If you were to ask me what symptom of anxiety sucks the most, early morning anxiety would be right up there near the top.
By “early morning anxiety” I mean waking up feeling anxious. Waking up with a pit in my stomach. A vague discomfort. My body wound up tight in tension. Knowing – in my very core – that something is about to go terribly wrong. That this day is doomed before it even begins.
And then come the racing thoughts. The loop-de-di-doop of repeating all the things that went wrong yesterday and all the things that will go wrong today. All the ways in which I have failed to perform and will fail again.
All of it in a non-sensical mess exacerbated by the fact that I’m still half-asleep.
This sucks, right? This is NOT an acceptable way to start the day, right?
So if any of this sounds familiar to you – if you too find yourself waking up feeling anxious – let me tell you how to make it better. In the long term, there are ways to prevent morning anxiety altogether. In the short term, there are ways to intercept it so that it doesn’t carry over into the rest of your day.
I know these ways because I have battled the morning anxiety beast and I have won. I don’t wake up with dread anymore. 🙂
How To Deal With Early Morning Anxiety
1. Work On Reducing Stress And Anxiety In General
In my book Conquer Your Anxiety, I talk about how your nights are a reflection of your days. Anything you do to help reduce stress and anxiety during the day is also going to help you sleep better at night.
Well, in my experience, the same goes for early morning anxiety. You wake up feeling anxious when anxiety has become your brain’s default mode. When you are stressed or all-out anxious for most of the day most days, your brain starts expecting that reality every day.
And here’s what makes morning anxiety a particularly pesky beast. Even when I was making otherwise stellar progress on my healing journey, morning anxiety was the LAST remnant of my old reality to go. It stuck around even when I was mostly calm most days.
It’s also the anxiety symptom that makes the most reappearances for me. Waking up with the morning dread is always the first sign that I have tipped my toes too far into the stress territory again.
I’ve been digging into the reasons behind this phenomenon and here are the two culprits I have identified.
- Cortisol Awakening Response: I think physical morning anxiety symptoms can be attributed to something called the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR). Basically, our cortisol levels peak in the first hour after waking up. So if you are already stressed out in general – if your cortisol levels are high – then the morning peak will be even higher. In other words, the generally calm person’s cortisol peak will feel like a little extra umph to start the day. The generally stressed out person’s cortisol peak will feel like the world is about to come to an end.
- Unprocessed Worries: Another factor is that your brain needs time to process stuff. (And this is particularly true if you are a Highly Sensitive Person!) If you are perpetually busy without sufficient time to think things through during the day, the worries will surface either in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours. And needless to say, when you are only half awake is a TERRIBLE time to try to make sense of anything.
So this is a long explanation for why anything you do to reduce stress, anxiety, and unproductive worrying in general is also going to help with the mornings.
Of course, that’s a long-term game. It takes a while to fully normalize a stressed out system and out-of-control cortisol levels. Check out Conquer Your Anxiety if you would like to follow a step-by-step process for finding calm and staying calm for the rest of your life. 🙂
But what can you do in the meantime? If you can’t yet prevent early morning anxiety from happening in the first place, how can you put a stop to it after it starts so that it doesn’t high-jack your whole day?
That’s what the rest of this article is about.
2. Don’t Buy Into Your Body’s Emergency Signals
When you wake up feeling anxious, the #1 thing NOT to do is “believe the feeling”. By believing the feeling, I mean following down this path:
- I feel anxious.
- Something bad must be about to happen.
- I’d better list all the possible reasons to be anxious.
- Great, now I feel even more anxious.
Here’s a better way to respond:
- I feel anxious.
- It looks like my brain and body are overreacting. Maybe it’s that cortisol thing.
- Even though my brain thinks otherwise, I am perfectly safe in this moment. I am at home. This is my bedroom. I am safe.
Here’s the honest truth: Redirecting your thoughts this way may not be enough to calm your body and brain down. It often wasn’t enough for me.
But I still firmly believe it’s the better way to go than buying into the show your brain is putting on without any resistance. Perhaps you are not completely able to smother anxiety’s fire, but at least you are not throwing extra fuel on it.
3. Respond To Your Body With Calm Breathing And Meditation
In addition to doing your best to redirect your thoughts, another thing to do is to send physical calm signals to your brain. You do this via your breath. Your brain associates shallow mouth breathing with emergencies. It associates nose to belly breathing with calm. So that’s what you want to do:
- Breathe slowly in through your nose all the way down into your belly.
- Feel your belly expand and hold your breath for a few counts.
- Breathe slowly out through your nose.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat.
If it’s so early that it’s not time to get out of bed yet, you could also try the zero-meditation, which often helps me fall back asleep:
- Visualize the number zero and repeat “zero-zero-zero…” in your mind.
- Whenever you notice other thoughts popping up, simply direct your mind back to “zero-zero-zero…”
4. Adopt A Morning Routine
Now, even if all else fails and you wake up a hot mess, a solid morning routine can save your day.
If you wake up a disaster and then rush through the morning, running around completely unprepared and disorganized, will that add to your calm?
On the other hand, allowing enough time and having a set routine that you can complete on auto-pilot has great potential to turn your morning around.
5. Make Movement A Part Of Your Morning Routine
Last but not least…
Exercising has saved my mornings (and therefore the rest of the day) more times than I can count. This is the piece of the puzzle that will completely calm my body down even when all my other attempts afford only so-so results.
So if redirecting your thoughts, calm breathing + meditation, and getting into your morning routine don’t do the trick, try sweating it out. Jogging, dancing, ellipting, an exercise video… There are endless options.
And remember that in the long run, calm days -> calm nights -> calm mornings!
What do you think? Do you have any additional tips to add to my list? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. 🙂