How to Handle Racing Thoughts When You Cannot Fall Asleep

racing thoughts

Written by Terre Grable

November 28, 2019

How to Handle Racing Thoughts When You Cannot Fall Asleep“I just can’t manage to make my brain shut off when I’m trying to sleep!”  It’s a common complaint experienced by many people that suffer from insomnia.  Equally as frustrating is this these same racing thoughts can happen during stressful times and peaceful ones. So, then why is it that you may be unable to fall asleep?  If you feel overtired, then shouldn’t it be easier to fall asleep? Ironically, your brain is quite active during a time when many assume it is at rest.  

I.R. Tarkhanov, is reported to have described this succinctly as far back as 1879: “Why does a person sleep if the brain continues to function during sleep even more intensely than during waking?…During sleep, the respiratory and circulatory centers for the brain do not sleep; speech centers do not sleep if we sleep talk; the attention, hearing and olfactory centers do not sleep; finally the cerebellum does not sleep, as demonstrated by the balancing antic of sleepwalkers.  So what is sleep?  The only centers that sleep are responsible for [is] consciousness.  All others continue to operate, even more actively than daytime.”  (Pigarev and Piagreva). 

And more than a century later, technology affirms this conclusion.  In fact, current research will attest that sleep is influential in so many different systems of our body.  It does not act independently, nor in isolation, at all.  Sleep effects our emotional and physical health- sometimes simultaneously.  Not getting enough sleep can make it more difficult for your body to fight off viruses.  Poor sleep also makes it more difficult to manage stress.  It can even affect your mood on a long-term basis and bring on feelings of depression or anxiety.   Racing thoughts are an invasive force that can wreak havoc for many that suffer from insomnia.  

Chronic insomnia can cause emotional difficulty as well.  It can become common for a person that has been unable to sleep for a prolonged period of time to develop sleep-related anxiety or become anxious about experiencing insomnia.  “Why can’t I just fall asleep?”  “All of this insomnia cannot be good for me.”   “What if this sleep difficulty continues forever?  What if not getting enough sleep is just a new normal for me?”   These are just a few of the racing thoughts someone experiencing chronic insomnia may be thinking.   

Many people begin to worry about the long-term physical effects that coincide with not getting enough sleep. Others may start to develop a fear of falling asleep because they are afraid of waking up again and not be able to fall back asleep – like every other night.  Others just begin to assume they have reached the age when they will never be able to get good sleep again.   To the outsider, this type of anxiety can seem very irrational and nonsensical.  However, to the one that suffers from chronic insomnia, such feelings are very real and intrusive.  

What can you do about racing thoughts at night?  

Stress management practices are commonly known to improve sleep health, and mindfulness is among the most effective stress-reduction techniques that can improve sleep.   For some, the concept of mindfulness brings to mind ancient meditation or existential experiences that seem out of touch to the common person.  Or it may conjure feelings of inadequacy from past attempts of trying mindfulness or remaining within the present moment only to have their thoughts and emotions whisked away by consistent worry.   To the contrary, mindfulness can be defined as “…a state of intentional present-moment awareness in a non-judgmental manner (Ong and Moore 2020).  

That is, it is the ability openly set my focus on the here-and-now, rather than get lost is the chaos of the stressful situations of everyday life.  In doing so, mindfulness allows your gaze to shift from unproductive worries that you have no control over and redirect it toward the present moment in which you do have control over.  Additionally, mindfulness requires self-understanding and compassion.  While it seems easy in theory, mindfulness can be challenging at first; especially in the middle of the night.  Yet, like any other skill, it becomes more natural with practice.  Some researchers (Ong and Moore 2020) have recommended practicing mindfulness for a few minutes each day during the day to gain the confidence to use mindfulness at night.  It is also important to remember that mindfulness is not intended to cause someone to fall asleep.   Instead, it may be useful as a stress management practice that can improve patterns that will improve sleep.  Practicing mindfulness can be an effective way to transform racing thoughts into a calm mindset. That is, mindfulness will not get rid of stressful life circumstances, but can provide an effective way to cope with them.  


National Institutes of Health. (2013, April).  The benefits of slumber: Why you need a good night’ sleep. News In Health Newsletter.  Retrieved from

Ong, J., & Moore, C. (2020).  What do we really know about mindfulness and sleep health? Current Opinion in Psychology. 34, pp 18-22.

Pigarev, I.N. & Pigareva, M.L.(2019). A long and difficult path toward understanding the purpose of sleep. The period before electrophysiology. Neuroscience and Behaviorial Physiology.  49(1), pp 75-80. Retrieved from

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