Why Am I Having Racing Thoughts at Night?

woman with insomnia

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You’re finally settling in for the night. You’re tired and ready to get some rest. But as soon as the lights go out and your head hits the pillow, your thoughts start racing.

You begin to think about your to-do list, or the endless worries you have about the day and weeks ahead. Or maybe you begin thinking about something embarrassing or scary that happened to you years ago. You may be ruminating on a “worst case scenario” situation you imagine happening sometime in the future.

Whatever your thoughts are, you can’t stop them from coming. As the thoughts race, your heart pounds too, and it feels as though you will never get to sleep. This all feels terribly unfair! Night is supposed to be the time when you finally get to unwind and relax. Your racing thoughts make that feel impossible.

If you are experiencing racing thoughts at night, you are far from alone. Many of us experience them at one time or another, especially if we are experiencing heightened stress in our lives. Some of us may experience this chronically, as part of a mental health challenge we face.

Either way, having racing thoughts at night does not have to be your fate. There are helpful and effective ways to cope with and treat racing thoughts at night.

Why Your Thoughts Race at Night

Some people who experience racing thoughts at night also experience racing or anxious thoughts during the day. But many people also have the experience of feeling relatively calm during the day, only to find that their thoughts start to race as soon as they try falling asleep.

The reason for this is that most of us are more easily distracted from our worries and fears during the day. We are working, caring for others, indulging in screen time, and moving rapidly from one activity to another, barely aware of our interior emotional experience. But when everything goes dark and quiet at night, we find ourselves alone with our thoughts, and the darker, more difficult emotions and worries tend to present themselves.

What Do Racing Thoughts at Night Feel Like?

Racing thoughts are thoughts that come on suddenly and seem to populate your mind without you being able to control them. Some common experiences include:

  • A list of thoughts that stream through your mind on a loop
  • The feeling that you are watching different thoughts and scenarios play themselves in your mind, as if on a movie reel
  • The thoughts seem to come in quick succession, as though someone is talking too fast inside your head
  • You may also be experiencing other signs of anxiety that accompany these racing thoughts, such as a racing heartbeat, sweating, or sped up breathing

What Causes Racing Thoughts at Night?

Life stressors—such as job stress, familial stress, financial stress, or experiencing a major life transition—is the most frequent cause of racing thoughts at night. This is likely the cause if the experience of racing thoughts at night is new to you, and can be traced to a new stressor or stressful event.

Racing thoughts at night can also be attributed to mental health disorders, especially anxiety disorders. Experiencing racing thoughts at night might be something experienced frequently, or intermittently by people who have mental health challenges, and can be exacerbated by difficult life circumstances.

Below are some of the most common causes of racing thoughts at night.

Life Stresses and Transitions

Experiencing a job loss, worrying about your financial future, moving, having a baby—any major life change or stressor can cause you to experience racing thoughts at night.

Anxiety and Panic Disorder

People who have anxiety tend to have more trouble sleeping and may experience racing thoughts at night. Panic disorder also makes you more likely to experience this. Sometimes racing thoughts at night resemble symptoms of a panic attack.

Bipolar Disorder

Racing thoughts are one of the characteristics of bipolar disorder, especially during a manic episode. However, simply having racing thoughts does not mean you have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder has other attributes as well, including intense mood fluctuations, engaging in risky behavior, and experiencing delusions or hallucinations. Bipolar disorder requires a proper diagnosis from a doctor or psychiatrist.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

People who experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have racing thoughts. Usually, nighttime isn’t the only time that people with OCD experience racing thoughts. Obsessive thoughts, compulsions, and fixations on things like order and cleanliness are other common characteristics of OCD.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Experiencing a trauma, either recently or years ago, can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of the disorder include racing thoughts, including at night. In this case, you may fixate on the traumatic event that happened to you, and experience flashbacks to it.

Medications

Certain prescribed medications, either for mental health or to treat a medical condition, can cause racing thoughts and insomnia. If you have recently started a new medication and have found that the racing thoughts at night correlate with this, talk to your doctor about potential side effects and alternative medications.

Recreational Drugs

Certain recreational drugs, like methamphetamine and cocaine, can cause racing thoughts. Additionally, racing thoughts and insomnia can be a symptom of withdrawal from certain medications, including opioids.

Caffeine Consumption

Consuming caffeine, especially too close to bedtime, can make it hard to fall asleep, and can cause your thoughts to race. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others.

Tips for Coping With Racing Thoughts at Night

For many of us, making a few life changes and adopting some healthy habits to cope with stress, can help reduce or eliminate nighttime ruminations and insomnia. Here are some tips.

Keep a “Worry Journal”

Writing down some of your thoughts and fears before you go to bed can be therapeutic and can help reduce nighttime stress. Often, our stressful thoughts boil to the surface at night, but they are still in our heads the rest of the day. Having an outlet to “let them all out” when it’s not late at night can really help:

  • Get a notebook and label it “worry journal
  • Take 5-10 minutes a day to list your worries
  • Or, spend 5-10 minutes doing some freewriting about whatever thoughts come to mind

Meditation

Meditation, either right before bed, or sometime during the day, can have a strong impact on your ability to fall asleep without overwhelming thoughts.

  • If this is your first time adopting a meditation practice, keep it simple.
  • You can start with just a few minutes a day, and then go from there.
  • If you need help, there are several apps on the market that will guide you in a meditation.
  • There is no “right” way to meditate; just closing your eyes in silence for a few minutes a day is enough.
  • You might find that your thoughts race while you meditate, but meditation is an opportunity to learn to watch your thoughts go by more mindfully, and learn to let them go.

Decrease Screen Time Before Bed

Many of us are addicted to our screens, and stay on them all day, through bedtime. Unfortunately, these habits have a tendency to wreak havoc on our ability to fall asleep easily and can cause us to have a racing mind at the end of the day. Additionally, too much screen time before bed, along with “blue light” emitted from screens, can cause a decrease in melatonin levels, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep.

Be Mindful of Your Evening Media Consumption

Watching scary TV or movies, or reading disturbing books right before bed, can impact our sleep, and cause racing thoughts. Many of us have become addicted to “doomscrolling,” too, feeling compelled to keep up with upsetting world events and news items.

Making a point to replace our evening media consumption with a bath, meditation session, or a heart-to-heart with a loved one, can work wonders.

Address Your Life Stressors

Some aspects of life are out of our control, and these situations can contribute to heightened stress and anxiety, along with insomnia. But sometimes, experiencing something like racing thoughts before bed can be looked at as a wake-up call to make some life changes to reduce stress.

Maybe it’s time to leave a toxic job. Maybe you need to address the dysfunction in one of your primary relationships. Feel empowered to make the changes that will allow you to live a healthier, less stressful life.

Treatment Options for Racing Thoughts at Night

If you are experiencing racing thoughts at night, and trying different coping tips don’t seem to be helping, it might be time to seek professional help. Seeking counseling or therapy is a great option for dealing with racing thoughts at night and insomnia. Talking to a doctor or psychiatrist about medical options may be a good choice for you too.

Therapy

Your counselor or therapist can help you figure out what’s causing your racing nighttime thoughts, including what life stressors may be impacting you, and whether or not you have a mental health condition that may be contributing.

One of the most successful types of therapy to deal with anxiety, insomnia, and symptoms like racing thoughts is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps you become more aware of your thoughts and helps you learn coping strategies for quieting them down. CBT also helps you manage your anxiety, and begin to recognize signs of it before it is able to take completely over.

Medication

If you are experiencing chronic anxiety, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, or another mental health challenge, there are medications available to help you manage your feelings. Common medications for anxiety include anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines and antidepressants. These medications can also help you fall asleep more easily. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe you sleeping pills to help with racing thoughts and falling asleep.

A Word From Verywell

Having racing thoughts at night doesn’t have to be your reality forever. You might feel hopeless, as though you will never get a chance again to settle easily into sleep. If you feel basically “fine” during the day, you may think that pursuing methods for reducing your racing thoughts at night isn’t important or worth it.

But having difficulty falling asleep, experiencing heightened stress at bedtime, and not getting enough sleep, can have impacts on your overall health and mental health. There are effective solutions out there to address your racing nighttime thoughts, and you deserve a peaceful night’s sleep.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bea A, Drerup M. When You’re Trying to Sleep But Your Mind Is Racing, Give These Tactics a Try. Cleveland Clinic. Updated May 7, 2019.

  2. National Institute for Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Updated July 1, 2018.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. What Is Bipolar Disorder? Updated January 1, 2021.

  4. National Institute for Mental Health. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Updated October 1, 2019.

  5. National Institute for Mental Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Updated May 1, 2019.

  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Caffeine. Updated September 21, 2021.

  7. Black D, O’Reilly G, Olmstead R, Breen E, Irwin M. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015;175(4):494–501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081

  8. National Institute for Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Updated July 1, 2018.

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