Morning Routines Are More Important For Your Brain Than You Think
Morning routines are irresistible. Please tell me I’m not the only one whose TikTok feed is on a constant loop of Spend the morning with me… There’s just something about watching someone else make their coffee, wash their face, spruce their home, et al., that is just so dang satisfying!
And, look, some of these routines are quite idealistic. I am not the person who wakes up with the sudden urge to deep clean their entire kitchen, and I likely never will be. But according to experts, having some sort of system in the a.m. is crucial for your brain. Below, discover some brain-healthy habits to implement, stat.
The brain health benefits of a morning routine
According to communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., your mind is very vulnerable the moment you wake up. "Your conscious mind is only awake when you're awake," she notes on the mindbodygreen podcast, but your unconscious mind works 24/7, even while you're asleep.
When you first wake up, there’s an important sliver of mental space as your unconscious and conscious mind start to work together again. And what you do during that time can impact the rest of your day, she claims. For example, let’s say you wake up, immediately check your phone, and come across some negative or stressful news—you might unconsciously take that stress with you throughout your day.
Cognitive behavioral therapist Joanna Grover, LCSW, agrees: “It’s just like the first thing you eat in the morning, like some people start their day with a glass of water,” she says on another mindbodygreen podcast episode. “The first thing that you pick up, whether it's your phone or your meditation mat, is significant. It will set the expectation for the day.”
She even recommends “rehearsing” what you’ll do or say in the morning, in order to commit to the healthy habit. “You're more likely to do it if you rehearse it beforehand,” she adds. That said, planning your morning routine is far from frivolous—it may be necessary for a calm, healthy headspace.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you must commit to a 10-step wellness routine, complete with high-tech gadgets and aesthetic glassware (contrary to what TikTok might have you believe). That’s not the brain-healthy morning routine these experts are talking about. In fact, the pervasive notion that you should have a morning filled with “self-care” can cause even more stress in the long-run.
“As a working mom, there's no time to wake up in the morning and meditate for 20 minutes, do a breathing practice, and then have the perfect coffee followed by an ice bath, sauna, a nice long walk, and a workout,” notes certified precision nutrition coach and mobility pioneer Juliet Starrett in her mbg podcast episode. “As a working mom, you wake up, and you're lucky to power down an espresso before getting people dressed, making breakfasts and lunches, and trying to get people out the door. The notion that you would have two hours in the morning to take care of your morning routine is preposterous, and actually as a mom would make me mad.”
Say it with us: Morning routines do not have to take up a large chunk of time. We can even swap the phrase “morning routine” with a “morning moment,” since the most important time to consider is the first few minutes of waking.
Tips to start your morning
Below, just a few tips to start your mental health morning on the right foot.
Assess your emotions
"The first thing I do every morning is take note of how I've woken up and immediately observe what emotions [I feel]," says Leaf. "If I'm in a negative frame of mind, I may need to actually spend five minutes or so getting myself back to [baseline]. What happened? Was it a dream? Was it something unresolved from yesterday that I carried over and went to sleep with? I get that sorted out, and then that sets me up for whatever comes next."
Take the time to reflect on how you're feeling before you even get out of bed, perhaps using Leaf's five-step mind managing protocol as a guide. "So by the time [you] get out the door and move, [you] don't drag that negativity into that action,” she adds.
Gaze out the window
When you rise from bed, step over to the window and take a few moments to gaze out the window. This effectively does two things: It floods your system with natural light, and research shows getting more sunlight exposure in the morning can decrease cortisol levels later in the evening; and looking at wide distances (like the sky out the window) can spark creativity and keep you calm.
Listen to music
This one might take a little more planning, since you don’t want to spend too much time scrolling through your phone first thing in the a.m. But if you have a favorite morning playlist, try listening to those tunes right when you wake up. After all, research says music can trigger energizing emotions, so feel free to hum along as you get ready for the day.
Morning routines are not superficial—not that we ever thought they were in the first place. You can pull out all the stops (sauna, cold plunge, meditation) or you can stick to just a few mindful moments. The key is to stop overlooking those few minutes between dreamland and reality; according to the experts, those precious moments have more power over your brain than you think.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.