Restlessness of the mind can be a symptom of ADHD, just like restlessness of the body.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been stereotyped to depict erratic and over-the-top behaviors. In reality, ADHD is a complex condition that can also be quiet and subtle — or anywhere in between.
Restlessness, a recognized component of hyperactivity in ADHD, is often seen as fidgeting, inability to remain still for long periods of time, and task hopping.
Restlessness, however, can also come in the form of racing thoughts. For some, this can make focusing on a single task or trying to fall asleep a challenge.
ADHD is defined as a neurodevelopmental disorder, and the wiring of the ADHD brain can make self-regulation challenging.
For many people, this is often experienced as emotional reactivity, emotional impulsivity, and emotional instability.
Self-regulation challenges can cause other ADHD traits, too, including fast-moving thoughts.
According to Billy Roberts, a licensed independent social worker from Columbus, Ohio, “This means that the frontal lobe of the brain struggles to regulate many aspects of the neurological system.”
He says that this might look like excessive motor activity (difficulty regulating the body) or a hyperactive mind (difficulty regulating thoughts). Those living with a hyperactive mind, therefore, may regularly experience racing thoughts.
Racing thoughts at night
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Difficulty falling asleep is common when you live with ADHD. Racing thoughts often don’t go away because you’re tired. Instead, they can feel like an endless cascade of ideas, notions, memories, questions, and imagination.
Falling asleep with racing thoughts can be like trying to fall asleep watching unlimited 15-second video clips on your favorite topics.
If it seems your ADHD racing thoughts are worse at bedtime, it may be because all the distractions of the day are winding down, and you have nothing to redirect your energy to while you lay in bed.
When it’s your brain wiring working against you, it can be difficult—but not impossible—to stop racing thoughts in ADHD.
Some management strategies that may help include:
- deep breathing exercises
- journaling before bed
Mindfulness is the practice of accepting thoughts in the moment and letting them pass without clinging or spiraling with them.
“An active mind is like a snow globe that has been shaken,” explains Dr. Cristina Louk, a humanistic psychotherapist and ADHD specialist from Monroe, Washington.
“Thoughts and snow swirl around, and you can’t make out the image in the middle. Mindfulness activities help the snow to rest at the bottom of the snow globe and allow us to settle our thoughts.”
One way to practice mindfulness when racing thoughts ADHD has you off-center, is to take a deep breath, ask yourself what your focus should be in that moment (ex: going to sleep), actively release any tension in your body, and take another deep breath.
When you live with ADHD, you know you experience racing thoughts, but recognizing that as a symptom can make them feel less intimidating or frustrating.
Dr. Francyne Zeltser, a licensed psychologist from Manhattan, explains that learning about ADHD can increase symptom awareness, which can help people living with ADHD feel more focused and intentional with their thoughts.
“Additionally, psychoeducation sheds light on resilient factors, which allow individuals to feel more in control of their symptoms, which in turn improves their daily functioning and overall emotional well-being,” she says.
Louk also recommends re-framing how you view your “racing thoughts.”
“Instead of viewing them as “racing thoughts,” a better way to conceptualize this phenomenon is that people with ADHD have a more active mind or experience increased activity of mind beyond the norm.”
Viewing your thoughts as a benefit and not a problem may help relieve some of the negative emotions that come from racing thoughts, such as anxiety.
For instance, you may notice that while you’re trying to relax or sleep, your mind is trying to solve problems. It can help to remind yourself that not all of these problems need to be solved or can’t be solved right then.
You can say to yourself, “thank you mind” for doing its job and welcome your brain back to winding down by focusing on the breath or relaxing a body part.
Deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing can help re-direct your focus from your thoughts any time of day or night.
While there are many breathing exercises you can utilize, a simple one is:
- breathe in slowly, while counting to 5
- hold your breath for several seconds
- breathe out slowly, while counting to five
- repeat as necessary
Journaling before bed
Sometimes racing thoughts in ADHD aren’t random; there might be something on your mind creating anxiety or preventing you from relaxing.
Journaling before bed can help you put your thoughts down, getting them out of your head where you can assess them from a distance.
If journaling isn’t your preferred relaxation method, you may benefit from other exercises, such as:
- music or art
- guided imagery
- mantra/repetitive prayer
- flowing movement art (tai chi, yoga)
ADHD racing thoughts and hypomania racing thoughts share similarities but aren’t the same.
Hypomania, an episodic state of elevated mood and thought associated with bipolar disorder (BD), can present with the same highway of unending thought traffic as in ADHD.
In fact, the mental restlessness of these conditions is extremely challenging to differentiate in research, making misdiagnosis a possibility.
The difference between racing thought ADHD and racing thought BD may not be in the nature of the thoughts themselves, but rather in their consistent presence.
Someone living with ADHD, for example, may experience racing regularly, while racing thoughts in BD may resolve with the episode of hypomania.
“Hypomania may last for a few days,” notes Louk. “An ADHD active mind may last for an hour or a day or a couple of days. It’s more transient than what is seen in hypomania.”
How thoughts present outwardly may also be different.
“People who experience hypomania may have extreme emotions or energy levels that are noticeably different than the person’s baseline,” she explains. “A person with ADHD experiencing an active mind may or may not experience any changes in emotionality or energy levels.”
Racing thoughts in ADHD can be a mental manifestation of restlessness, a result of your brain’s unique self-regulation processes.
While sometimes confused with racing thoughts in bipolar disorder, an ADHD active mind may last for an hour, a day, or a couple of days. It’s shorter-lasting and more routine than what is seen in hypomania.
Relaxation methods, mindfulness, and self-education about ADHD may all help prevent racing thoughts from impairing your daily life. However, if you are struggling to manage your racing thoughts, you may want to consider speaking with a mental health professional about treatment options.