In my practice, I see a lot of individuals who struggle with anxiety immediately upon waking while at the same time, feeling a mix of exhaustion from the day before. Morning anxiety (while not a formal diagnosis) is a type of anxiety that occurs in the morning hours. It may present itself as excessive worry and rumination about the day ahead and heightened physiological sensations in the body.
I will cover the many contributing factors as to why you may be struggling with anxiety upon waking, the common coping strategies I encourage my clients to engage in, along with various lifestyle strategies to lessen the chances of anxiety showing up altogether.
So, what does morning anxiety look like?
Those who struggle with morning anxiety will often have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is excessive worry about multiple areas of their life: health, money, school, family, work, and so on. This may present as:
A rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, chest tightness, and/or tense muscles.
Feeling restless and/or irritable, but you can’t pinpoint why.
Fatigue, even though you just slept.
Difficulty concentrating; your mind going blank.
Trouble controlling the excessive worry; chronic stress.
Anxiety is a reinforcing cycle, meaning, the ways in which we cope with anxiety tend to make the anxiety worse. Struggling with anxiety on your own can be an isolating and defeating experience. Thoughts of waking up the next morning may be filled with feelings of dread as you prepare for the anxiety to strike once again, reinforcing the cycle of anxiety. If you struggle with morning anxiety multiple days of the week, it may be helpful to see a licensed therapist to develop a tailored treatment plan for you.
What are some common causes of morning anxiety?
Heightened Cortisol Levels
The physiological reason for why your anxiety may strike in the morning is due to what researchers call The Cortisol Awakening Response. They have found that the stress hormone, cortisol, is naturally at its highest in the first hour upon waking, even more so for those prone to anxiety. Although cortisol is biologically higher in the mornings, there are ways you can prevent it from peaking, which I will cover below.
Caffeine and Sugar
Examine what your breakfast looks like. Are you drinking coffee on an empty stomach? Do you tend to reach for foods that are simple carbs and sugars? Some individuals are more sensitive to caffeine (particularly those who are more prone to anxiety) and it can increase their heart rate, cause them to feel jittery, and/or less in control. These feelings can turn into worrisome thoughts about the day ahead - it is almost as if we are looking for reasons to explain the feelings of anxiety within our body, even though the sensations may just be a result of caffeine consumption.
The problem with reaching for a simple carb or sugar for breakfast is due to its effect on blood sugar levels. Upon waking, our blood sugar is naturally low as we have not eaten since the day before. It is recommended to consume healthy fats and protein to help manage blood sugar levels, and subsequently any feelings of anxiety or panic. If you struggle with morning anxiety, intermittent fasting may not be the most helpful option for you and should be closely monitored.
Stressful Life Events
Chronic stress increases your cortisol levels at peak times, such as in the morning. This can be amplified if you are experiencing stressful life events such as changes in employment, extreme uncertainty, financial stress, health problems, changes in your living arrangements, and separation or disconnection from your loved ones.
Identifying what the root cause of your stress is necessary in order to effectively decrease heightened cortisol levels.
Luckily, there are several effective coping strategies to help manage morning anxiety. Read on to learn more.
Low Impact Workouts/Restorative Practices
Consider changing your work outs to the morning and try lower impact workouts to help regulate the nervous system, versus cardio or HIIT workouts as they can amplify feelings of anxiety and heighten cortisol levels. Research shows exercise helps release endorphins, which can elevate one’s mood and boost one’s mental concentration. Connecting back to your body first thing in the morning can help you feel at ease and confident going into your day.
Having habits and rituals in place can help ground you in the morning by priming the body to know what to expect. When our body knows what to expect by way of habit or ritual, we feel safer, which can be a very effective way to cope with anxiety. When you have ample time to yourself in the mornings, without being rushed to jump start the day, it can make all the difference. Preparing a nutritious breakfast full of healthy fats and protein that won’t spike insulin levels can help keep blood sugar more stable and reduce anxious arousal. Putting yourself first before having to fulfill your other roles and obligations is the most important thing to prioritize.
Being able to redirect your thoughts is a priceless ability to cultivate. Retraining your brain takes practice. Begin interrupting worrisome thoughts and rumination by identifying the good things in your life you have to look forward to. When anxiety hits, we tend to view our lives through a narrow lens that fails to capture the full story. We overlook the potential for good things to happen in our future, or we forget the joyful things already present in our lives.
A dysregulated and/or aroused nervous system is a physiological symptom of anxiety. Slow, deep breaths help to shift us out of our sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight”) into our parasympathetic nervous system (our “rest and digest”). In other words, they can help to slow the body down and calm the mind.
Carving out a period of time to write down all of our worries can be a very effective way to compartmentalize and manage our anxiety. The brain's job is to think thoughts and remember things. When we get our thoughts out of our head and write them down, we can send the signal to the brain to stop thinking about it so we can move on with our day. Consider using a journal to “brain dump” random worries, thoughts, or mental to-do lists. Most people need help clearing their minds and journaling is a highly effective way to do so.
Morning anxiety can show up in our lives for various reasons and can be all consuming. But, there are things in our control to help reduce the occurrence of anxiety. If you are noticing that your anxiety is chronic and happens several times a week, or begins interfering with daily functioning or quality of life, it is important to seek professional support through a licensed healthcare provider, such as a psychologist or psychotherapist.
Aylett E, Small N, Bower P. Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice - a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Serv Res. 2018;18(1):559. Published 2018 Jul 16. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5
Aucoin M, Bhardwaj S. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification. Case Rep Psychiatry. 2016;2016:7165425. doi:10.1155/2016/7165425
The Grateful Heart: Psychophysiology of Appreciation https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-00298-012