Why Do I Have Racing Thoughts at Night?

We've all experienced a time when we're lying in bed with our minds running full speed and not wanting to calm down. These are called racing thoughts, and they can seriously affect our sleep quality and overall health and well-being. Understanding the triggers behind these thoughts and finding the best ways to manage and reduce them is essential for calming the brain and getting a restful night’s sleep.

Understanding racing thoughts at night

Racing thoughts aren’t related to thinking quickly. They are fast-moving, uncontrolled thoughts that come quickly, one after another. These thoughts can revolve around a specific stressful topic or jump between various overwhelming subjects, including current worries or seemingly random concerns.

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During the day, these thoughts can increase your feelings of stress and anxiety, make you feel on edge, and make it difficult to focus. At night, the negative and repetitive thoughts can cause overthinking and act as sleep disruptors, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In fact, research shows that an overactive mind at night is a key feature in insomnia, a sleep disorder that significantly affects our sleep quality.

Because of their intrusive nature, racing thoughts are often associated with anxiety. They can cause negative emotional states that can be linked to disrupted sleep and other negative outcomes. Racing thoughts and rumination and the repetitive focus on negative feelings and thoughts can make it harder to both fall and stay asleep and lead to nighttime anxiety.

Common symptoms of racing thoughts

Experiencing racing thoughts can be overwhelming and disruptive. They can affect both your mind and emotions.

For example, you may feel like:

  • Your mind is moving a mile a minute.
  • You can’t control or slow down your thoughts.
  • Your brain won’t relax and 'shut off.'
  • You can’t focus on anything else.
  • Your thoughts seem overwhelming and often feel blown out of proportion.
  • You can’t stop thinking about the worst-case scenario.

Why does my mind race at night: identifying triggers

Unfortunately, there is not one single cause for racing thoughts. A variety of triggers and conditions have been associated with putting us at risk for experiencing them.

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What causes racing thoughts at night

Anxiety

Racing thoughts are closely associated with anxiety. According to the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, symptoms such as sleep disturbances, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, and excessive worrying are some of the hallmarks of anxiety disorders. These are nearly identical to what people with racing thoughts experience. When we experience racing thoughts, they are often focused on our worries and anxieties, which is why these symptoms frequently occur together.

Bipolar disorder

One of the mental health conditions most associated with racing thoughts is bipolar disorder (BD). Long seen as a key symptom of the disease, racing thoughts are a significant factor in sleep issues in patients with BD. Limited research suggests one of the causes of this is dysfunction in the frontopolar cortex, an area of the brain that helps manage incoming thoughts with current ones to respond appropriately to their environment. Brain images show less activation in the frontopolar cortex even when patients are stable, potentially explaining why BD patients have difficulty suppressing irrelevant and intrusive thoughts, which can lead to racing thoughts, particularly during a manic episode.

Depression

While racing thoughts are seen as a symptom of depression, they are most often seen in more severe cases of the disorder. Patients who report racing thoughts have more severe episodes with lower everyday functioning and more complex symptoms like atypical or mixed depression. They also have higher rates of psychotic depression and a greater family history of bipolar disorder.

ADHD

Neurotransmitter imbalances and other processes playing a role in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may lead to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Despite not originally being considered a symptom of the disorder, racing thoughts have been recently associated with ADHD in adults. Patients with severe ADHD reported more significant racing thoughts than patients with bipolar disorder, for which racing thoughts are already strongly linked. This suggests that racing thoughts could be a contributing factor in ADHD, which has implications for the diagnosis and treatment.

Insomnia

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Insomnia involves trouble falling asleep and staying asleep or waking up too early, leading to constant fatigue and distress in daily activities. Recent research shows that racing thoughts may also be a symptom of sleep disturbance, as people with insomnia reported more racing thoughts than healthy individuals at bedtime and when trying to fall asleep.

Caffeine

Drinking coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverages can cause you to have racing thoughts. Caffeine intake is linked to a higher risk of anxiety. It acts as a stimulant in your brain by blocking adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, increasing feelings of alertness, attention, and wakefulness. If we have too much caffeine, it can lead to higher levels of anxiety and racing thoughts.

OCD

Racing thoughts have been associated with the obsession side of OCD. Thoughts can be triggered by stressors around a specific obsession, like turning off the lights, or can be a flood of thoughts that are hard to stop. While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about racing thoughts, the scientific literature mentions intrusive thoughts being the main cause of stress in OCD. Therefore, more research is needed to explore how racing thoughts play a role in OCD symptoms.

Medications

Certain medications may have racing thoughts as a side effect. The most common medications are those used to treat depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, which may trigger racing thoughts. If you find your mind is more active than usual and you’ve started a new medication, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about finding an alternative.

How to stop racing thoughts at night

There are a variety of tools and techniques that can help with stress management to reduce racing thoughts and anxiety when trying to fall asleep.

Try relaxation techniques

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Deep breathing and meditation are well-known strategies to decrease anxiety and calm the mind. Deep breathing has been suggested to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the main communication pathway between the brain and the body. It can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down. Similarly, mindfulness practices like mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, body scan meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation use the breath and different focal points in the body to help keep us in the present moment. This helps combat anxious thoughts and worries, calming our minds and enjoying what we have rather than getting spun up in the future.

Decrease screen time

We have come to depend on our mobile devices, but being on them before bedtime may trigger racing thoughts and impact our sleep. Research has shown that people who are on devices before going to sleep have poorer sleep quality, fewer hours of sleep total, take longer to fall asleep, and are more tired during the day. Also, the triggers of loneliness and fear of missing out could promote racing thoughts. To start, try prioritizing screen time reduction by getting off of devices 30–60 minutes before bed and seeing how it affects your thoughts and sleep.

Exercise regularly

Physical activity can provide an outlet for anxious energy and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Regular physical activity is associated with overall decreased levels of anxiety, however, the evidence regarding whether higher doses of physical activity are associated with greater anti-anxiety effects seems inconsistent. Interestingly, these benefits were seen across all types of activities, from strength training and weight lifting to running and aerobic activities. However, some may suggest that exercise shouldn't be done too close to bedtime. Exercise helps lower inflammation, regulate stress hormones, and increase connections between brain cells, all of which may help relieve anxiety-like symptoms.

Eat a balanced diet

There are increasing links between the impact of diet and nutrition on mental health conditions. Studies find that diets high in processed foods, saturated fats, sugar, and carbohydrates are linked to increased levels of anxiety, albeit indirectly. These ingredients can increase inflammation, which is connected to anxiety. Eating vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats, along with boosting mineral and vitamin intake, can help reduce anxiety and promote a healthy lifestyle.

Try journaling

Processing thoughts and emotions through journaling is a well-known technique for managing stress. It provides a non-judgemental, emotional release of negative thoughts and allows for processing emotions in a healthy way. Keeping a sleep journal is another way to track how you sleep and what thoughts are on your mind. With the connection between anxiety and racing thoughts, journaling allows for a place to put your thoughts to get them out of your head, giving you peace of mind, which may help with sleep quality improvement.

Create a bedtime routine

Creating a bedtime routine and healthy sleep hygiene is a helpful strategy to decrease sleep difficulties and nighttime worries. Sleep hygiene includes habits we do at night to get ready for bed. Unfortunately, most people don't really think about the impact their nightly habits have on their quality of sleep. Create a bedtime routine that aims to get you off screens at a certain time, take a relaxing bath, do mindfulness meditation and grounding techniques, and check to make sure your bedroom is at a cool temperature. These are positive habits to create a good sleep environment and reduce nighttime anxiety.

Try therapy

Talking to a therapist about what’s going on in your life is a helpful way to relieve racing thoughts. Therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) use approaches like cognitive restructuring to identify and change negative thought patterns. CBT can be done both in person as well as online, providing a variety of options for accessible service. It is now considered a gold standard for stress-related disorders targeting unhelpful and racing thoughts.

When to seek professional help

If your racing thoughts are significantly impacting your sleep and daily life despite trying some of the techniques above, it may be time to talk to a professional, especially if your symptoms last more than two weeks.

During your appointment, they will probably ask you questions about your lifestyle and habits. Ask about your mental health history and if you are experiencing any stress. They may ask you to do a questionnaire like the Racing and Crowded Thoughts Questionnaire (RCTQ), which measures the types of thoughts you are experiencing.

Your doctor may suggest going to therapy as a way to process the cause of your thoughts. They may also prescribe medication to help you manage your symptoms. There isn’t a specific medication for racing thoughts at night, so they will choose a drug based on what they think the main cause is — anxiety, depression, or some other mental health disorder.

Racing thoughts can significantly impact our ability to fall and stay asleep, leading to poor sleep quality and overall health issues. These persistent, often anxiety-driven thoughts can trigger a cycle of stress and sleeplessness that affects our daily functioning and well-being. By understanding the cause of racing thoughts and their connection to certain mental health issues, like anxiety, we can take steps to manage them effectively. Implementing relaxation techniques, healthy eating, regular exercise, journaling, and talking to a therapist are helpful tools for calming the mind, getting a good night’s sleep, and improving mental health.

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