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Can’t Stop Your Brain Racing at Night? Try These Suggestions From a GP

Hayley Dawes
22 March 2023

To stop racing thoughts at night, you should start winding down at least 2 hours before bed, to alleviate stress and ensure you’re totally relaxed before you go to sleep. Stress and anxiety can keep your mind running, and those “spinning wheels” can induce more of the same. This can cause or worsen insomnia.

To turn off a racing mind, you have to cut off its fuel, so to speak. You can do this by:

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

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.


Sometimes, the racing thoughts take the form of rumination, or repeatedly dwelling on the same negative thoughts.


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 on 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.

You’re not alone if you spend much of the night ruminating about daily stressors, checking the time and worrying about how tired you’ll be in the morning. Then spending the next day struggling to think straight and keep your eyes open. Dr Nish Manek highlights how to break the cycle of anxiety and sleeplessness:

Avoid lying awake in bed

This is one of the most important tips – if you haven’t nodded off within 15-20 minutes of resting your head on the pillow, get up. Take yourself off to another room and do something relaxing like reading, meditating, or listening to music. Then, when you begin to feel sleepy again, go back to bed. this can be hard when you’re so tired that it’s a struggle to get out from under the duvet, but it works. The idea is to build a strong association with your bed and sleep.

Relaxation methods

When you’re in bed, calming any nuisance thoughts with relaxation methods can be helpful. They can feel a bit silly at first, but things like guided imagery, mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation are all beneficial for a racing mind.


Another successful technique to stop repetitive thoughts is meditation. Meditation helps turn negative thoughts into positive ones, whilst encouraging a better night’s sleep. Many studies have shown that meditation increases sleep quality by decreasing ruminative (deep) thoughts and decreasing emotional reactivity – both triggers of racing thoughts.

Soaking in a warm bath

A warm bath not only gives you time to relax and wind down before bedtime, but it can also help you breathe more deeply and slowly. Helping to calm your body and mind and gain control of any racing thoughts. Plus, the warmth of the water can make you feel sleepier and increases your chances of nodding off sooner.

Read a book

Although it may seem like a stimulant, reading a book can really help to stop racing thoughts at night. Racing thoughts tend to focus on negative things rather than positive thoughts, so by reading a light-hearted, funny, or scientific book, not only does it act as a distraction, but it can also life your mood and alter your mindset for the better. A study found that 6 minutes of reading before bed or during the day can reduce stress by 68%. So, not too much time needs to be invested.

Don’t forget the basics of sleep hygiene

Keep work materials, computers, and screens out of the bedroom, and avoid looking at screens (especially those displaying social media) for an hour or so before bed. 

You might also want to try avoiding caffeinated drinks after 2pm, and alcohol and heavy meals in the evenings, if you want to increase your chances of getting a better night’s sleep.

Exercise during the day can help too but try to avoid strenuous workouts in the three to four hours before bed if possible (sometimes the adrenaline this late in the day can be detrimental to your sleep).


If you find yourself feeling comatose the next day, resist the urge to nap, unless it’s for safety reasons such as when you’re driving. If you absolutely can’t get by without one, try to limit it to 30 minutes and don’t nap after 3pm.


Avoid big lunches, which can make you feel sleepier in the afternoon, especially if the food has a high sugar content. We tend to crave less healthy foods when we haven’t slept, but protein-rich meals might help to avoid that afternoon crash.

If possible, a brisk walk and some fresh air might help to fend off the comatose feeling too. Above all, be kind to yourself, and lower your expectations for what you might be able to achieve the day after a restless night.

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.

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.