Five Methods for Stopping Anxious/Circular/Racing Thoughts

Racing, anxious, circular thoughts, going round and round trying to figure out something, trying to fix something, replaying a past event, worrying about the future, all these can be very sticky in the brain, going on and on long after the thoughts were useful or interesting. Stopping these thoughts can vastly improve our quality of life, here are some tips:

1.) Say Hello to the voices in your head. Close your eyes and say hello, say hello over and over again, try to notice both the part of you that is saying hello, and the part of you who is aware of the voice in your head saying hello. Imagine that your listening/aware self will stay in your head, but put the chattering talking spinning monkey-mind self outside of you, keep listening to it saying hello, hello, hello. 

2.) Do a Hard Reset. Turn your brain off for a moment, then turn it back on, just like your computer. When your thoughts are racing your brain thinks there is some kind of threat and it’s very hard to refocus, but if you’re nervous about a math test and a bear walks in the room, instant refocus. One thing that will reset your brain (because it will focus on it instantly) is oxygen. 

If you can, find a safe place where you have some privacy, then try box breathing or triangle breathing (I like a triangle). You can count, or imagine yourself drawing a box or a triangle, long slow exhale (5 count), hold (5 count), slow inhale (5 count), repeat (or if box breathing add a hold at the top as well as the bottom).

Try to really notice your body saying “I want to breathe”, that feeling is very important to your brain, far more pressing than whatever your brain was stuck on, and will instantly stop any other thought. Repeat this process several times, then stop, check if your brain is still racing, if so, repeat a few more times, for most people, in most cases this will result in a reset.

3.) Write out all the thoughts. Replaying the past or worrying about the future is our brain's way of trying to keep us safe by learning our lessons about what wasn’t safe and then putting that into action. Sometimes our brains get stuck in this mode far more than is actually useful, but one way you can signal to your brain that you paid attention and took the thoughts seriously is to make them very real by writing them out. This can take the form of a stream of consciousness rant, a journal entry, and angry letter you never send, or any other form that fits your circumstance. Something about getting the thoughts out of your brain and onto paper helps many people to feel like you did something to address the threat and to let your brain focus on other things. 

4.) Fight the Tiger. Our anxious brains are designed for short term immediate threats (a tiger), and if your anxiety goes on for days, months, years (work stress), it really starts to take a toll on your body and brain. One way to address this is to complete the stress cycle. 

Imagine whatever your brain is stuck on as a bad guy (tiger, alien, rampaging llama, giant floating coronavirus with a mime face) then signal to your brain that you did something physically to face and defeat this threat! Kick a punching bag, dance to angry music, scream in your car, curl into a tiny ball and tighten all your muscles until you shake, do a dozen burpees. Imagine the threat being defeated (the mime-faced virus shrivels up and blows away!) then signal to your body that the threat has passed. Turn on happy music, or take a shower, or apply lotion while saying “good job tiger killer”, any action that signals to your body that the fighting/fleeing/freezing is over and now it’s time to celebrate and relax. Do this daily if you are stuck in anxiety.

5.) Observe your thoughts without Judgment. Often our circular thoughts are full of judgments and criticisms, it’s important we get some distance from that judgment (easier said than done). Try this method to see your thoughts more clearly. You can start with the Hello exercise, or imagine yourself in a white room. Erase all your thoughts, then imagine you’re holding a pen ready to write down the next thought that appears, and then focus your awareness on waiting until the next thought shows up. 

Often your mind will go blank at this point, keep trying to focus your awareness waiting for it, but eventually your mind will probably wander, the minute you notice that your mind wandered imagine writing “thought” or “judgment”, then erase it and wait for the next thought. You may notice a sentence into the thought, or a paragraph or a page, no biggie, just pat yourself on the back, and say “You woke up again! I see the Thought! Yay!” then erase and wait for the next thought.

This is surprisingly draining at first but the more you practice the less energy it will take and the more you will see your thoughts before they jump in and take over the intercom system droning on and on about stuff you don’t need or want to hear about anymore.

Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC

Lisa specializes in women's issues, faith transitions, sexual concerns, LGBT+ journeys, trauma, anxiety disorders, body image concerns, and depression. She offers both coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.

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