How to Reduce Racing Thoughts at Night Due to Stress and Insomnia

Scheduled Worry Time and Relaxation Techniques

Many people with insomnia have a common complaint: “I just can’t turn off my mind at night.” In the stillness of the night, when sleep is a fleeting wish, the mind seems to churn and promote wakefulness in some.

What causes racing thoughts at night and how can this be relieved? Learn about ways to calm your mind, how to reduce racing thoughts, minimize the effects of stress or anxiety, and get back to sleep and resolve insomnia with some effective relaxation techniques.

ways to reduce racing thoughts at night
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Causes of Racing Thoughts and Insomnia

Insomnia can occur in anyone, given the right circumstances. Particularly during periods of stress or anxiety, difficulty falling or staying asleep may manifest.

Sleep occurs best when stressors and preoccupations do not flood our thoughts. These worries are activating and make it hard to get to sleep. This may seem like something that is beyond your control, but it’s not.

Racing thoughts can manifest in a variety of ways. Some people describe it as a movie that plays in their mind at night, images quickly flash past in their consciousness while they lie awake with their eyes closed.

Sometimes it is experienced as part of rumination. To understand rumination, imagine a cow that slowly and persistently chews on its cud—food is regurgitated from its stomach to be re-chewed and swallowed. When it’s not properly taken care of, it comes up again.

Similarly, sources of stress or anxiety may come to your mind to be revisited, rehashed, and processed again. Perhaps there’s no evident solution, and after being suppressed temporarily, it comes back to the forefront of your thoughts, especially during quiet times at night.

Although racing thoughts may be thought to occur only among people with anxiety disorders, this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, given the right situation, stress may contribute to its occurrence even among those who do not identify themselves as feeling anxious or even worried.

This may be heightened in times of exceptional levels of stress: job loss, divorce, moving, or bereavement after the death of a loved one. The content of these thoughts may relate to professional, financial, family, relationship, health, or other stressors.

No matter the cause, these thoughts can be very disruptive and require intentional changes to resolve them.

How to Relieve Racing Thoughts

In order to turn off a racing mind, you have to deny it the fuel it needs to start spinning in the dark. This can be accomplished by managing stress, spending some time unwinding before bed and using distraction and relaxation techniques.

It can be very helpful to set aside some time during the day to address your stressors. This is sometimes called “scheduled worry time.”

Every day, take some time to identify, list, and work to resolve what causes you stress, anxiety, tension, or worry. This may be done by spending some time each afternoon creating or reviewing a list of the things that contribute to stress in your life.

Write them down. Then, in a second column, provide a few action items that will allow the stress to be addressed and relieved.

How to Use 'Scheduled Worry Time'

For example, if you have a major project due at work in two weeks, this may cause you to have increased stress. It may seem insurmountable. There is no way you can get it all done. You don’t even know where to begin. This stress can be incapacitating.

Rather than being overwhelmed, break it down into manageable chunks—and then get to work. Make these items components of the action plan: review the files, speak with your coworker, schedule a meeting, draft the proposal, and finalize the presentation.

As you accomplish the tasks day by day, you cross them off. Eventually, the stressor itself can be removed from the list.

There may be some items on the list that have no obvious resolution. This may cause additional anxiety and zap your energy throughout the day. Tell yourself that you have to let it go. Come back to it tomorrow.

Perhaps things will change and by then you will have a plan that will help you to move forward. In the meanwhile, focus your efforts on the things that you can change. 

By writing down your stressors, you put a name to the sources of stress for you. It also helps you release them from your mind. You don’t need to think about them or to constantly remind yourself so you don’t forget.

By creating an action plan, you find ways that stress can be relieved. As you tackle the tasks, reviewing them on a daily basis, you enjoy a sense of accomplishment in overcoming the issue.

If thoughts related to the stress present themselves at night, you respond by simply telling yourself, I don’t need to think about this right now. I will think about it tomorrow during my scheduled worry time. I can address it then. This can shut down the stream of thoughts and allow you to get to (or back to) sleep.

Shutting Down Before Bedtime

In order to make the night a restful time, it can also be helpful to relax before bed. Put aside your work. Turn off the computer. Stay off the phone and away from social media like Facebook or Twitter. There will always be more to do, but you have done enough for today. Now it’s time to relax and prepare for sleep.

Spend at least 30 minutes, and perhaps as long as one or two hours, unwinding and decompressing before bedtime.

Fill the time with relaxing activities. You may want to read, listen to music, watch some television, stretch, take a shower or bath, meditate, or pray. Ease yourself into the night by relaxing before trying to sleep.

During the time before bed, or if you find yourself awake at night, you may want to further incorporate some other relaxation techniques. This might include breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.

These activities will distract you from effort related to sleep, reduce racing thoughts, and help you to fall asleep. These simple techniques can be learned from books or other online resources.

A Word From Verywell

It is possible to turn off your mind at night. By allowing yourself time to address stress during the day and spending time relaxing before bedtime, you will ease yourself into a better night’s sleep. The use of distracting relaxation techniques may further help during the night.

You can do it. Reduce your racing thoughts and put your insomnia to bed for good.

If you continue to struggle, speak with your healthcare provider about additional treatment options, including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) and medications to relieve anxiety or sleeping pills for insomnia. Our Doctor Discussion Guide below can help you start that conversation.

Insomnia Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
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