I can’t forget to bring that paperwork with me tomorrow! I can’t forget to pay that bill! I need to call the bank! I can’t believe she said that to me. What did he mean by that? What am I going to do about that meeting tomorrow? How can I fix my presentation? There’s no way I can make that deadline! How can I fit everything in???
Maybe these thoughts sound familiar. Or maybe your racing thoughts take on a different theme. But one thing is for certain: They stop you from falling asleep.
Sometimes, racing thoughts plague us because we “…have busy lives and don’t leave ourselves time to plan or organize,” said Amy K. Mistler, Ph.D, a psychologist with Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C. who specializes in treating anxiety, depression and insomnia. Your mind starts reviewing everything you need to remember the next day.
Many of Mistler’s clients feel like the only time they have to think is when their head hits the pillow.
She also noted that people with depression are more likely to ruminate about their past; people with anxiety tend to worry about the future; and people with bipolar disorder might experience racing thoughts during manic or hypomanic episodes.
Racing thoughts also can become a vicious cycle. The lack of sleep they cause contributes to more anxiety, more racing thoughts and more sleep problems, said Lisa Wright, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep medicine and health psychology in Orinda, Calif.
Thankfully, there are helpful strategies you can try. Below are five suggestions. (Stay tuned for another piece, which features six more tips.)
- Listen to guided meditations.
When your thoughts are racing, calming the body and mind is key. Some guided meditations and relaxation exercises help you focus on the physical sensations of your body or your breath. This helps to “anchor and ground [you] in the present moment,” said Mistler. (It helps you shift your focus away from the racing thoughts.)
Also, when you’re more relaxed, you’re “more able to let go of the thoughts or more able to disengage from the racing thoughts.” Mistler suggested these excellent resources:
- Plan the next day.
Think through what you need to do tomorrow and address potential problems and stressors today, Mistler said. For instance, one of her clients was lying in bed ruminating about problems with her co-worker. During her planning session, she wrote down her concern that her co-worker might overreact to an email.
Then she considered that this co-worker often misinterprets and overreacts to email. The client thought about past experiences where this ended up being fine. She also considered talking to her supervisor, who knows the co-worker can be difficult and has helped in similar situations.
Make sure you finish your planning session at least one hour before bed, Mistler said. This way, “you can focus on relaxing and winding down prior to your bedtime.”
- Process today.
Mistler suggested writing or journaling in the evening to process how your day went. For instance, if something happened that was stressful, unpleasant or confusing, writing about it helps you make sense of it. It also lets you focus on resting and relaxing at bedtime versus ruminating about the situation.
When you’re journaling, “write about the event itself … your emotions about the event, and … your thoughts about what the event means for you.”
- Give yourself permission to stop thinking.
“Make an active decision to say you’ve given it enough thought, and you’re calling it a night,” said Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, a counseling psychologist in Chandler, Ariz., who works with individuals, couples and families.
You can even promise yourself that you’ll return to it in the morning, she said. Plus, “let’s be honest, no one thinks clearly right before bedtime anyway.”
- Commit to a rule.
“Committing to a rule is just agreeing to the idea of structure in your life,” Saenz-Sierzega said. “It’s a way in which we can decide ahead of time how to be or what to do, rather than letting a moment define us.”
For instance, you might set a rule not to make any important decisions after 9 p.m. (or whatever time is an hour before your bedtime), she said.
You also can set a boundary about your way of thinking: Make “it a rule not to replay something that already happened, unless you’re willing to identify at least three things you learned because of that experience.”
When we have racing thoughts, we can start to feel helpless (and hopeless). It feels like we’re in the passenger seat while our brain careens along the world’s windiest road. But there are many effective tools that can help. And if you’ve tried different tools, and you’re still having issues, don’t hesitate to see a psychologist who specializes in sleep.
Insomnia photo available from Shutterstock