If you’re not a morning person, you’re not alone. What most of us would give for a few more hours’ sleep during the working week. However, while most feel lethargic and a bit sluggish when their alarm goes off, there are others who wake up to quite the opposite scenario – a racing heartbeat, serious sweating and a whirring brain that refuses to slow down. Up until three years ago, I fell into the latter category, with my daily pangs of morning anxiety leaving me drained before I’d even gotten out of bed.
If you can relate, rest assured that it’s surprisingly common. Fiona Lamb, clinical hypnotherapist and creator of the new Mind Detox meditation app, tells me that she sees a number of people who experience similar sensations. Usually it points to a deeper issue. “Many people wake up with anxiety if they have underlying fears that they haven’t dealt with,” she explains, and the morning can provide the perfect time for them to manifest. This unconscious build-up of fear that our minds haven’t been able to process while we’ve been asleep is what results in us waking up and feeling anxious and not knowing why.
There can also be physiological reasons behind increased levels of anxiety in the morning. “Those with morning anxiety are often under higher levels of stress, and so their cortisol levels are much higher than the norm – including at night time,” explains Shabir Daya, pharmacist and Victoria Health co-founder. “This means that their cortisol levels upon rising will also be higher because they are already starting from a much higher point than other people.” This greater than average ‘cortisol starting point,’ makes a pattern of morning anxiety more likely to slip into.
Are there any ways to break the cycle? Fortunately, yes – firstly, by identifying the stressors that are behind your underlying fears so you can tackle them, and secondly, by making some modifications to your morning routine. That being said, the reasons for anxiety are deep and complex and in order to get to the root cause, it could be worth seeing your GP to formulate a long-term plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. Hopefully though, the below advice can act as a useful starting point for making your mornings more manageable. Here’s what the experts recommend, plus a few tips that have worked for me personally too.
Do a daily 10-minute morning meditation
Delaying breakfast for a daily breathing practice has probably been one of the single most effective ways that I’ve found to feel more focused in the morning. There are a variety of different types out there however, both Fiona and I have found meditating with a goal or intention to be particularly effective for reinforcing positive thought patterns. Fiona recommends choosing a simple affirmation such as ‘I choose to breathe out fear and breathe in feelings of safety.’
I also like to ‘colour-code’ my visualisations for my inhalations and exhalations – breathe in blue for calm, breathe out red for stress. This simple addition to my morning routine has acted as a much-needed anchor to ground my thoughts when they start to spin out of control.
Eat your way to a calmer mind
Limit the amount of sugar and caffeine consumed in the evenings to ensure minimal disruption to your sleep cycles. This also goes for what you eat and drink in the mornings too. They can be overtly stimulating to an already anxious mind, notes Shabir. Instead, he suggests eating mental health boosting omega-3 rich foods such as seeds and nuts and perhaps some oily fish, such as salmon.
He also recommends considering a supplement to help alleviate the symptoms of morning anxiety. One such example is Magnolia Rhodiola Complex, which works to physically relax muscles and nerves, as well as help reduce cortisol levels within the body. In this way, it may be able to mitigate the increased ‘cortisol starting point’ that Shabir referred to earlier.
Avoid decision overload in the mornings
Be kind to morning you, by planning as much for the next day the night before. “Sometimes when we are feeling stressed, this can reflect in our self-care,” notes Fiona. “So spending time the night before planning your day/meals/what you’re going to wear, and having a clean and tidy space can allow your mind to feel more spacious and organised when you’re getting ready for the day ahead.”
To ease your morning anxieties even more, write your to-do list for the next day before leaving the office or on the train home. Knowing that you’ve already formulated an achievable plan for the stressors ahead will provide a tangible piece of evidence to prove to yourself that you’ve got everything in hand.
Implement a gratitude practice
Research has shown that gratitude can improve both physical and psychological health. It’s one of the most under-utilised tools that we have at our disposal for helping us feel happier and healthier. In fact, one study conducted by two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, found that when people wrote about what they were grateful each week, they felt more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more and visited their doctors less than those who wrote about their daily irritations, or events in neither a positive or negative way.
One way to incorporate this useful technique into your regime is to fill in a gratitude journal every night. I’ve found this helps to put me into a positive mindset which filters into my mornings and beyond. Another is a gratification visualisation, a technique I learned from an episode of former monk Jay Shetty’s On Purpose podcast about focus and productivity (definitely worth a listen). All that you have to do is close your eyes and visualise a moment where you experienced deep gratitude; the sights, the smells and the sounds. It could be a moment of achievement, or a particularly happy moment with friends or family. I find this a really helpful way to turn my mind away from negative thoughts. As Fiona notes, you can’t feel grateful and fearful at the same time.
Normalise the sensations
This was a technique that I learned during a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT teaches that it’s not the event that causes our emotions, but how we interpret the event – what we think or what meaning we give that event or situation. So now when I’m faced with the rumblings of an attack of morning anxiety, I tell myself that just because my body’s feeling a certain way, it doesn’t mean that I have to give it meaning – it’s just how my body gets ready for the day ahead. This normalisation of the experience helps take away its potential sting and interrupts the anxiety cycle. Just because you may be feeling the physical and mental sensations that your body associates with a dangerous situation, it doesn’t actually mean that there is one.