Racing Thoughts at Night? Proven Killer of Sleep

Mind racing at night? You are not alone, there are lots of reasons for this problem and proven ways to get back on track.

Racing Thoughts – Stressful Life Situations

When you are stressed out your mind and body can go into a fight or flight response.

When your life changes your brain is trying to figure out this new situation, to keep you safe. This can be helpful when there is a critical situation…. but not so helpful when it is response to chronic stress.

To figure out if stress is a part of your racing thoughts ask yourself: Are these racing thought new? Are they about a specific situation? Has there been a big change in my life lately?

Even situations that are happy, but are a big change can lead to stress. Because our brains prefer things to be predictable, and change is not predictible.

There is actually a scale of stressful life events called the Holme’s and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Rating Schedule. Here are some items from the scale with the rating of how stressful the event is. Notice that even ‘desirable’ events cause stress.

  • Death of Spouse – 100
  • Divorce – 73
  • Marital Separation – 65
  • Jail term – 63
  • Death of close family member – 63
  • Personal injury or illness – 53
  • Fired from work – 47
  • Change in financial state – 38
  • Death of close friend – 37
  • Foreclosure of mortgage or loan – 30
  • Trouble with in-laws – 29
  • Change in sleeping habits – 16
  • Marriage – 50
  • Marital reconciliation – 45
  • Retirement – 45
  • Pregnancy – 40
  • Gain of new family member – 39
  • Change to different line of work – 36
  • Change in responsibilities at work – 29
  • Son or daughter leaving home – 29
  • Outstanding personal achievement – 28
  • Begin or end school -26
  • Vacation – 13
  • Christmas – 12

PTSD and Intrusive Thoughts

Experiencing a very traumatic life situation, or repeated exposure to trauma can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD include: recurrent distressing memories, recurring nightmares, and flashbacks, or disassociative reactions in which the person feels the trauma repeating.

Having intrusive thoughts about trauma when you are trying to sleep can be very common. Are you having repetitive thoughts about a traumatic situation?

Mind Racing Due To Anxiety

Maybe your racing thoughts at night are not a new thing? You aren’t really thinking about one situation but worrying about a bunch of things?

Panic attacks from anxiety can also happen when trying to fall asleep.

This can feel like: a sense of impending doom, increased heart rate and chest pains, shortness of breath and throat tightness or a feeling of detachment, or like nothing is real.

OCD and Intrusive Thoughts

Having intrusive thoughts, sometime of a very frightening and unusual nature can be caused by OCD.

The thoughts could be of harm coming to yourself or others, sexually inappropriate thoughts or worrying about things that are completely irrational.

People with these types of intrusive thoughts might not realize that they are not alone, feel shame and not seek help. If this sounds like you, please do seek a diagnosis, treatment and support. You definitely are not alone.

Adult ADHD Night Owl

With adult ADHD, being tired and hyper at same time is the norm. Even though you are tired, getting to sleep is a major issue. 

Are your racing thoughts at night not anxious but just about everything? ADHD brains just love to take any opportunity to be curious and problem solve.

This shows up as a racing mind when you are trying to fall asleep. As soon as you close your eyes your minds start racing. Sleep is so boring to ADHD brains! 

It turns out that every sleep disorder is more common in ADHD than the regular population. The Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders are the most common in adults with ADHD.

Adults with ADHD have a delayed sleep-wake cycle, a fancy term for being a night owl. This means that even if you’ve had a busy day and are tired, you can start to feel more alert in the evening

Night Owl: Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Being a really late Night Owl, going to bed after midnight, is considered Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).

A delayed circadian rhythm can lead to disturbed sleep and poor function the next day.

Delayed sleep can be caused by having an altered circadian rhythm, the way our body is regulated throughout the day.

Our eyes sensing light, changes in sleep (shift work, sleep deprivation), and taking certain medication can affect the circadian rhythm.

How To Treat Racing Thoughts at Night?

First of all, have some compassion for yourself. It is really frustrating to be exhausted and not be able to sleep.

I have written a full post covering how to stop racing thoughts at night, which I will briefly summarize here.

ADHD and Insomnia

If you are having very negative thoughts, please seek medical help immediately. Racing thoughts can be common with PTSD, OCD, anxiety and ADHD, so if you think that might an issue for you, seeking a diagnosis can help.

Some people with ADHD have an improvement of their sleep disturbances when taking ADHD medications, even stimulants.

Most people do not realize how powerful light exposure can be to treat insomnia. When we spent more time outside our bodies matched our circadian rhythm to nature.

People with ADHD in particular have altered circadian rhythms so this is actually a great, but underused treatment option to teach your body it is time to go to sleep.

Ways to Stop Racing Thoughts

One of the things necessary to fall asleep is to switch our bodies from an alert and focused state to a sleepy state. If this is not natural to you, or your body is stressed and wants to stay alert, this is something you can actually practice.

  • Expressive Writing
  • Learn To Unfocus Your Mind With NSDR
  • Meditation, particularly gratitude meditations
  • Breathwork
  • Supplements like Dr. Huberman’s famous ‘sleep cocktail’
woman opens curtains to sun

Good luck with falling asleep!