Understanding morning anxiety: 5 ways to help manage symptoms

You wake up and a second after you open your eyes, a feeling of dread fills your gut. Sound familiar? You’re not alone – many people are affected by morning anxiety. It can be a confusing, challenging and debilitating start to your day.

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Sometimes, understanding the mechanics of what we’re experiencing, can be the starting point to helping us regain control. This article aims to empower, by demystifying the experience of morning anxiety and providing a few tips to help manage the symptoms.

Why is anxiety worse in the morning?

When we first wake up in the morning, our amygdala (the part of our brain associated with emotional processes, which also alerts us to danger) triggers the release of cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone) and adrenaline (which prepares our body for ‘fight or flight’). When our bodies are functioning as ‘normal’ this has the desired effect of waking us up. This is known as the cortisol awakening response. When we are experiencing periods of acute stress or anxiety, our bodies may misinterpret this hormonal cocktail as an indicator that we are in danger. This can then manifest as feelings of ‘dread’ or anxiety in the body. When we are living through a period of stress in our lives, this cortisol release can sometimes be higher than usual during the first hour after waking.

It’s not unusual for us to find ways to incorrectly ‘rationalise’ this feeling with the application of worry – for example, deciding we are feeling dread in our gut, and that this must be because of something we are anticipating later in the day. When we start to experience worried thoughts circling in our minds, this can lead to additional cortisol release (our amygdala becomes like an over-active smoke alarm, warning us about danger that doesn’t exist). Our feelings of anxiety then worsen!

What can I do to help manage morning anxiety?

1. Reassure yourself

Remind yourself that what you are feeling is your body’s way of waking you up, and nothing more: “this is just my body’s way of waking me up, it will pass”. Challenge any anxious thoughts that you may start attributing to this feeling of ‘dread’.

2. Get moving!

When we wake up full of anxiety and dread, the temptation can be to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed – this will not help. Movement enables our bodies to productively burn off the cortisol and adrenaline which release early in the day – brief periods of aerobic exercise (running on the spot, dancing, jumping jacks etc), can help to reduce muscle tension. When we are lying down, we are also more likely to be in our Child ego state (in which we are more susceptible to feelings of anxiety), movement helps to shift us back into our Adult (our rational, logical selves). Exercise is great for this, but even just getting up out of bed, and getting on with our morning routine helps to kick start this process.

3. Ground yourself in the here and now

This will move you into the present, and away from escalating negative thoughts. You could do this by:

  • Finding five objects in your room and describing them out loud.
  • Identifying five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can taste and one thing you can smell.
  • Using an anchoring phrase or word, which you repeat over in your mind, for example “calm, calm, calm”.
  • Box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, repeat. This can help to regulate your breathing. (If you start to feel dizzy, stop and breathe normally for a while)

4. Assess your ‘sleep hygiene’

Sleep can have a huge impact on our mood and can contribute to the functioning of the amygdala; a lack of sleep can intensify our experience of anxiety. Some factors you may want to consider when improving sleep hygiene include:

  • Getting into the routine of a consistent bedtime. Being consistent helps to support your body’s sleep-wake cycle; try not to vary your bedtime by more than an hour.
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, get out of bed and find something relaxing to do, such as reading. When you start to feel tired and relaxed, go back to bed.
  • Including aerobic exercise during the day; this can help you to sleep more soundly.
  • Avoiding caffeinated drinks in the afternoon (so that your levels of caffeine – which is a stimulant, are low when you want to fall asleep).
  • Trying not to eat too late in the evening (so that your body isn’t having to work hard digesting and metabolising, when it needs to be resting).
  • Avoiding alcohol. Although alcohol may initially make you feel tired, it is important to remember that it can impact your quality of sleep throughout the night.
  • Reducing screen time close to bedtime. The blue light emitted from the screens of our phones (and other devices) close to bedtime, can reduce our production of melatonin (the hormone naturally released when daylight is fading, to make us sleepy). This can therefore affect our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try replacing screen time with a relaxing activity, such as reading, or listening to an audio book or meditation.
  • Making sure your bedroom is relaxing, dark and quiet and that the temperature of the room is comfortable for sleeping.

5. Try mindfulness

This is one to build up over time, but when we are able to view our thoughts objectively (without getting caught up in them, or attributing too much weight to their meaning), we can prevent them from escalating into full anxiety. Look for short mindfulness exercises on the theme of ‘thought observation’ and practice regularly.

In time, this will become something you do naturally throughout the day – catching the worried or anxious thoughts as they surface, bringing them into your awareness, and accepting them simply as the thoughts they are. (Expect to practice this kind of mindfulness for around a month before you start feeling the benefits in your day to day life). While this won’t prevent the initial feelings of anxiety or ‘dread’ that are commonly associated with morning anxiety, it will help you regain control – and prevent that initial anxiety from escalating further into your day.

Anxiety can feel crippling, but it is manageable. Take small steps – understand that managing anxiety requires perseverance (there are no quick fixes to overcoming anxiety), and be kind to yourself. Celebrate the small changes you notice in your ability to manage, and remind yourself every morning that you can do this.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Ashford, Kent, TN23
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Written by Emma Faulkner, (She/her), BA(Hons), Dip. Couns, MNCS (Accred), MBACP
Ashford, Kent, TN23

Emma is an integrative counsellor working in Ashford (Kent) and online. She has a special interest in working with issues related to anxiety, maternity, fertility, post-partum issues, pregnancy loss and abortion. Emma works holistically, with a Humanistic philosophy.

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