effort into instilling the good and uprooting the bad habits. CBT for insomnia has shown some amazing results and its effects last much longer than those of any sleeping pills.

Improved sleep results in more stable thoughts and improves symptoms of mental illnesses.

When should I take action?

You should think about making some changes or getting help if these symptoms occur over a long period of time (longer than a single stressful event):

  • You can’t focus and your tasks take too long to complete due to racing thoughts
  • Your thoughts last for hours and/or they keep getting worse and more severe
  • They cause an inability to fall asleep
  • You start hearing voices
  • You resort to alcohol, marijuana, or other substances to help you cope.

If you were already diagnosed with one or more of the above-mentioned disorders at some point, then you should address the main cause first. If not, you may want to try and find out what’s the underlying reason for your problem. This way you’ll be able to tackle the bothersome thoughts from the right angle.

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