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Three Ways To Handle Mild But Upsetting Racing Thoughts

725521_70463323*Robin, a psychology graduate student, called up her therapist and left her fourth message of the day. She knew that Jen, her therapist was on vacation and unreachable for at least twenty-four more hours, but she didn’t want to call the back-up therapist.

She wasn’t having a full-fledged panic attack as she had in the past. At least not exactly. But she was experiencing racing thoughts: repetitive negative thoughts that she felt were beyond her ability to control.

These were strong enough to distract and upset her, but mild enough so that she was aware of her surrounding environment, was not hallucinating, and felt mildly, but not totally, out of control.

She called her best friend, Sam, who tried to stay on the line with her and calm her down, but Robin wasn’t making much sense verbally. Sam was worried and asked Robin if she was having some kind of mental breakdown? Should they call an ambulance? While Sam and Robin wavered about what to do, a classmate of Robin’s, Steve, called in, and Robin disconnected from Sam to take his call.

Steve immediately pointed out to Robin that they had recently discussed racing thoughts in class, which seemed to immediately take her anxiety down a level.

Maybe it was some kind of subliminal trigger, she wondered?

“I don’t know, but maybe we can go through the check list and discuss whether or not your racing thoughts could be due to a manic episode from bipolar disorder, anxiety, or OCD,” Steve asked.

Steve started asking questions. Robin told Steve that she had not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or OCD, but did have generalized anxiety and had a few panic attacks in the past. She said that she had learned to control her panic attacks with meditation, guided visualizations and breath work and did not need medication.

All of a sudden Robin realized that while she still felt a bit anxious, the racing thoughts were gone, though she did feel a bit jittery.

Steve pointed out that once the intellectual part of her brain began analyzing and problem solving, her out-of-control thoughts toned down.

They were both fascinated how quickly (within 10 minutes) her thoughts calmed down, especially since she had been disturbed by them for nearly four hours.

Together they decided to come up with a student project to test methods of alleviating the discomfort of racing thoughts. They excluded anyone with OCD, bipolar disorder or a serious anxiety disorder from the project, but worked with people who had experienced milder yet persistent racing thoughts with either no diagnosis or with a milder anxiety disorder for which they had not been prescribed medication.

Although the project isn’t done yet, they shared hat approximately 3 out of 11 subjects responded positively to addressing the racing thoughts logically, the way Steven and Robin had done and discovered that just this shift in attention was enough to calm the mind.

The other method that seemed to work for 4 of the subjects was playing music or nature sounds in headphones. All 4 of these subjects also responded well to special breathing exercises, below.

Finally, 3 subjects responded well to repetitive, calming breathing routines. One that works well, especially well for some when done in tandem with another person, is to breathe in to the count of 4, hold for 2, and exhale to the count of 6 (or 8). Repeat as many times as needed.

For racing thoughts that are exhibited during manic episodes or OCD, speak to your therapist.




*Not her real name.

Three Ways To Handle Mild But Upsetting Racing Thoughts

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2014). Three Ways To Handle Mild But Upsetting Racing Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Nov 2014
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