Runaway thoughts: How to put
the brakes on a racing mind


Runaway thoughts can be a scary experience, like a roller coaster gone out of control.

Often these events are brought on by worry or anxiety. It's an overactive defense mechanism that produces too much, too fast for us to deal with.

Sometimes these notions can escalate into a panic attack. Other times they gradually taper off as we settle down and return to normal thought processes.

How can we singles short-circuit these barrages? Do techniques exist to reverse this mental commotion?

A caution before we begin

First, be aware this is general information about this phenomenon and not medical advice. Runaway thoughts can be a sign of a psychological condition that needs to be treated by a licensed professional. This site is not a substitute for that.

Runaway thoughts: Our fast-paced world


Everything seems to move faster today, from cars to computers. TV commercials can bombard us like a visual machine gun. Video games stimulate our minds to a higher level, and sometimes it can be hard to come down from such a hectic pace.

Consumed substances can also key up our mind to a quicker rate. From caffeinated beverages to energy drinks to methamphetamines and cocaine, stimulants can induce a feeling of power.

The important thing to remember is that the human body, physically and mentally, is not designed to operate in this overdrive for very long. The result will be a crash of physical and mental exhaustion.

In short, these substances, even the legal ones, are dangerous.

The feeling of ultra-competence can be alluring but to try to maintain it artificially over the long term is destructive. It's like driving a car 120 mph on city streets.

Natural or unnatural

All of us have experienced a period of worry that starts to snowball. Often these incidents happen late at night when we can't sleep. Some concern comes up and before we know it, a chain reaction of "What if's?" starts in our mind.


These runaway thoughts take over, seeming to get more intense as they go along. Typically they're negative and pessimistic. In a few minutes, we review a dozen worst-case scenarios about our situation.

Racing thinking, like worry, can seem like a constructive activity. We convince ourselves we're actually doing something about our problem, when all we're really doing is cataloging all the terrible things that might happen. Actual solutions—real answers to our problems—rarely come in such monkey-brain gymnastics.

And yet these frightening patterns are hard to break. We get addicted to them because it's a way to cope with stress. What we must recognize, however, is that runaway thoughts are a harmful way to cope.

Stop, stop, STOP!


The human mind is an exceedingly complex entity, capable of amazing accomplishments.

We've all seen people play the piano or guitar and sing at the same time. While it appears they're doing two separate things at once, the unifying element is the song. They're not playing a different song than they're singing.

And while the human mind can switch from one subject to another with lightning speed, it can't actually think about two things at the same time. That means you can't maintain runaway thoughts and concentrate on another set of thoughts simultaneously.

We can halt runaway thoughts by focusing on something else. The problem is keeping up those new thoughts without returning to the racing ones.

Some people just repeat "STOP!" In their mind or say it aloud to break the pattern. "STOP" may have to be repeated many times before the brake holds. What's better is something that requires intense concentration, like reading or even playing a video game.

It's important not to overestimate the power of these runaway thoughts over us. Yes, they're persistent; yes, they're intense, but in many cases they can be controlled.

Calling on God

When I was 25 and taking radiation treatments for cancer, I would lie in bed at night fighting runaway thoughts. The "What ifs?" followed each other like bumper-to-bumper traffic on an expressway and the whole string seemed to pick up speed.

I interrupted this mess with the Lord's Prayer, said slowly, over and over. Memorized Bible verses can work too. Remember: You can think of only one thing at a time. Make it something helpful, not destructive.


I heard an evangelist say the most effective prayer is simply, "Jesus, help me." It's probably the most-used prayer in our faith. Jesus knows your situation. You don't need to explain it to him. Listen to what he said:

"And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?" Luke 12:25, ESV)

He meant this fast-paced worrying doesn't accomplish anything. It doesn't change tomorrow and it makes today miserable.

We can take precautions toward the future—and we should. But at some point we have to put our life in the hands of God. That's scary. We're control freaks and don't want to relinquish the steering wheel. But God is big and powerful and smart. When we finally recognize that he's a billion times more capable than we are, we can trust him.

Getting professional help

As I said earlier, some conditions absolutely require professional help. If runaway thoughts dominate you, the one to talk with is your personal physician. He or she will determine whether you need specialized treatment or medication.

Yes, you can talk to your pastor, but understand that most pastors are not qualified to diagnose a medical condition. Prayer and scripture reading are relevant in many situations but not all. Physical ailments need the attention of a medical doctor. Psychological problems may require a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Again, this article is only a signpost, not a solution. If its suggestions about runaway thoughts don't help, take the next step and consult your doctor. A competent doctor is your ally, not your enemy.

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