How to Deal with Racing Thoughts in the Middle of the Night

A reader asks:

I often wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing (especially before an exam etc) what should I do with my mind? Should I try to stop thinking (is that possible) or clear the mind? Or think of happy memories (not always easy at 3 am)? What does one do with a racing mind in the middle of the night?

If you frequently experience racing thoughts in the middle of the night (or when you’re falling asleep initially), there are two main causes, both of which need to be addressed:

1. Unaddressed stressors in your life.

A stressor is something that triggers a stress response. For example: An overly demanding boss, that big decision you need to discuss with your partner but are avoiding, or an upcoming exam. If you have lots of stressors in your life they will cause a lot of stress—and racing thoughts at night is a symptom of chronic stress. This means that if you want the symptom to go away for good (including racing thoughts at night), you need to address the root cause—the stressors producing it.

In the case of stress from exams and school, this often comes from inefficient study methods—that is, the exams are so stressful because they’re taking too much time and energy to prepare well for. Check out the work of Scott Young, who’s an expert in learning theory and how to study well. This blog post is a good place to start: How to Study Better, Faster, and with Less Stress

2. How you respond to the racing thoughts in the moment.

The other reason people have racing thoughts at night is because they unintentionally turn them into a habit based on how they respond to them. When you experience racing thoughts like worry or self-doubt in the middle of the night and respond to them either by elaborating on them (thinking more about them) or trying to stop or ignore them, you are unintentionally reinforcing them, which makes them more frequent and intense in the future. The reason is that both suppression and avoidance communicate to your brain that the thoughts are threats and dangerous, which makes your mind more sensitive to them in the future.

The better way to deal with racing thoughts is to breifly acknowledge and validate them (“I’m having racing thoughts right now… I don’t like them, but they’re not bad or dangerous.”) then occupy your mind with something else—listen to an audio book, for example, or get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy and then get back into bed.

And one more suggestion…

Start doing scheduled worry each day. If you consistently make time to intentionally address your worries and concerns during the day, your brain will be less likely to bother you with them in the middle of the night.