Updated January 07, 2015.
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com’s Medical Review Board.
Many with insomnia have a common complaint: “I just can’t turn off my mind at night.” In the stillness of the night, when sleep is a fleeting wish, the mind seems to churn and promote wakefulness in some. What causes racing thoughts at night and how can this be relieved? Learn about ways to calm your mind and get back to sleep.
Causes of Racing Thoughts and Insomnia
Insomnia can occur in anyone, given the right circumstances. Particularly during periods of stress or anxiety, difficulty falling or staying asleep may manifest. Sleep occurs best when preoccupations do not flood our thoughts. These worries are activating and make it hard to get to sleep. This may seem like something that is beyond your control, but it’s not.
First, understand that racing thoughts can manifest in a variety of ways. Some people describe it as a movie that plays in their mind at night, images quickly flash past in their consciousness while they lie awake. Sometimes it is experienced as part of rumination. To understand rumination, imagine a cow that slowly and persistently chews on its cud: food is regurgitated from its stomach to be re-chewed and swallowed. When it’s not properly taken care of, it comes up again. Similarly, sources of stress or anxiety may come to your mind to be revisited, rehashed, and processed again. Perhaps there’s no evident solution, and after being suppressed temporarily, it comes back to the forefront of your thoughts, especially during quiet times at night.
Although racing thoughts may be thought to occur only among people with anxiety disorders, this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, given the right situation, stress may contribute to its occurrence even among those who do not identify themselves as feeling anxious or worried. This may be heightened in times of exceptional levels of stress. The content of these thoughts may relate to professional, financial, family, relationship, health, or other stressors. No matter the cause, these thoughts can be very disruptive and require intentional changes to resolve them.
How to Relieve Racing Thoughts at Night
In order to turn off a racing mind, you have to deny it the fuel it needs to start spinning in the dark. This can be accomplished by managing stress, spending some time unwinding before bed, and using distraction and relaxation techniques.
It can be very helpful to set aside some time during the day to address your stressors. This is sometimes called “scheduled worry time.” Every day, take some time to identify, list, and work to resolve what causes you stress, anxiety, tension, or worry. This may be done by spending some time each afternoon creating or reviewing a list of the things that contribute in your life. Write them down. Then, in a second column, provide a few action items that will allow the stress to be addressed and relieved.
For example, if you have a major project due at work in 2 weeks, this may cause you to have increasing stress. It may seem insurmountable. There is no way you can get it all done. You don’t even know where to begin. This stress can be incapacitating. Rather than being overwhelmed, break it down into manageable chunks. Make these items components of the action plan: review the files, speak with your coworker, schedule a meeting, draft the proposal, and finalize the presentation. As you accomplish the tasks, you cross them off, and eventually the stressor itself can be removed from the list.
By writing down your stressors, this helps you to put a name to the sources of stress for you. It also helps you to release them from your mind. You don’t need to think about them, to constantly remind yourself so you don’t forget. By creating an action plan, you find ways that the stress can be relieved. As you tackle the tasks, reviewing them on a daily basis, you enjoy a sense of accomplishment in overcoming the issue. If thoughts related to the stress present themselves at night, you respond by simply telling yourself, “I don’t need to think about this right now. I will think about it tomorrow during my scheduled worry time. I can address it then.” This can shut down the stream of thoughts and allow you to get back to sleep.
In order to make the night a restful time, it can also be helpful to relax before bed. Spend at least 30 minutes, and perhaps as long as 1 or 2 hours, unwinding and decompressing before bedtime. Put aside your work. Turn off the computer. There will always be more to do, but you have done enough for today. Now it’s time to relax and prepare for sleep. Fill the time with relaxing activities. You may want to read, listen to music, watch some television, stretch, take a shower or bath, meditate or pray. Ease yourself into the night by relaxing before trying to sleep.
During the time before bed, or if you find yourself awake at night, you may want to further incorporate some other relaxation techniques. This might include breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery. These activities will distract you from effort related to sleep, reduce racing thoughts, and help you to fall asleep.
It is possible to turn off your mind at night. By allowing yourself time to address stress during the day and spending time relaxing before bedtime, you will ease yourself into a better night’s sleep. The use of relaxation techniques may further help during the night. You can do it: Reduce your racing thoughts and put your insomnia to bed for good.
Hope this helps someone, Tessa