Waking Up Anxious? 5 Ways To Ease Morning Stress & Start The Day Right

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Medical review by Wendie Trubow, M.D., MBA
Functional Medicine Gynecologist
Wendie Trubow is a functional medicine gynecologist with almost 10 years of training in the field. She received her M.D. from Tufts University.
Woman Tossing and Turning in Bed

Image by Kinga Cichewicz / Unsplash

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 morning and ideas on how to start your days on a brighter note.

The science behind "morning anxiety."

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 cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that helps keep our blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation in check. Cortisol levels will naturally ebb and flow throughout the day, reaching a peak about an hour after we wake up in the morning (to give us an energy boost to kick-start our day) and dipping to their lowest point right before bedtime (to help us prepare for sleep).

One thing that interrupts this normal cycle is stress: Humans have evolved to release more cortisol—and a handful of other stress-entwined hormones—when we feel an impending threat. These hormones then kick-start the body's fight-or-flight response, revving up our heart rate, blood pressure, etc., so we can be ready to run away from said threat at a moment's notice. This reaction comes in handy when we need to quickly react in moments of real danger (say, if a car is veering into our lane or we feel the ice beneath our feet start to crack), but it's less helpful when it comes to day-to-day stresses like a terse email from your boss. Our bodies don't necessarily know how to react to these less dangerous stressors and often confuse them for the real deal.

"We live in this culture where so many of us are in chronic fight-or-flight that in some cases a cortisol boost can make us feel uncomfortable," naturopathic doctor Erica Matluck, N.D., N.P., tells mbg. "We wake up and instead of feeling a nice, steady boost of energy, we feel like it's in excess." This can cause us to start the morning restless, unfocused, and just generally overwhelmed.

Chronic stress and anxiety can also send our cortisol levels out of whack and cause us to have too much or too little upon waking. 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.

Matluck says that if you tend to be anxious in the morning and exhausted by the afternoon, it may be a sign that your cortisol levels are off: "If there's a cyclic or circadian pattern to someone's energy and anxiety, it's worth taking a look at." You can ask your doctor to do a four-point cortisol test, which, as the name suggests, measures levels at four points throughout the day, to identify whether a hormonal imbalance is contributing to your symptoms.

It's also possible to lower cortisol levels naturally and help your body be more resilient to anxiety when it comes up in the morning. Here are a few expert-approved strategies for doing so:

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How to prevent morning anxiety:

1. Prioritize sleep.

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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 by turning off electronics an hour before bed, cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, and taking a natural sleep supplement. Magnesium glycinate, in particular, has been shown to positively affect sleep quality and duration.*

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2. Meditate for a few minutes in the mornings and at night.

Board-certified psychologist Anna Yusim, M.D., recommends a 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.

3. 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.

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How to deal with morning anxiety in the moment:

1. Do a 2-4-8 breath.

The next time you start the day feeling anxious, try to breathe through it. Yusim 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 improve relaxation.

2. 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."

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.)

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