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Are Racing Thoughts a Sign of Anxiety?

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 9/22/2022

Anxiety is a disorder that can change your behavior, your personality and the way you see the world around you if it’s left untreated. But it can also change the way you think, in the form of things like intrusive and racing thoughts.

We’ve all had racing thoughts before. It happens when one of your parents calls your name like you did something wrong, or when you spiral when thinking about the worst-case scenarios in life. 

If you’ve had racing thoughts in the past, you likely have your own examples in mind. What you may not have, however, is an idea of how they affect your health and happiness. 

If your racing thoughts are getting (or have already gotten) out of control, it might be time to get a handle on the way your brain processes information and ideas. But before we get to how to fix racing thoughts, we should probably talk about why they’re off and running in the first place.

Why Our Thoughts Race

Our thoughts “race” when they speed up past our sense of reason. 

It’s what’s happening when your uncertainty about whether you turned off the curling iron instantaneously leads to thoughts of a potential fire — all before you’ve even considered whether you curled your hair today.

Racing thoughts, put simply, are directions and patterns of thought that race in irrational directions, blow things out of proportion and take all of your time in the process.

It’s a frustrating and costly symptom for people who deal with mental health conditions because it can essentially feel like a torture session in your own head, put on by your own brain.

By the way, “racing thoughts” is not a medically significant term — it can and likely has been used interchangeably with anxious thoughts and intrusive thoughts, and indeed all patterns can be present in someone with a mood disorder.

Racing thoughts can come during manic episodes, as a symptom of mental disorders and in tandem with chronic insomnia.

Racing thoughts can be a result of a variety of psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder.Bipolar I disorder can cause racing thoughts in some cases, as can hypomania. And of course, there are also anxiety disorders to consider.

How Racing Thoughts and Anxiety are Related

Racing thoughts, as you may expect by now, are a symptom of anxiety disorders — namely, they’re one of the ways anxiety presents when an anxiety attack (or an elevated anxiety level) has been triggered.

Anxious thoughts can mean a lot of things — racing thoughts, intrusive thoughts, frightening or worrisome thoughts are all under this large and unofficial umbrella.

Racing thoughts would suggest a degree of panic, however, which could arguably mean they’re better associated with more severe symptoms of anxiety (and could be related to panic attacks).

What is not arguable is that thoughts sprinting from one unpleasant, scary thought to another are a problem, and the more of them you have, the more your quality of life — and ability to enjoy the things, people and activities in your life — may diminish.

And that’s why it’s so important to treat the root cause of racing thoughts, whatever it is.

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Are Racing Thoughts A Sign of Anxiety?

Racing thoughts may indeed be a sign of anxiety, but it’s difficult to determine what the source of these racing thoughts is in a vacuum. In other words, you need more information to contextualize racing thoughts.

Sure, anxiety is characterized by worries, uncertainty, panic and fear (and the thoughts that make it impossible to escape those emotions). But the same is also true of mood disorders like depression, bipolar I and post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). 

They might also be a sign of sleep-onset insomnia. Studies have shown that the instances of racing thoughts are significantly higher in people with persistent insomnia. 

It’s not clear what the association between insomnia and racing thoughts is, but the role of racing thoughts as features of insomnia has been associated with a higher severity of persistent insomnia. 

Even adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or adult ADHD, could arguably cause racing thoughts, though racing thoughts might only be a result of distress due to other symptoms of adult ADHD, like a reduced attention span and difficulty organizing and carrying out tasks and responsibilities.

Chances are, if you’ve already been diagnosed with or have symptoms of anxiety (like insomnia, stress, muscle tension, irritability, fatigue and restlessness, it may be time to seek treatment from a mental health provider so that you can better cope with racing thoughts.

How to Cope with Racing Thoughts

There are several ways to deal with racing thoughts as they’re happening. You can think of these practices like meditations, mantras or exercises, but experts generally point to a handful of things that work for many people.

You might cope with racing thoughts by doing any of the following:

Employ Cognitive Distancing

Anxious people tend to be skeptical of good outcomes and expectant of bad ones, and that’s called a cognitive distortion. 

The best way to deal with cognitive distortions that make the worst-case scenario feel like a certainty and safety an impossibility? Cognitive distancing. 

Cognitive distancing is simply taking a step back mentally and asking yourself if this is really reality you’re picturing. Will you really get fired for needing help? Will you really be ostracized for canceling plans? Probably not. 

Practice a Mantra

Mantras aren’t a joke, and while some of the incantations from popular culture might be worthy of an eye roll, just reminding yourself that you are okay can help you see things more clearly. Repetition can help you focus your thoughts and bring them back under your control, as opposed to racing off in unexpected directions.

Be Present in the Moment

One of the best ways to deal with anxiety-driven fears about consequences in the future is to return to the present. The future hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not something you can control. The present is in your control, so spend your time there.

Keep Notes

Most of our problems seem smaller when we exit the moment of panic. A good way to reinforce this idea is writing down your thoughts, worries, fears and concerns, and returning later. The mere act of doing this can also help calm your nerves.

Breathe

Obvious but necessary, breathing helps calm the nervous system. Check out our guide, Grounding Techniques for Anxiety for more.

Other Treatments

Unfortunately, however, racing thoughts that have become a pattern due to mood disorders like generalized anxiety disorder generally won’t go away without some sort of treatment. 

There are many treatment options for anxiety, but the ones proven effective by science will typically fall into one of three categories: therapy, lifestyle changes and medications.

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Racing Thoughts and Anxiety: The Big Picture

Anxiety treatments can do a lot of things, from helping you rethink cognitive distortions and manage intrusive thoughts, to impacting the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain and chemically altering how intense your emotional lows can go.

But the way to give you the relief and help you need is likely more complicated than one treatment, and you’ll need a healthcare provider to chart the best course and use the best tools. 

Talk to a healthcare provider about the role of insomnia in your distress, ask questions about  attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and ask about cognitive techniques to learn more.

If you’re ready to outrun your thoughts, or slow them to a comfortable crawl, we can help — our online therapy options provider a platform where you can find the right professional for your needs.

So while you and your thoughts are catching your breath, reach out now for help.

5 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Chand SP, Marwaha R. Anxiety. Updated 2022 May 8. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470361/.
  2. Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). 5 ways to stop your racing thoughts. Psychology Today. Retrieved July 18, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-s-mental-health-matters/201604/5-ways-stop-your-racing-thoughts.
  3. Sekhon S, Gupta V. Mood Disorder. Updated 2022 May 8. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK558911/.
  4. Weiner L, Martz E, Kilic-Huck Ü, Siegel N, Bertschy G, Geoffroy PA, Weibel S, Bourgin P. Investigating racing thoughts in insomnia: A neglected piece of the mood-sleep puzzle? Compr Psychiatry. 2021 Nov;111:152271. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2021.152271. Epub 2021 Sep 17. PMID: 34555554. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34555554/.
  5. Peter Grinspoon, M. D. (2022, May 4). How to recognize and Tame your cognitive distortions. Harvard Health. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-recognize-and-tame-your-cognitive-distortions-202205042738.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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