It can be annoying when your thoughts keep racing well past your body giving in to bedtime. Here’s what to do when you can’t sleep because there’s too much on your mind.
Though sleep is essential for health, many of us struggle with it.
In fact, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reports that roughly one-third of adults in the United States have symptoms of insomnia, and 6% to 10% of adults could be diagnosed with insomnia disorder.
Your sleeplessness might not be due to insomnia at all. Racing thoughts can be a contributing factor to staying up all night, but your mind running as steady as your refrigerator could also be a symptom of other complications:
- Stress or anxiety over the day’s worries
- Creative stream of ideas
- Side effect from some medications
- Mania or hypomania symptoms due to bipolar disorder or another mental health condition
Your brain has no off switch, but there are a few ways you can gently tell it to slow down.
Struggling to get some shut-eye at this very moment? Here are a few short-term fixes that could help you calm your mind.
Turn it all off
Although it might be tempting to roll over and scroll through social media or see what show is streaming tonight on TV, don’t. This stimulation can excite your brain, making it more difficult to switch your brain off before bed.
Ideally, you should avoid all screens just before bedtime. This includes your phone, TV, tablet, or laptop screen. “Avoiding blue light exposure at least 2 hours prior to bedtime is better for sleep cycle regulation,” says Dr. Megan Soliman, a board-certified internal medicine physician in Virginia.
“While limiting screen time before bed can be difficult, the benefit of improving one’s sleep hygiene can be well worth it,” Soliman says.
Screens emit blue light, which interferes with your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm tells your body when to fall asleep based on the amount of light you see. Using screens at night can interfere with your circadian rhythm.
If it’s too tempting to log on, you might want to put your electronics in another room and return to bed. Soliman recommends keeping all electronics outside your room and using a separate alarm clock instead of your phone.
Try progressive muscle relaxation
This relaxation technique might help you release tension and fall asleep soundly. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing muscles and then releasing them, starting with your facial muscles and moving down toward your toes.
Interested in trying it? Here’s a progressive muscle relaxation script.
Bring attention to your breath. Try to breathe deeply but slowly. You might find it relaxing to count your breaths. Focusing on the sensation of breathing is a mindfulness technique that can help slow down racing thoughts.
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is that pleasant, tingly feeling some people get in response to certain stimuli. Many people make ASMR videos or audio to help aid sleep. There’re countless free ASMR videos on YouTube. ASMR videos could include relaxing sounds such as tapping, rustling, whispers, and quiet reading. Use comfortable Bluetooth earphones, if possible.
There’re a few activities you can do during the day to help your mind still when it’s bedtime.
Though exercise is a great way to boost your mood, it can also tire your body so that it feels ready for bed. Even a 15-minute walk during the day might help you feel more relaxed in the evening. As a
Because physical activity can be stimulating, it’s a good idea to work out at least a few hours before bedtime.
Researchers found that pre-bedtime warm-water therapy — a warm bath, hot shower, or even a foot soak — can get your body into sleep mode.
Take pen to pad
“One effective method that can potentially help us get to sleep faster is taking a few minutes to write down our to-do list for the next day. This has been shown to help people get to sleep faster,” Soliman encourages, referring to a 2018 study on bedtime writing.
The study found that participants who wrote to-do lists for the next day before bedtime fell asleep faster than those who wrote about the current day’s activities.
Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath
You might’ve heard that you shouldn’t go to sleep angry. Research has actually shown that forgiveness — including self-forgiveness — might help you sleep better.
A 2018 study, based on a survey of 1,423 adults, found a correlation between sound sleep and forgiveness.
The best way to promote good sleep is to adopt healthy sleeping habits, also called sleep hygiene. These habits will make it easier to turn off your brain before bed and get a good night’s rest.
Try to sleep around the same time every night
Establishing a sleeping pattern will help your mind and body get ready for slumber. Winding down similarly and sleeping around the same time daily will help you get into a good habit, which means you’ll be settled before bedtime.
“Many of us use an alarm to wake up in the morning, but it can also be beneficial to set an alarm an hour before bedtime to help with establishing a bedtime routine,” Soliman suggests.
Consider reducing your caffeine intake
As a stimulant, caffeine can keep your mind and nerves on alert. For some, it heightens anxiety, which can lead to racing thoughts before bedtime. And coffee isn’t the only culprit: Tea, pre-workout mixes, chocolate, and many sodas contain caffeine. Soliman notes that the effects of caffeine (a stimulant and a diuretic) can last up to 6 hours, so plan your beverages around that timeframe.
Try sleep supplements, if needed
If good sleep hygiene isn’t soothing your racing thoughts, considering researching sleep aids.
One note of caution: Be sure to speak with a healthcare professional, as several of these sleep aids may worsen some symptoms of mental health conditions.
“Trouble sleeping due to racing thoughts is very common and usually not cause for concern,” Soliman says. However, she adds, you should look out for symptoms that include:
- recurrent feelings of sadness
- frequent mood swings
- no longer enjoying activities you used to
- decreased energy
- changes in appetite
If you experience the above or regularly have problems falling asleep or staying asleep, it’s worth talking with your doctor. Another sign that you should speak with a healthcare professional is if you’re exhausted during the day, often oversleep, or seem to have a full tank of energy with racing thoughts, despite very little sleep.
“Your doctor can then help with finding you other resources, which may include counseling, seeing a specialist such as a psychiatrist or sleep therapist, and doing lab work to rule out any other potential medical conditions,” Soliman explains.
Depending on the cause, your doctor might suggest:
- medication (over-the-counter or prescription)
- self-care strategies
Racing thoughts don’t have to plague you forever. A medical professional can point you in the right direction.
Turn down your stress levels
Stress is also why you want to sleep but your brain won't stop talking to itself. That's because when the mind is under pressure, it releases a hormone called cortisol, which is also what the body uses to wake you up in the morning. Cortisol causes your heart to beat fast.
Keep the lights dim and avoid using anything with a screen (tablets, phones, computers, TV), as this can make your brain think it's still daytime. Reading, light stretching, journaling and meditating are all great options. Find what works best for you and make it a nightly routine.
- Set boundaries. The most uncomplicated way to unplug and enjoy your downtime is to set boundaries. ...
- Pick up a hobby. ...
- Practice mindfulness. ...
- Go for a gadget detox. ...
- Involve yourself in running errands for the house.
Slow Down Your Brain
Once you're in bed, with lights off, use ADHD-friendly tools to help you relax—a white noise machine, earplugs, or soothing music can all slow down racing thoughts.
While overthinking itself is not a mental illness, it is associated with conditions including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance use disorders. Rumination can be common in people who have chronic pain and chronic illness as well, taking the form of negative thoughts about that pain and healing from it.
- Difficulty with time management.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- History of anxiety and depression.
- Difficulty with money management.
Life stressors—such as job stress, familial stress, financial stress, or experiencing a major life transition—is the most frequent cause of racing thoughts at night. This is likely the cause if the experience of racing thoughts at night is new to you, and can be traced to a new stressor or stressful event.
ADHD sleep problems may be a side effect of impaired arousal, alertness, and regulation circuits in the brain. Other researchers believe that ADHD sleep problems can be traced to a delayed circadian rhythm with a later onset of melatonin production9.
Follow the 3-3-3 rule.
Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.
Historically, research also suggests anxiety disorders are associated with reduced sleep quality. When you lie down at night to unwind, your brain turns to all of the worries it didn't have time for during the day. Frequently, this anxiety revolves around worries you can't solve in the moment.
Sleep and psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, often go hand in hand. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Similarly, if you have a sleep disorder, you might feel anxious or fearful before bed because you're afraid you won't get the rest you need.
Brain death can happen when the blood or oxygen supply to the brain is stopped. This can be caused by: cardiac arrest – when the heart stops beating and the brain is starved of oxygen. a heart attack – when the blood supply to the heart is suddenly blocked.
Anxiety is a common cause of racing thoughts. While racing thoughts are extremely common during an anxiety attack, they can also occur at any time. They may also precede or follow an anxiety attack.