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Understanding the Teenage Racing Brain

When a smart brains starts hurtling recklessly down the tracks.

Key points

  • A smart teen's brain can start to race dangerously.
  • Practices like meditation and journaling can help smart teens get a grip on a racing brain.
  • This racing brain phenomenon is not a sign or a symptom of a mental disorder but a natural consequence of intelligence.
Uday Mittal/Unsplash
Understanding the Teenage Racing Brain
Source: Uday Mittal/Unsplash

We say that “thoughts race” and that “the mind races.” These phrases capture something of the experience of indwelling but not enough of that experience. It is rather as if one’s whole being is racing, which can make it hard to sit still, concentrate, focus on a question, or feel settled. It is one thing when that racing is in the service of some productive obsession such as writing a novel. But even then, that racing is more like pressure than bliss. Picture an inexperienced rider clinging to a racehorse at full gallop. That is neither easy nor pleasant.

It is your very being that is sending your mind racing. It is a dictate of your human energy, your need to live, and the availability of your brain as the apparatus to make sense of life. Those human requirements send your mind spinning; and then, having been handed the task and told to gallop, your racing mind takes over and holds your very being hostage. Your brain holds your being on a short leash and rushes off with it.

This common dynamic, faced by just about every smart teen, is like getting on a train and then discovering, as the train starts hurtling faster and faster, that there is no engineer and no brakeman. At an extreme, when this pressurized racing infuses your whole being, we call it “mania,” as if that label explains much of anything. No, “mania” is just a word; what we need is an explanation of this evolutionary process that produces reckless energy that must then be dissipated. Even more than that, we need tactics to deal with this primordial challenge.

To complicate matters further, there looks to be a natural connection between this racing, with its pressurized feel and its demands, and a sad sort of the opposite, where we lose energy, lose motivation, and want to do anything but race. It is as if one minute we were running a race with all our might and then suddenly, in the next minute, we stopped caring about crossing the finish line and just plopped down by the side of the road. Something happens internally—something “psychological”—and the race suddenly seems irrelevant.

You can, of course, see the outline of the thing called “bipolar disorder” in this human dynamic. But that label, like the label “mania,” just turns a spectacularly human process into something akin to broken plumbing. We are not talking about a mental disorder, a neurotransmitter problem, or faulty wiring. Rather, we are talking about a certain challenge that occurs because of the way the brain breaks the bounds of its instructions. It is charged with handling life; it finds that charge daunting; and like a wild horse corralled, it kicks at the fence and, finally crashing through, flies off like the wind.

For parents

Even if your smart teen is doing nothing at all, even if he or she is just slouched on the sofa lost in space, you can be certain that this “racing dynamic” is lurking just out of sight. That dynamism is ready to propel your teen into some obsessive idea as the train that she has boarded suddenly starts hurtling.

What can this hurtling look like? Chronic insomnia. Your teen talking in such a way that you can’t get in a word edgewise. Plans are made and suddenly abandoned. Passionate enthusiasm is followed quickly by a loss of interest, or irritability that may look like a toothache or an earache but is more like a brain ache. As different as these faces of the problem may look, they are related and connected by the way that the racing brain dynamic plays out in humans.

What can you do? At a minimum, you can make an offering based on your best understanding of what might constitute long-term help for a racing brain. If, for example, you have the sense that meditation might help, invite your teen to take a meditation class with you. He may groan, make a face, or in some other way decline. But it is still good to have made the offer. To make that offer shows your teen three things, that you are thinking about him, that you are willing to put yourself out, and that you appreciate that a racing mind is a terrific challenge.

For teens

Racing energy means that you are alive and percolating, that your life energy is bubbling, and that your gears are whirring. That is the upside. The downside is that they can also amount to grave danger. That racing energy can prevent human interactions. It can produce tremendous noise, drowning out your own good thoughts. It can produce an inner mind ache, turning your thoughts dark and brooding and making it impossible to “really think.” Just as natural appetite can end up as gluttony, natural brain activity can end up as electrical overload and fuses blowing.

Insofar as it is humanly possible, you want to get a grip on all this, because a hurtling train without an engineer or a brakeman can’t stop at any station—there is no way off—and may leave the rails at the next sharp curve. There are only imperfect tactics for getting that grip: hot showers, journaling, meditation, breathing exercises, and “redesign your mind” techniques. But the first line of defense is becoming aware that this racing is exactly the challenge that it is: that the way your life energy and your meaning needs are being expressed amount to a handful.

You are smart. Here is a place to apply your intelligence. There is no more fascinating subject, no more difficult subject, no more elusive subject, and no more important subject than the way that high intelligence converts into problematic racing energy. You do not want to make that unfortunate journey from a brain that could do good work, one that could race along at just the right clip, to a tumultuous brain heading for a crack-up.

This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt.


Damour, Lisa (2020). Under Pressure. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Edwards, Allison (2013). Why Smart Kids Worry. New York, NY: Sourcebooks.

Gruzewski, Kevin (2020). Therapy Games for Teens. New York, NY: Rockridge Press.

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