Does this scenario sound familiar?
You're startled awake by loud, jarring sounds (and then that happens several times over, as you continue to press the snooze button). As soon as you creep into consciousness, you're noticing your phone notifications, and before you're even fully awake, you've been invaded by updates related to other people's lives. You skim the headlines and notice your heart pounding as you react to the news of the day. You rush through your morning essentials to get to work on time and feel like you've run a marathon before you even arrive at your office. You realize that you've forgotten to eat, or you grab something to go and eat on the way to the office. You later realize that you can't even remember what your coffee tasted like.
If you're finding that you're easily stressed or overcome by anxiety during the day, you might want to consider how your mornings might be setting the tone for the day ahead.
For me, the wake-up call (pun intended) came when I first had a baby. Before that, becoming a holistic health coach had helped me sort out my morning routine from one similar to the scenarios described above to one infused with calm and ease. Then, my daughter came and, well, let's just say my sense of sanity and stability went flying out the window. Exhausted from everything to do with becoming a mom (while still running my business, seeing clients, and staying up late to finish everything I didn't have time to do before my daughter's bedtime), I slid into the habit of "sleeping in" until my daughter woke up. For a while, I convinced myself that I was catching up on much-needed sleep. However, it soon became clear that I was thrusting myself into a state of reactivity from the moment I opened my eyes and had to respond to her needs instead of my own. It became harder to feel a sense of centered control over what was happening to me, and I found my stress and anxiety spiking to even higher levels during the day.
Becoming aware of this idea of reactivity—that is, a state in which you're constantly reacting to what's being thrown at you, instead of being able to act without pressure as your own free spirit—was an important step toward fixing this stressful cycle. Situations where we're continually being asked to respond to external factors—especially when the stimuli are as negative as a blaring alarm clock, streams of news alerts, or the looming possibility of failing as a parent—trigger our flight-or-fight mode. This state of mind can lead to elevated cortisol rates, which essentially sends the signal to our body and brain that we are fighting for survival from the get-go.
The need for control over one's life (along with belonging, esteem, and meaningful existence) is considered by social psychologists to be one of the four fundamental human needs. People who perceive a high level of control over their lives report higher life satisfaction and well-being, and they often have lower levels of anxiety and depression. (They even have better immune function and lower risk for cardiovascular disease—bonus!)
As my colleague and social psychologist Dr. Erin Baker explains, there are two ways people can increase their sense of control: deliberately shifting their mindset by looking for evidence of all the ways they have control in their life, or deliberately creating control in their life through routines and healthy habits. Morning routines can create a sense-of-control "buffer" that lessens the negative effects of situations in which one has less control throughout the day. This lays the foundation of strength and calm on which you can build your day.
Today I'm committed to starting the day calmly and in a way that nurtures my mind, body, and spirit. I wake up early, do deep breathing while still in bed, listen to the birds, and center in on a feeling of gratitude. Once I'm up, I leisurely drink my lemon water, take my supplements, do a journaling practice, and prep a smoothie—all before I wake up my daughter. This all takes under an hour, but I notice a huge difference on the days I make time to do this as opposed to the days I wake up at the same time as her.
Four ways to be less reactive and take control of your mornings:
Whether you've got kids or not, here are four powerful yet simple tweaks to your wake-up routine that could signal the end of stressed-out mornings—and days. These small shifts have given me huge results and have allowed me to live each day with much more ease and energy:
1. Wake up early.
Clearly, there really is a psychological reason every productivity and/or anxiety relief self-help article keeps telling you to do this. By easing into the day and giving yourself extra time in the mornings, you can truly start the day on your own terms, before reacting to everyone else's demands. Giving yourself more time in the morning can also help make room for unexpected setbacks, like traffic or an emergency email you have to respond to before your commute. The longer you can "own" your time in the morning, the longer you can stay out of reactivity. Even 10 to 15 minutes can make a significant difference.
2. Wake up gently.
As mentioned, it's easy to raise your cortisol by jolting awake—and cortisol levels are already naturally higher in the morning anyway, so that's the last thing we need. Try picking softer music for your alarm so you're not too, well, alarmed. Then, allow yourself to stay in bed a few minutes thinking about your intentions for the day.
3. Journal using the "daily three" method.
As Dr. Baker explains, focusing on all the things we can control in our life is a powerful strategy for staying stress- and anxiety-free all day. To accomplish this powerful mindset shift first thing in the day, the two of us developed a short journaling practice that doesn't require a massive amount of time. Take five to 10 minutes every morning to write the following:
Three gratitudes: Try to locate the qualities inside of yourself you want to focus on. Honor what already exists, and try to call in more good. Decades of research shows overwhelming positive effects of a daily gratitude practice, including increased life satisfaction and optimism, better health and sleep quality, and more connected relationships.
Three brags: Provide yourself with evidence of your successes and give yourself space to be proud. We often make inferences about our own personality traits, attitudes, and values through observing or internally commenting on our own behaviors. Thus, "bragging" about your positive behaviors can help reinforce a more positive sense of self (i.e., increased confidence and self-esteem) instead of the negative self-talk that most of us are used to. Try starting the sentence with I'm proud of myself for…
Three desires: What do you want for yourself today? This can be anything you hope, dream, or wish for. Try not to censor yourself. For example, here are a few of mine: I desire fulfilling and meaningful work; I desire a strong body; I desire more respectful and skilled dance partners; I desire trusting relationships; I desire more play; and I desire less pressure on myself.
I first learned about the power of giving ourselves permission to desire from best-selling author Regina Thomashauer, otherwise known as Mama Gena. "A desire is anything but frivolous. It is the interface between you and that which is greater than you. No desire is meaningless or inconsequential," she says. "If it pulls you, even a little bit, it will take everyone higher. Desire is where the Divine lives, inside the inspiration of your desire. Every desire is of profound importance with huge consequences and deserves your attention."
Deliberately searching for gratitudes, brags, and desires brings to the surface what would normally go unnoticed, allowing us to externalize and bring to life our existing beliefs about ourselves and the world. This, in turn, helps us gain a sense of control and helps us proactively take charge of our mental state rather than staying in a state of reactivity.
4. Stay off social media.
Ideally, our phones don't come to bed with us. However, if it must be bedside, put your phone on airplane mode during the night, or at the very least turn off the notifications. See how long you can delay checking your messages every morning; try to at least wait until after you've had time to ease into your day, do some breathwork or mini-meditation, and write about your "daily three."
"Most of us want more clarity and focus, but the first thing we do in the morning is cloud our brains with social media, emails, or other reactionary weapons of mass distraction," Sean Smith, master coach and founder of the Elite Coaching University, once told one of my coaching groups. "How we start our brains in the morning is usually how they will continue to operate throughout the day."
The bottom line.
What many of us don't realize is how much control we can actually have over our mental state. Shifting out of reactivity and intentionally starting your day proactively will likely have a positive ripple effect into every aspect of your life. Making a few changes to how you start your day by establishing a consistent morning routine can have everything to do with your ability to cope with whatever life throws your way.
Really want to get your morning Zen on? Try these 5 indulgent ways to relax.
And do you want to learn how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.