Can't shut off my brain: how "normal"/ what does it feel like?

I’m curious how other people experience thoughts that the can’t turn off. I’ve often heard other people make reference to this experience, but I think my own experience is very different from the norm, and I’m sort of curious what the norm really is.

If, for example, you are lying in bed at night and just can’t sleep after hours of trying, (or any other time you can’t “turn off your brain”)how would you describe your thoughts? Is it like you are trying to mediate and thoughts just keep creeping back in, or do the thoughts seem to escalate in speed and spin in circles? At what point do you decide sleep just isn’t going to happen? If you do get up, do your thoughts quiet down relatively quickly once you have something concrete to focus on?

I’m not certain how much sense this is making, but I’m basically curious about other experiences with anxiety and racing thoughts and what is and it not “normal” or at least what other posters think is normal.

I experience this occasionally.
I have read that if you can’t get to sleep in 10-15 minutes, you should get up, go somewhere else than your bedroom and read.
When you feel sleepy, go back and lay down and sleep.
Sounds silly, but it works for me.

Generally I get this if I’ve been playing too many video games, especially WW2 sims like Hearts of Iron. My mind starts planning!

It’s my whole life. I don’t sleep until I reach the point of exhaustion, or take a pill. Sucks.

When do you make the decision to take or not to take a pill? (I take meds every night, but they are not as strong as what I used to take, and would sometimes have problems even then.)

Are there physical symptoms that you associate with racing thoughts? such as physical discomfort, a sense of physical pressure or shaking or uncontrolled movement?
I have a diagnosis of bipolar, BTW, so I don’t expect my own answers to be normal, but I don’t want to assume that they are all that different from other people since it is not something I normally discuss with other people.

Same here, except for a glorious 2-week period of jet lag every time I fly across the atlantic (it magically works going both directions because of how long I go without sleeping during the trip).

Yup, I have a lot of problems with this. It often starts with a couple of thoughts creeping in as I’m drifting off and then goes on to the speeding up and spinning in circles. Depending on numerous factors, it can also escalate to physical symptoms of anxiety.

I tried one of the sleep meds once, name escapes me at the moment, but it made me so groggy the next day that I didn’t continue. A couple mg of Valium will do the trick nicely, but I’m not really interested in taking that on a regular basis.

Mostly I just wait it out and try to distract myself from whatever it is that I’ve gotten fixated on. I’m getting better at that with practice.

Sometimes getting up and doing things makes it better, but not always. I used to move to the couch, for some reason that helped, but it’s not very workable now that I’m on a CPAP.

For me, this happens fairly often. I have in the past, when I was meditating frequently, had enough mental discipline to just stop thought all together and then go to sleep or, if it was harder, meditate to a point of calmness then drift to sleep. However, in periods of greater stress, this just doesn’t work.

The way it will typically go is my thoughts will either end up focusing on the source of the stress or something I was doing not too long before going to bed. What ends up happening is when I try to focus my thoughts on something else, if I can’t maintain the focus long enough for the other part to slip out of my consciousness, it will creep right back into the space in a very jolted sort of way. It’s almost like having a conversation where someone has something they want to say and at the first moment of silence, they just start blurting out.

Other times, I just indulge whatever the thoughts are. By that, I mean that I think the reason my thoughts are racing is because I hadn’t really had the time I needed to sort it out, so I just let them go hoping that I get enough resolution on it that I can let it go and get some sleep. In that case, it often does end up being very circular.

If I’m particularly stressed, I will try the exhaustion thing, where I just won’t go to bed until I’m so tired that I’ll pass out no matter how much my mind races, and it works sometimes. Other times, I’ll just end up passing out fine but I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and if I do anything other than lay still or roll over and go back to sleep, I’ll engage my conscious mind and I’ll end up racing, except I’m now going to have to try something else since I just had a bit of sleep and won’t just pass right back out again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I have had problems with compulsive thought patterns. (That’s not an official diagnosis, just the best way I can think of to describe it.) The same thought would keep circling in my head, sometimes for hours at a time. It was like a car spinning its tires in the mud. Sometimes it just stayed in the background and made it very difficult to concentrate, sometimes it spiraled up into crying fit. (VERY embarrassing when that happened in public.)

I went through therapy to clear up a lot of other junk in my head, and then finally started taking an SSRI to deal with the spinning thoughts. It’s worked very well, the level of background noise in my brain is vastly reduced. Right now for me, ‘normal’ is being able to tell that my brain is constantly working in the background, but unless I deliberately stop to listen for it it doesn’t get in the way of productive thought or focusing on what I need to do. It’d be really strange for things to be entirely quiet in there.

Oddly enough, the spinning thoughts rarely interfered with sleep. On the few occasions that it did, I found that the most effective way to calm it down was to grab a blanket and a book and go lay on the floor in a different room. I picked a book that required mental engagement but was emotionally neutral (my favorite was a book on cults), and usually found that the changed environment plus half hour to an hour of reading would bring things back to normal. When I started putting my head down and dozing while reading, I could go back to bed.

Your mileage will vary, of course.

I might take something if I have to be up at a certain time the next day. But I don’t like taking anything because the after effect might be as bad as getting by on 2 hours sleep anyway. The other reason is happening more often as I age, I reach a point of exhaustion, but still can’t sleep. At that point I’m not functioning well, and figure I need sleep badly.

No. The problem is when I get ADDish, or overtired, and then the race turns into a demolition derby.

This is timely. I didn’t get to sleep until about 5:00 this morning. Basically the sound of my own heartbeat (I wear earplugs) drives me absolutely crazy. And sometimes I worry about what will happen at work the next day. And then when it gets later and later, I get more and more anxious that I’m never going to fall asleep, which only makes the problem worse. When this happens, my heart / general chest area is actually hurting.

Last night was a 3 Benadryl (not all at once), 1 anti-anxiety med night and none of it helped. Sometimes I distract my thoughts by singing songs in my head, or “writing” stories. And I’ve found that sleeping on my stomach seems to make me fall asleep faster.

I have definitely experienced this at night. At night there are fewer other stimuli to distract my brain (sights, sounds, etc). I also experience this much more if there is a stimulant involved (pseudoephedrine or caffeine).

However, during the day it is possible for me to “not think” which apparently some people cannot do. I can sit and stare at a wall and just “idle.” No thoughts.

I am fortunate in that I do not have to deal with this problem all the time. When I do experience “loud” thoughts, it can be absolutely hellish. I start thinking of all kinds of outlandish ways to escape. But it’s never 24/7. And strangely, sleeping problems are a rare occurrence. I think it’s because when my mind gets racy, it also gets tired. But they will wake me up in the morning as soon as my brain gets enough rest.

This is pretty much me as well. I rarely go to sleep within 2 hours of going to bed, and almost always have the “roundabout” brain-just-won’t-SHUT-UP issue.

I’m 52, so I’ve learned to deal with it. Yeah, it does make me frustrated from time to time, but at this stage of the game? I just say “oh well”. I don’t get up to read or anything either because, even though my brain may be clamoring away, my body is TIRED, so I figure “well, I may not be sleeping, but at least I’m resting”.

I had this problem. My doctor prescribed Trazadone. It’s an old anti-anxiety drug that is not used much for that because as a side effect most people get sleepy. So if I’m having trouble sleeping because I’m anxious, well, this is ideal. It is not addictive. I never use it when I’m on vacation, for example.

I have Trazadone too, though i use it rarely, only when I’ve had trouble sleeping for a few nights in a row and the usual method isn’t working and I am getting exhausted. It works really well but makes me slightly dizzy. And I don’t want to be taking it every night.

Usually what I do is, get up, turn on the light, and read some science articles out of one of my magazines. They are very soothing - interesting without stirring up any emotions. Usually partway into some physics or bioscience complexity I start nodding off.

I’ll sometimes experience the same inability to fall asleep. I usually just think of building something. For example, design a house in my head and build it from the ground up. Pour the concrete, raise the walls, etc. I’m usually asleep before I get the roof on.

My wife take a generic form of Celexa (forget the name). It helps her… a lot.

The generic/chemical name is citalopram. That’s the one I take too. It’s an SSRI, which are primarily considered antidepressants, but it’s noted for having anti-anxiety properties as well.

It sounds nice in theory, but if you don’t really get sleepy until 4 a.m. and need to be up at 6:30, it’s not feasable. Staying in bed often works too (and as CanvasShoes said, even if you don’t sleep much you are resting), and it has to if you’re like me and have no problem at all staying awake for 22+ hours without ever being “sleepy.” Nights when you have racing circular thoughts are a good time to pull out a well-worn daydream (romance, winning the lottery, fame, revenge, what have you) and think about that - often it’s enough to distract yourself from whatever it is that your brain keeps picking at.