It happens to the best of us: an inability to concentrate at work, panic in traffic, or thoughts that are too scattered or busy to let us fall asleep. But for others, constant racing thoughts can become an uncomfortable, but consistent, part of everyday life. And mental health professionals want people to know the difference.
“Occasional periods of racing thoughts are nothing to be terribly concerned about as they could be related to a reasonable worry," Dr. Nicole Washington, psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at Elocin Psychiatric Services, PLLC, tells Bustle. "Even a reasonable stressor can lead to moments of feeling like your thoughts are racing." So it's important, first and foremost, to assess whether you're simply having a proportionate reaction to the stressors in your life. And even then, if you're finding trouble coping, it's OK to reach out for help.
But sometimes a legitimate diagnosis is necessary. “Racing thoughts are usually associated with anxiety disorders, panic attacks, OCD and ADD, as well as the manic phase of Bipolar Disorder," Cali Estes, PhD., therapist and founder of The Addictions Academy, tells Bustle. "If your heart rate is elevated and you feel like you are in a constant state of panic, then you might have anxiety or an anxiety disorder and you should be evaluated by a professional." Cyclothymia, a mood disorder that causes emotional highs and lows, is another example. Regardless of where you might fall in the DSM-V, however, you deserve to care for your mental health, and to be able to spot potentially concerning symptoms.
These are seven ways to tell if your racing thoughts are actually a mental health issue, according to experts.
1. You're Finding It Impossible To Focus
Being unable to focus can happen now and again. But if this has become a constant struggle for you, then it's possible you're dealing with a deeper problem than a stress response.
"If you are finding that you're frustrated with your focus, things that used to take you a few hours to complete are now taking all day, or [you] feel like you’re constantly behind on your projects, this is a sign that you could benefit from therapy," psychotherapist Emily Roberts, MA, LPC, tells Bustle, " ... It may be as simple as having someone help you with accountability or be a sign of executive functioning challenges [meaning difficulties with paying attention, organizing, and completing tasks], both of which can be determined when you get a professional’s perspective." Being able to focus is important for a lot of aspects of life, and professional help can get you back on your feet in that regard.
2. The Thoughts Are Very Time Consuming
It's one thing if your thoughts hit you at a certain time during the day, or once a week even. Having incessant racing thoughts, however, can be a bigger problem
"[It's a sign of a bigger issue if] the racing thoughts take up a great deal of the day and are time consuming," Dr. Washington says. So seek help if you absolutely cannot stop the thoughts from coming, no matter the time of day. You deserve a break.
3. Your Thoughts Are Disrupting Your Sleep
You need to get your sleep. If your thoughts are completely ruining your chances at being well-rested, experts agree that it's time to get help. "[Be careful if the thoughts] interrupt your sleep," Dr. Washington says. "Some people with anxiety disorders have a hard time falling asleep due to difficulty shutting their brains off." A therapist can help you navigate this, and teach you some skills to settle into sleep easier.
It's worth noting that if your incessant racing thoughts at night are coupled with particularly dark themes or imagery, it's even more urgent to seek help. "[Be aware of] racing thoughts that are destructive in nature or impede sleep," Dr. Estes says. "If the thoughts you are having are leading you down a dark path, occurring throughout the night, [or] disrupting your sleep, you need to seek the advice of a professional.” Basically, if your thoughts turn into nightmares of their own, it's worth seeking some outside support.
4. The Thoughts Keep Getting Worse
For almost every health condition out there, symptoms staying the same, or getting worse, over long periods of time is a red flag. There is no exception to this trend with racing thoughts. "[It's a sign of something more serious if you have] persistent racing thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere and get increasingly worse. If you have tried meditation, essential oils, exercise and nothing is working, then you might need a mental help professional to intervene," Dr. Estes says. So if you keep pushing back getting help because you think it isn't urgent, think about how long you've been dealing with this issue, and whether it's been getting better or worse.
5. The Thoughts Come With A Bunch Of Other Symptoms
Most of the time, symptoms for mental health conditions don't exist on their own. So check in with your body and your mind, and keep an eye on whether you're also experiencing physical symptoms or other changes in mood, thoughts, or behavior. "Unexplained stomachaches, increased or lack of appetite, headaches, exhaustion or changes in your sleep cycle [can be co-occurring]," Roberts says. "This is a cue from your body that something is off emotionally." Therapy or counseling can help you come up with coping skills that will, in turn, mitigate your physical symptoms.
There are other mood symptoms to look out for as well. "[Check in with a professional if] the racing thoughts are associated with other concerning symptoms such as decreased need for sleep, increased energy, or engaging in risky behaviors," Dr. Washington says. These are not the only possible symptoms that can go alongside racing thoughts, but are particularly important to keep an eye on.
6. Your Thoughts Become Voices
If you're a young adult, it's important to know that schizophrenia usually first appears in a person's late teens or early 20s. Although not all auditory hallucinations are schizophrenic, nor do all people with racing thoughts also hear voices, this symptom is quite important for young people to know about.
"When racing thoughts become voices, especially command voices, you might have a worsening condition or a mental health issue that could be life-threatening," Dr. Estes says. "Should this occur, seek immediate help.” There is absolutely no shame in getting help for this mental health issue, and it's vital that you know it can be treated.
7. You're Using Dangerous Coping Mechanisms
With mental health problems, the way you cope with the symptom is often as much of an indicator of your health status as the symptoms themselves are. If you've started to cope with your racing thoughts by doing things you typically wouldn't, then it might be time for help.
"[Check in with someone] if you find yourself avoiding feelings or managing stress by using substances more frequently than before. Drinking, using drugs, [or smoking] pot more frequently [can be an issue]," Roberts says. "... If it’s interfering with your functioning ... you may need to talk to someone about the underlining feelings prompting this behavior." Again, there's no shame in admitting you need help.
Racing thoughts, on their own, are usually not a big problem. "No one thing on it's own is something to be concerned about, or is even usually diagnoseable," licensed marriage and family therapist, Sara Stanizai, tells Bustle. "But ... if they start impacting your day-to-day life, then it's worth speaking with a professional." Until then, no amount of guessing can get you the help you need. And getting help is seriously worth it.