Waking Up Anxious? 5 Ways To Ease Morning Stress & Start The Day Right
It's natural to wake up feeling anxious before an especially big day, but if you find yourself starting every morning with a racing heart and sweaty palms, it could be a sign you need to pay closer attention to what your jitters are telling you.
Here are some reasons you might feel anxious in the mornings and ideas on how to quickly calm a.m. anxiety to start your day on a brighter note.
What is morning anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress and worry. While anxiety can arise at any time of the day, it's not uncommon for it to start first thing in the morning, when our bodies tend to produce the most cortisol1, a stress hormone.
Mentally, anxiety can spur repetitive, negative thought loops about the future and make you feel like something is about to go wrong. Physically, psychologist and co-author of Millenials' Guide To Relationships, Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP. says that anxiety manifest in temporary symptoms such as:
- Stomach pain
- Feeling weak or tired
- Shortness of breath or feeling you can't catch your breath
- Sense that your heart is pounding
- Sweating, trembling
"Morning anxiety" (not a medical term) implies that one's anxiety starts to fade as the day goes on. If that's not the case and your anxiety symptoms persist throughout the day or start to interfere with your life, you might be dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
"Once you've ruled out physical disorders, if the anxiety doesn't seem to be going away, you may want to access mental health support through a trained professional," says Hallett.
What causes it?
Naturopathic doctor Erica Matluck, N.D., N.P., tells mbg that morning anxiety is usually a reaction to excess cortisol.
It's normal to have elevated cortisol levels early in the day and lower levels at night. However, chronic stress can cause your cortisol levels to spike even higher in the morning, leading to those uncomfortable anxiety symptoms. In this way, stress and cortisol work in a vicious cycle: Stress can cause cortisol levels to rise, and high cortisol levels can exacerbate stress further.
So Hallett says that if you go to bed thinking about things that worry you, for example, it may result in anxious feelings upon waking, too.
How to reduce it:
These expert-approved strategies can help ease the symptoms of morning anxiety in the moment, and keep them from reemerging in the future.
In the moment:
Do a 2-4-8 breath.
The next time you start the day feeling anxious, try to breathe through it.
Board-certified psychologist Anna Yusim, M.D. recommends breathing in for 2 counts, holding your breath for 4 counts, then slowly breathing out for 8 counts. Repeat this calming breathwork routine three to four times.
"By taking in a lot of oxygen really fast, holding onto it, then breathing out really slowly, it creates a net surplus of oxygen to the brain, which tells the brain to slow down, that it's safe," she explains. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can promote relaxation.
Engage the five senses in a gratitude practice.
"Gratitude has a positive effect on your heart rate variability," Matluck explains, "which correlates to your resilience and ability to adapt." Calm anxious morning thoughts by instead focusing on three to five things you feel grateful for in that moment.
Pulling in all five senses can help you further tune into your surroundings. This might sound something like, "I'm grateful for the feeling of the soft sheets on my hands, the sight of the light streaming in through my bedroom window, the smell of a fresh breeze."
Start the day with a laugh.
"Sometimes it also helps to start your day off with laughter," says Hallett. "We know that laughter gives us dopamine2, which helps us feel better. So instead of reviewing your schedule or work emails when you first get up, consider watching a funny YouTube video or something else that makes you laugh."
"Exercise has also been shown to have a positive impact on reducing anxiety3, and we can always benefit from moving our bodies in a healthy manner," Hallett says.
If you're not usually a morning workout person, ease into it with "cortisol-conscious" exercises that prioritize gentle movements, like yoga, pilates, walking, and slow jogging.
Consider anxiety's "job."
While waking up with anxiety is no fun, remember that these anxious thoughts and sensations are there for a reason: They're trying to protect you.
"Oftentimes, anxiety becomes amplified because we quickly and aggressively try to push it away or deny that it exists, versus letting it move through you and realizing that it even will eventually lessen," clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., previously told mbg.
Instead of giving your anxiety your full attention, thank it for doing its job and then move onto another thought that's more grounded in reality, like what you'll have for breakfast that morning.
Lack of sleep could further amplify the stress you feel in the morning. A 2013 study out of U.C.–Berkeley found that sleep deprivation and anticipatory anxiety actually affect the brain in a similar way, meaning that people who are prone to anxiety are more likely to feel the negative impacts of a bad night's rest.
Set yourself up for more restorative zzz's every night by turning off electronics an hour before bed, cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, and/or taking a sleep-promoting supplement.*
Meditate for a few minutes in the mornings and at night.
Yusim recommends a steady morning meditation practice to anyone who is waking up with anxiety about the future and wants to ground themselves back in the present moment.
By quieting down and observing your inner dialogue, you can start to better identify where you're letting your stress and anxiousness take the wheel. It may also be beneficial to do a nighttime meditation to signal to the adrenals that all is well and it's time to rest.
Eat a protein-rich snack before bed.
Since the body fasts while we sleep, Matluck says that some people feel anxiety in the morning because their blood sugar is low.
Going back to our primitive fight-or-flight response, low blood sugar is another thing that used to signal that the body was in danger and should start to stress out.
She recommends eating a light snack that's high in protein but low in sugar and carbohydrates (think a handful of almonds or a small amount of yogurt) right before bed to see if it helps you wake up feeling more calm.
The bottom line.
If your anxiety spikes in the morning, cortisol could be to blame. To calm yourself down in the moment, try a mindfulness or conscious breathing practice. And to keep mornings from feeling so stressful in the first place, be sure to prioritize a mindful nighttime routine.
If you're still waking up anxious after making lifestyle shifts, or your anxiety starts to interfere with your everyday life, it might be time to recruit outside help. (Here's more on how you can tell it's time to see a doctor or therapist for your anxiety.)
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.