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October 12, 2023

Morning anxiety? The best thing to do is probably nothing.

Woman with anxiety in the morning looking down
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

Whether I’m working with someone who experiences morning anxiety as a standalone issue or as part of a broader anxiety disorder, I often hear that they want to start their day without the jitters and dread that can accompany waking up.

To combat their morning anxiety, they’ve tried meditation, calming morning routines, different types of breakfast, and even medication, but overall, they don’t feel substantially better. They ask me, “Why do mornings make me so anxious?” and “How do I stop this morning anxiety?” My answer might surprise you: “You need to allow yourself to feel anxious in the morning, and you don’t need to know exactly why it happens.”

Waking up with anxiety symptoms like a racing heart, shoulder, or chest tightness isn’t uncommon and is often caused by a spike in cortisol levels. While thinking about the day ahead might be stressful, there’s a biological process at play, too. 

Cortisol is an important hormone involved in the body’s response to stress. Your cortisol level is at its highest during the first 30 to 45 minutes after waking up, which helps you feel more alert in the morning. Gradually, as the day wears on, cortisol tends to taper off unless there are intermittent or chronic sources of stress (such as insomnia, pain, trauma, environmental stressors, etc.).

This might go against common wisdom, but stick with me. Something quite remarkable happens when you lean into your morning anxiety and permit yourself to feel it rather than rushing to mask it with caffeine or distracting activities. Those unsettling feelings and physical symptoms you experience tend to fade away. 

Like all forms of anxiety, morning anxiety is not static; it ebbs and flows, often influenced by your thoughts and how you respond to them. The key is to accept that you’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable. Once you do, you stop fighting it. 

But doing “nothing” can be quite challenging, especially when anxiety is high. We might already be barraged with thoughts and so reactive that we want to push those uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations away. Still, when you fight morning anxiety, you exacerbate the problem.

 Thoughts like, “I can’t start my day like this!” or “Something’s wrong with me” only heighten your anxiety. You might manage it by avoiding getting out of bed to rest a bit longer, challenging your thoughts, or seeking a distraction like your phone. While these strategies may offer temporary relief, they’re not a sustainable solution. Your anxiety comes back, often worse than before. It can also increase your frustration about sleep and lead to more time awake in bed.

So, what should you do instead? If you can stay in the moment during your anxiety-ridden mornings and say to yourself, “It’s OK to feel anxious right now,” or acknowledge the experiences with curiosity, “Oh, there’s that tightness again,” you’ll find that the morning anxiety will likely lessen on its own. The beauty of this is — you don’t have to ‘solve’ the morning anxiety. Take it further and challenge yourself to welcome the morning anxiety. It’s a proactive way to conquer it.

Now, why does this work? Our bodies are designed to react to threats by triggering the sympathetic nervous system, priming us for fight or flight. This is helpful if facing an immediate danger — like being chased by a tiger or missing the morning bus. However, our brains sometimes misfire, interpreting sensations or the ordinary stressors of morning routines as significant threats, and our fight/flight system kicks in unnecessarily. For many people, this is the “engine” that sustains insomnia — the worries of sleep and sleep loss become threatening.

By embracing your morning anxiety and permitting yourself to feel it while anchoring into the present, not to get swept away, you’re retraining your brain to react differently to the perceived morning threats.

Sure, it’s challenging. Your instinct may tell you to eliminate the anxiety immediately. But if you haven’t yet tried accepting your morning anxiety, give it a try. You may find that leaning into your morning anxiety, rather than pulling away from it, ultimately makes your mornings less anxiety-inducing in the long run.

Remember, the mere fact that you can observe or recognize your anxiety means a part of you is separate from it. Once you accept its presence, tap into your senses to ground yourself in the present moment. Your senses are always with you, serving as a continual anchor to what’s happening right now. Tuning into your senses can help you regain a sense of calm — give this exercise a try:

5–4–3–2–1 Exercise for Morning Anxiety

Step 1: Wake Up and Recognize
If you wake up feeling that tight knot of anxiety in your chest or stomach, recognize it for what it is. A mental “Ah, there you are, anxiety” can be the first step in disempowering it.

Step 2: Find a Comfortable Spot
Sit in a comfortable chair, or if you’re still in bed, prop yourself with some pillows. Get comfortable, but try to sit upright to avoid falling back asleep.

Step 3: Take Deep Breaths
Before you start the exercise, take a couple of deep breaths. Inhale through your nose for four counts, hold for four, and exhale through your mouth for four. This primes your body and brain for the grounding process.

An alternative breathing experience I like is “cyclical sighing.” In this practice, you take a deep breath through your nose, then take a second sip of air, and then let go through your mouth with a sigh.

Step 4: Engage Your Senses

  • See 5 Things: Look around your room. Identify five objects you can see. Maybe it’s a photo on your bedside table or the texture of your curtains. If you’re wearing an eyemask, can you see shapes in the darkness?
  • Touch 4 Things: Feel four different textures without moving from your spot. It could be the soft sheets under you or the fabric of your pyjamas.
  • Hear 3 Things: Close your eyes for a moment and listen carefully. Identify three different sounds. Are they footsteps or traffic sounds? The distant whistle of a kettle? Birds starting their day?
  • Smell 2 Things: Open your eyes and take in two different smells. If you can’t immediately identify any, consider grabbing a bottle of essential oil or a cup of coffee to engage this sense.
  • Taste 1 Thing: Lastly, identify one taste. If you keep a glass of water by your bedside, take a sip and focus on the sensation it creates in your mouth. Can you taste the toothpaste from brushing your teeth last night?

Step 5: Reflect

Once you’ve completed the 5–4–3–2–1 sequence, take a moment to reflect on how you feel. Has the anxiety lessened or gotten smaller? Do you feel more present? It’s okay if you don’t; sometimes, it takes a few rounds.

Step 6: Move On with Your Morning

Whether or not the exercise reduced your anxiety, acknowledge the effort you’ve put in and your willingness to do something different. Can you go on with your day despite the anxiety? Can you steer toward your destination without getting too distracted by that rowdy passenger like a bus driver?

Have Something to Look Forward To

Up early? Use this time as a golden opportunity. Sit on the couch and immerse yourself in a good book, or take in the quiet moments of the early morning. Feeling motivated? How about making yourself a nice breakfast or stretching out those stiff muscles? Even consider tackling those physio exercises you’ve been neglecting. Seizing the solitude of the morning, even if it’s unexpected, can set a more relaxed tone for the rest of your day.

Consider Kindness

I often ask my clients what they would say to a good friend who was suffering from anxiety. Would you start barrading them with unwanted advice or respond with frustration and anger?

While painful experiences in our lives are inevitable (as are moments of joy), the degree to which we suffer tends to rely on how we respond and make sense of those experiences well after they happen. Give yourself a chance to start the day with some compassion for yourself.

Trouble sleeping? Contact me today to schedule your free virtual consultation and begin your journey to good nights and better days.

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