Stop Racing Thoughts: A Guide to Better Sleep

Today is World Sleep Day and we are bringing you 6 tips to calm a racing mind, especially when it is keeping you from getting enough sleep!

Blue Background with line drawing of woman sleeping in white ink. With the words Stop racing thoughts above the drawing and A guide to better sleep below the drawing.

Does this sound familiar?

You are laying in bed and once again you can’t seem to fall asleep because your brain will not shut off. Perhaps it’s a list of things you need to complete for a project, or it’s a past memory replaying again and again. Racing thoughts, repetitive thinking, and ruminating can keep you from getting enough sleep and affect your overall physical health.

Racing thoughts, also called racing mind, are constant, persistent, and often intrusive thoughts that come in rapid succession. Specifically, racing thoughts are difficult to turn off or control, they often spiral out of control, and disrupt your ability to focus on other important tasks. 1

There are a couple of reasons why you could have racing thoughts: anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or drug use can all cause racing thoughts. 1 However, sometimes it is a chemical imbalance that causes insomnia; the racing thoughts could be a symptom of the insomnia rather than a cause. 2

There is also some fascinating research linking obsessive rumination and repetitive thinking to specific brain mechanics related to regions of the prefrontal cortex and the default mode network (DMN). In a Psychology Today article, the author explains how people experiencing depression are more prone to rumination and repetitive thoughts. 3

Regardless of why you can’t seem to shut down your mind, it is so frustrating when you just want to sleep.

We put together 6 tips that can help you stop those racing thoughts and get to sleep!

1- Write it out

A great way to process thoughts is through journaling and list making. (You can check out our guide to journaling here.) If you find yourself lying awake for more than 20 minutes, get up out of bed and find a dimly lit space to journal. Write out all the thoughts keeping you awake and finish with the sentence “It can wait until tomorrow.” Then let it go and give yourself permission to stop thinking about it.

2- Create a Container

Counselor, Emilie Lelacheur, teaches clients how to use an imaginary container to manage anxiety, worry and racing thoughts. When we are focused on worries, or things we can’t do anything about in that moment, she writes, “Take the thoughts and set them aside in an imaginary container to come back to at a time that is more helpful. After you set those thoughts in the container, that is when it’s helpful to go back to focusing on your body or redirecting your attention to whatever you need to be doing in that moment.” (You can watch a video of her explaining this here). A few key points she makes is that the container is not a place you put your thoughts to make them disappear forever, it’s a box with a lid because you NEED to take them out at some point and process them. The container is simply a temporary holding place.

3- Read or listen to a podcast

Sometimes when our brains get stuck in a thought processing loop, we simply need new input. Read a book or listening to a podcast (nothing too stimulating!) can be a great way to redirect your mind away from anxiety or racing thoughts. Let yourself read or listen for 20-30 minutes, then try sleep again.

4- Do some light stretching

While the National Sleep foundation recommends exercising in the morning to minimize insomnia, they found an overwhelming 83% of people sleep better after exercising at any time of the day with only 3% of late-day exercisers struggling to fall asleep. 4 If you are struggling to shut down your brain, try doing a light exercise routine.

If you find you can’t sleep after exercise, 10 minutes of light stretching can improve circulation, reduce stress, relieve pain, and improve mood. You could even try laying in ‘child’s pose’ or ‘corpse pose’ with eyes closed and focus on your breathing for 10 minutes.

5- Focus on the Body

Counselor, Emilie Lelacheur, writes “When there is racing in the mind, there is often tension in the body. Doing something like progressive body relaxation not only can help you get out of your head, but also relax the tension in your body.”

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is an exercise that reduces stress and anxiety in your body by having you slowly tense and relax each muscle. You can find guided PMR on YouTube or follow this script. Some forms of PMR will include visualization techniques and others are very straightforward. 

6- Pray

Psalm 34:4 says “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears.”

When your mind is racing try praying and giving it to the Lord. When you give it to him that means you let your worries go, trusting him to handle it for you. God wants a personal relationship with us and that means he actually wants you to talk with him like you would a friend. So, lay out your worries and rest in his presence. You may even find yourself falling asleep while praying. If you are still struggling with this, you can check out the app Pause which will walk you through letting go of fears and worries to God.

If you are still struggling with getting to sleep after trying these tips, be sure to check out our last blog post about the sleep health connection where we outline 5 tips to get better sleep.

As always, our mission here at New Life is to provide you with the tools necessary to thrive and succeed in your life. You can’t do that if you are stressed out and trying to pour from an empty cup. If you are ready to talk to a professional, give us a call or fill out the contact form.

Have a blessed day!