Morning Anxiety is a Real Thing. Here’s What to do About It.

The alarm goes off in the morning and your stomach is in knots. Your heart is racing, and your thoughts are starting to spiral before your feet even touch the floor. Sound familiar?

If you suffer from morning anxiety, you're not alone.

woman in bed covering her eyes

While it might seem counterintuitive to wake up anxious, the deck is actually stacked against us on this one. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”, is highest in the first hour of waking, especially if you went to bed stressed. This increase in cortisol is the body's way of preparing you for the challenges of the day ahead, but sometimes it can all be a bit too much.

The good news is there are simple steps you can take to start winning the battle against morning anxiety.

When it comes to managing anxiety, I like to have tactics to use ‘in the moment' when anxiety hits as well as strategies to build up my resilience to stress and anxiety over time. Let's start with two strategies to stop anxiety in its tracks.

Emotional Freedom Techniques

My go-to technique for stopping panic attacks and bringing my anxiety down several notches is Emotional Freedom Techniques, also known as EFT Tapping. EFT involves using your fingers to tap on nine points on your body (mostly on your head and face) while focusing on the issue troubling you. Addressing your anxiety on both the physical and mental levels simultaneously, EFT is highly effective.

Tapping is able to send signals directly to the stress centers of the mid-brain, according to researcher Dr. Dawson Church, which allows it to immediately lessen your anxiety.

With over 100 peer-reviewed studies on its effectiveness since its inception in 1995, EFT is a proven self-help technique. In fact, it was even shown to be more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with fewer sessions needed for results in a large-scale study on anxiety and depression.

Five Senses Mindfulness Meditation

An active meditation technique that can be very helpful to ground yourself in the moment and reduce anxiety is the Five Senses Mindfulness Meditation technique and it can be done anytime, anywhere. You simply use your sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste to shift your focus away from your anxious thoughts.

Name five things that you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. When you're feeling anxious, you're not living in the present moment, you're living in the past or future. When you pause and use your five senses, you're changing your brain state and can stop your thoughts from spiraling.

Now let's talk about techniques you can use to build resilience so anxiety is less likely to sideline you.

Regulating Your Nervous System

When we're stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can activate our “fight or flight” response. When this happens, our body's energy resources are shifted to address the perceived threat and our other needs are deprioritized. The issue is that our bodies aren't meant to stay in this state. This is why chronic stress can cause wear and tear on our bodies and lead to serious health problems.

According to the APA, “It's not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.”

You can help stabilize your nervous system by utilizing vagal toning exercises such as humming to vibrate the vagus nerve, exercising, rubbing and clapping your hands on your body, and deep breathing with an extended exhale. These techniques can help in the moment and can also be used to strengthen vagal tone over time.

If I had to pick just one thing to do daily, it would be exercise. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body's natural mood-booster, and decreases cortisol levels.

Can't get motivated to work out? Keep it fun! All movement is good, so choose an activity you love – whether that's walking your dog, dancing, yoga, or hula hooping. Anything is better than nothing, so start with just 5 minutes a day if you have to and celebrate the win!

Create Good Sleep Habits

I'm sure you've heard it before, but I can't stress enough just how important sleep is for both your physical and mental health. Take your sleep seriously and try these five easy ways to improve sleep quality:

  • Do not consume alcohol 3-4 hours before bed or sleep quality can suffer, despite its sedative effects.
  • Likewise, try skipping caffeine after lunch as caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bed can impact sleep quality.
  • No heavy meals 4 hours before bed so your body can focus on resting instead of digesting.
  • Turn off your devices 1-2 hours before bed to avoid blue light exposure, which can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Keep a journal beside your bed and every night before you go to sleep, take a few minutes to free-write everything on your mind from your grocery list to your worries. You will feel lighter once you get it all out of your head and onto paper.

When to Get Help

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. However, excessive, uncontrolled worry that occurs frequently and lasts for more than six months can be a sign of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). If you have used the strategies listed here, perhaps worked with a certified coach, and aren't seeing any improvement, I encourage you to seek help from a licensed psychologist.

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