I’m a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, and Here Are 3 Ways I Help Patients Stop Their Racing Thoughts

Lately, I've felt burnt out as a result of my busy mind's constant musings and my inability to quiet it; I've wanted to put my brain on sleep mode and not turn it back on until 2020 is over. That obviously isn't an option—who can rest during a revolution?—but knowing how to stop racing thoughts is extremely useful. And if you can't sleep at night because you're composing work emails in your mind, wondering when this pandemic will end, worrying that your friend is mad at you because you said the wrong thing in your Zoom catchup, or for really any other reason, you'd be especially wise to learn how to stop racing thoughts.

While mental sleep mode doesn't exist, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers strategies that can at least help you to go to sleep while providing a respite for your waking hours, too. One of those CBT techniques is literally called thought stopping, and it can be exceptionally useful when you fall down a well of self-critical thinking: Simply imagine a stop sign, or say the word "STOP" to halt negative inner chatter in its tracks.

But that's not the only way to keep a runaway brain in check. I asked licensed psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist Selena Snow, PhD, for her tips on how to stop racing thoughts and here's what she had to say:

Wondering how to stop racing thoughts? Here are 3 strategies to try, according to a licensed therapist.

1. Write it down

Racing thoughts are disruptive at any time of day, but for many people, they're particularly troublesome late at night. "Sometimes we want to be sure that we will remember something for the next day, so we repeat and rehearse it over and over in our minds before we go to bed," says Dr. Snow. For example, someone might lie awake thinking, 'tomorrow I have to remember to buy milk, call my child’s teacher, and email my boss about our meeting."

"[We can] free ourselves from having to remember the thoughts that pop into our head by keeping a notepad and pen next to our beds and jotting these items down." —cognitive behavioral therapist Selena Snow, PhD

Whatever's on your own endless to-do list, an easy solve could be to put it on paper. "[We can] free ourselves from having to remember the thoughts that pop into our head by keeping a notepad and pen next to our beds and jotting these items down," says Dr. Snow. "That way we can relax, fall asleep, and easily remind ourselves about them in the morning."

Writing down your thoughts takes away the mental labor of remembering them while also providing a space to purge associated feelings. It's a quick and simple technique, but writing can really help you tuck your problems into bed for the night.

2. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise

"Grounding exercises can help redirect your attention from racing, anxiety-provoking thoughts to the present moment by intentionally engaging your five senses," says Dr. Snow. "A popular exercise is 5-4-3-2-1, in which you [notice] five things that you can see around you, four things that you can touch, three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell, and one thing that you can taste in your mouth."

You can write these things down, say them aloud, mentally make note of them—whatever method works best for the moment you're in. For example, if I were to put this into practice now, I would say, "I see my unicorn notebook, my glass of water, my vintage tablecloth, my phone, and my coffee machine. I can touch my laptop, the table, my knee, and my tote bag. I can hear birds, the wind, and the cars passing by. I can smell my coffee and the hair bleach I never fully washed out. Whoops. And I can taste the aforementioned coffee, which honestly is a little stale."

This exercise roots you firmly into the here and now when you might otherwise be carried away by a thought tornado.

3. Breathe with intention

Breathwork can improve many areas of your life, whether that means falling asleep quicker with the 4-7-8 technique or elevating your orgasm to new heights. So it's not totally surprising that it can also help you refocus your racing mind.

"Breathing exercises can help to slow down your reactivity in the moment," says Dr. Snow. Breathwork doesn't have to be complicated, she adds. Simply shift your attention to your breath as you slowly and fully inhale, pause, and exhale. "While you breathe, try to notice your bodily sensations, such as the coolness of the air entering your nostrils or the rising and falling of your chest," says Dr. Snow. Do this, and you may just find that your racing thoughts come to a standstill—or at least significantly slow their roll.

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