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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We have an article on bipolar and PTSD if you'd like to learn about the connection between the two.
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.
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:
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.
Mantras for anxiety 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.
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.
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.
Obvious but necessary, breathing helps calm the nervous system. Check out our guide, Grounding Techniques for Anxiety for more.
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.
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.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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