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 you're desperate for sleep, the mind seems to churn and keep some people awake.

What causes racing thoughts at night, and how can you relieve them? Well, to turn off a racing mind, you have to cut off the fuel your mind needs to start spinning in the dark. You can do this by:

  • Managing stress
  • Unwinding before bed
  • Using distraction and relaxation techniques

This article explains ways to calm your mind, reduce racing thoughts, and use relaxation techniques to get back to sleep.

ways to reduce racing thoughts at night

Verywell / JR Bee

Causes of Racing Thoughts and Insomnia

Given the right circumstances, insomnia can occur in anyone. For example, during periods of stress or anxiety, you may have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

You sleep best when you are not preoccupied with stressors. These worries activate your brain and make it hard to get to sleep.

What Are Racing Thoughts?

Racing thoughts can show up in a variety of ways.

  • Like a movie: Some people describe it as a movie that plays in their mind at night. In this situation, images quickly flash past in your imagination while you lie awake with your eyes closed.
  • Rumination: Sometimes, the racing thoughts take the form of rumination, or repeatedly dwelling on the same negative thoughts. To understand rumination, imagine a cow that slowly chews on its cud—food is regurgitated from its stomach to be re-chewed and swallowed. Similarly, when your worries are not properly taken care of, they come up again.
  • Processing: You may revisit sources of stress or anxiety. When this happens, you might rehash and process an event again and again. Perhaps there’s no obvious solution. So, it comes back to the forefront of your thoughts after being pushed down temporarily, especially during quiet times at night.

Why Do They Happen?

Although some think racing thoughts occur only among people with anxiety disorders, this isn’t necessarily the case. Again, given the right situation, stress may contribute to racing thoughts for anyone, even those who do not identify as anxious.

You may notice that racing thoughts and insomnia increase in times of high levels of stress. For example, these symptoms are common following a job loss, divorce, moving, or the death of a loved one. In addition, your thoughts may relate to everyday stressors like work, financial, relationship, and health concerns.

No matter the cause, these thoughts can be very disruptive. As a result, you may need to make some intentional changes to resolve them.

Worrying may seem like something that is beyond your control, but in fact, there are some things you can do to manage your worries before bed.

Schedule "Worry Time"

Every day, take some time to list and work to resolve what causes you stress. You might do this by spending some time each afternoon creating or reviewing a list of the things that contribute to stress in your life.

For example, write your worries down in one column. Then, in a second column, provide a few action items that will allow the stress to be addressed and relieved.

Some people refer to this dedicated time as “scheduled worry time.”

Address Your Stressors

Rather than being overwhelmed, break your stressors down into manageable chunks—and then get to work. For example, if you have a major project due at work in two weeks and feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to begin, identify the components causing your anxiety and make them part of the action plan. For instance:

  • Review the files
  • Speak with your coworker
  • Schedule a meeting
  • Draft the proposal
  • Finalize the presentation

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

There may be some items on the list that have no apparent resolution. This ambiguity may cause additional anxiety and zap your energy throughout the day.

If you find yourself stuck in this loop, tell yourself to let it go and come back to it tomorrow. There are other things you can focus on today. And remember, since you wrote it down, you don't have to worry that you'll forget about it.

Benefits of Worry Time

By writing down your stressors and creating an action plan, you help yourself in the following ways:

  • First, you put a name to the sources of stress.
  • Second, you release worries from your mind.
  • Third, you find ways that the stress can be relieved.
  • Finally, you enjoy a sense of accomplishment when you tackle and review your tasks.

If thoughts related to the stress present themselves at night, you can respond by simply telling yourself, "I don't need to think about this right now. Instead, I will think about it tomorrow during my scheduled worry time." These affirming thoughts can shut down the stream of thoughts and allow you to get to sleep.

Recap

Schedule time each day to write down your stressors. Break them down into manageable tasks and cross them off as you tackle them.

Prepare for Sleep

It can be helpful to set aside intentional time to relax before bed to make the night a relaxing time. Good sleep hygiene involves stopping certain activities and establishing a familiar routine that tells your body it's time for sleep.

Disconnect

Your circadian rhythm is the internal clock that tells you when it's time for sleep. These internal rhythms can be thrown off by several things, including lack of sunlight and too much blue light from computer screens. So, a few hours before bed, turn off screens, including:

  • Computers
  • TV
  • Phones

In addition, put aside your work and disengage from social media. 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, or perhaps as long as one or two hours, unwinding and decompressing before bedtime.

Relax

Once you've eliminated screens, fill the time with relaxing activities. You may want to try the following:

  • Read
  • Listen to music
  • Stretch
  • Take a shower or bath
  • Meditate or pray

You may find that establishing a nighttime ritual that incorporates some of these activities sends your body signals that it's time to wind down.

During the time before bed, or if you find yourself awake at night, you may want to further incorporate some other relaxation techniques, including:

These activities can distract you from the effort related to trying to fall or stay asleep. They can also reduce racing thoughts. You can find many simple techniques online.

Recap

Prepare your body for sleep by establishing a pre-bedtime routine that includes disconnecting from screens and relaxing.

Summary

Insomnia has many causes. One of them is stress and anxiety that leads to churning thoughts when you're trying to sleep. By identifying your stress, scheduling time to attend to your worries, and establishing a healthy bedtime routine, you may be able to avoid racing thoughts and sleep more soundly.

A Word From Verywell

If you continue to struggle with sleep, speak with your healthcare provider about additional treatment options. For example, you might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), 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.

Doctor Discussion Guide Man

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes racing thoughts at night?

    Racing thoughts at night can be caused by stress, anxiety, or insomnia, although it is not limited to these reasons. The lack of environmental distractions when we go to sleep means we are left alone with our thoughts; with nothing to distract from these thoughts, some people may find it hard to turn them off.

  • Why do I have anxiety at night?

    Anxiety at night can cause sleep disorders such as insomnia. The reverse is also true: Research suggests that people deprived of sleep can develop an anxiety disorder. If you frequently experience anxiety or stress when trying to sleep, you may associate bedtime with these feelings, making falling asleep more difficult.

  • How do I calm anxiety at night?

    Many of the tactics used to manage stress can also be used to calm anxiety at night. Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed, and try relaxing activities like breathing exercises, reading, listening to quiet and calming music, light stretching, and meditation.

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6 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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