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Racing thoughts are thoughts that come quickly, one after the other. They may relate to one subject or many different ones.
When a person has racing thoughts, their mind involuntarily digs up random thoughts and memories and moves rapidly from one to another.
The topics may have nothing to do with each other or may have links to each other. Random thoughts can affect a person’s ability to sleep or to focus on a single topic.
If racing thoughts move in a sequence, they can end in a worst-case scenario. A person may hear them as a voice they cannot ignore or as background noise in the brain.
Treating an underlying health condition or learning some coping strategies may help resolve these thoughts.
However, according to a 2019 article, various other factors can trigger racing thoughts. These include:
- panic disorders
- chronic stress
- the use of recreational drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine
- some prescription drugs, such as dexamethasone
- medical conditions, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Cushing’s disease
- a traumatic brain injury
Other conditions that may lead to racing thoughts include:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
One older study suggests that when a person with depression experiences racing thoughts, they may be at a higher risk of thinking about suicide.
According to Mental Health America, racing thoughts may also signal the start of psychosis.
There are a variety of ways to control racing thoughts and reduce their occurrence.
1. Focus on now, not the future or the past
For some people, racing thoughts stem from something that has not happened and may never happen. Others focus on things that happened in the past, which they cannot change.
People who experience racing thoughts should try to focus on what is happening now. Saying to themselves, “I won’t worry about the past or the future, I’ll focus on what I can control,” is a good place to start.
2. Take deep breaths
The body’s natural panic response is to speed up the heart and breathing rate. This may happen when the mind begins racing.
MHA suggest that taking slow, deep breaths can reduce the body’s stress response and promote a feeling of calm, helping to quiet or stop racing thoughts.
The following strategy might help. Try:
- breathing in slowly while counting to five
- holding the breath for a few seconds
- breathing out while counting to five
A person can practice deep breathing anytime, without any specialized training.
3. Think about other options
Racing thoughts often end up in a worst-case scenario, and it can be easy for someone to build up a sense of disaster.
This can lead to a vicious cycle of more anxiety and continued racing thoughts.
A person can try to counter this by:
- repeating to themselves that this worst-case scenario is not going to happen
- considering how likely it is that the worst-case will happen
- thinking about more desirable alternatives that could occur
Instead of, “I’ll get fired for that mistake,” change the thought to, “Everyone makes mistakes, and I’ll do what I can to make it right.”
4. Use mantras
According to an older article in the International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, mantras, or positive self-statements, are simple words or phrases that a person can repeat to calm their mind. Some people find them useful in times of panic and racing thoughts.
Repeating phrases such as, “I can get through this,” or “It will be okay,” might help.
Mantras allow the mind to focus on one simple positive or encouraging thought. This turns the mind away from its racing thoughts.
5. Try distractions
MHA also indicate that distractions, such as a favorite hobby, such as a favorite hobby, especially a calming one, can quiet the mind and help a person focus on something other than racing thoughts.
Depending on a person’s preferences, options for reducing stress and finding distraction may include:
- using coloring books
- singing or playing an instrument
- going for a walk or other outdoor activity
- watch a movie or listen to some music
Regular physical activity improves mental well-being and might be helpful during an episode of racing thoughts.
Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for adults. The CDC also recommend muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week.
If racing thoughts start developing, walking, jogging, or similar activities may help settle the mind.
7. Inhale lavender essential oil
Lavender has a reputation for being calming, and some research supports this claim.
Some evidence suggests that inhaling lavender essential oil can calm the mind and quiet brain activity.
Do not apply the oil to the skin without first diluting it with a carrier oil, such as almond or olive oil.
Although research suggests that essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these. A person should talk with their healthcare provider before using essential oils, and they should be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. A person should always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Many mental health conditions can cause racing thoughts, and it is essential to seek a doctor’s advice for diagnosis and treatment.
A doctor may use a questionnaire to assess the type of thoughts a person has and why they are happening.
A person should speak to a doctor if they experience:
- repeated episodes of racing thoughts
- a low mood and symptoms of depression lasting more than 2 weeks
- sleep problems
- symptoms of anxiety, ADHD, or other mental health issues
There is no single treatment for racing thoughts, but some options include:
- medication, psychotherapy, and other treatments for mood disorders and other mental health conditions
- reviewing medications that may trigger racing thoughts
A person may experience racing thoughts in response to a traumatic event, but they can also indicate an underlying health condition.
Many of the conditions that cause racing thoughts require professional guidance from a doctor or mental health practitioner for ongoing management.
A person should see a doctor if they experience racing thoughts without an apparent reason or have any other symptoms that last longer than 2 weeks.
These symptoms may indicate an underlying mental health problem that needs medical attention.