If your mind is racing, it feels like your thoughts are swirling so fast that you can’t latch onto them. Here are 5 ways to calm your mind.
Although racing thoughts are common, they can be tough to shake.
These thoughts might be repetitive (rumination), going over the same subject over and over — or they might bounce from one worry to the next. Racing thoughts can also be intrusive, meaning that even though they’re unpleasant, you can’t stop them.
Racing thoughts can escalate to the point where they interfere with your daily functioning. In some cases, it can be a sign of a mental health condition, like an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
When your thoughts won’t stop racing, there are a few methods you can try.
Grounding is a way to reattach to the present moment without getting lost in the past or future. It’s a strategy that mental health experts often use with people who have experienced trauma.
Grounding practices involve using your senses to reconnect with your body and the world around you.
One simple and common grounding practice is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise:
- First, name five things you see around you.
- Now, name four sounds that you can hear.
- Pick up three objects that are near you and feel their texture and weight in your hands.
- Next, try to distinguish two different scents. If you need to pick up objects to sniff them, that’s okay.
- Lastly, taste one thing. If you have food or a beverage nearby, that’s a good option. But other things work too, such as putting some toothpaste on your tongue.
Try to stay mindful at each step. For example, when listing five things you can see, really pay attention to what they look like, such as their color and shape. When you feel three things, notice how they feel in your hands. Are they soft, bumpy, or cool to the touch?
This technique allows you to gain some space from your anxious thoughts. When your mind is occupied by focusing on your surroundings there’s less room for anxious or ruminating thoughts.
While trying this exercise, it’s likely that your thoughts will wander back toward anxious thoughts. When that happens, gently redirect your attention to the grounding exercise again. You may need to do this many times, and that’s OK.
Something as simple as your breath can go a long way in helping you calm your racing thoughts.
Deep breathing directly affects your body by calming down your sympathetic nervous system (the fight, flight, or freeze system) and activating your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest system).
Calming your nervous system gets your body out of the stress response and helps you physically relax.
There are many different breathing techniques you can use to calm your mind. An easy one to use and remember is 4-7-8 breathing.
To practice this technique:
- breathe in through your mouth and into your belly for 4 counts
- hold your breath for 7 counts
- then exhale slowly for 8 counts
Expressive writing and journaling can be very effective for people with anxiety.
However, there was a catch: the people who were generally very emotionally expressive were the ones who experienced less anxiety. For people who were generally low in emotional expressivity, writing about their emotions actually made their anxiety worse.
Consider what you know about yourself. If you’re a highly emotionally expressive person, then writing your racing thoughts down might help you make more sense of them and reduce how much anxiety you feel about them.
Another writing strategy is to use positive affect journaling, where you focus on writing about the positive aspects of your life. A
Sometimes, it’s helpful to figure out what’s bothering you and write it down. Other times, the situation that you’re worrying about is out of your control — and it may be best to try to distract yourself from ruminating about it.
One strategy that can be helpful when you’re having racing thoughts is to find a healthy distraction. This strategy is often used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a therapy program that was designed for people who have consuming thoughts about hurting themselves.
“Healthy” distractions are key here — for example, using drugs and alcohol isn’t a healthy distraction, and your racing thoughts may return stronger than ever after the substances leave your system.
Some examples of healthy distractions include:
- watching or listening to a comedy show
- re-watching an old series that you love
- going for a walk outside or doing another form of exercise
- learning a dance routine
- coloring in a coloring book
- cooking a new recipe
- playing a game on your phone
If you’re confronting difficult thought patterns on a regular basis, or if they’re getting in the way of your ability to function in work or relationships, then you could be dealing with an underlying mental health condition.
Racing thoughts are a common feature of mental health conditions like anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although the tips above may help, if you’re living with a mental health condition, then receiving treatment from a professional is often the most effective way to start feeling better.
One of the best treatments for anxiety is a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy helps you examine your thoughts and notice when you’re falling into irrational thinking patterns or cognitive distortions.
Psychiatric medications, including anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants, can also be helpful for some people.
Racing thoughts are common in stressful situations, but they can also be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, like an anxiety disorder. There are many things you can do to calm your racing thoughts, but if they don’t go away, consider seeking mental health treatment.
Want to learn more about starting therapy? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.