Waking up with anxiety is becoming as common as having morning coffee. As a global community, we’ve been forced to deal with the effects of a pandemic, and compelled to face the heartbreaking realities of police brutality and inequality. From the moment you reach for your phone in the morning, it’s hard not to feel anxious, stressed, and frustrated.
Waking up with anxiety is not only jarring—it can trigger a paralyzing panic that ruins the rest of your day and saps the emotional and mental stamina it takes to get through some of our toughest moments. So what can you do? We asked four therapists to explain what morning anxiety is, what causes it, and most important, what you can do to cope.
How to Tell Whether You Have Morning Anxiety
Maybe you wake up feeling extremely on edge and your chest is tight. Or perhaps your mind is racing and your stomach hurts before you’ve even gotten out of bed. People experience anxiety in a lot of different ways, explains David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard and founder and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York. There are cognitive symptoms of anxiety, like excessive worry, difficulty concentrating, and racing thoughts. There are also physical symptoms, like chest tightness, heart palpitations, constricted breathing, sweating, nausea, and shakiness. If you experience a combination of both mental and physical symptoms in the a.m., you likely have morning anxiety.
Anxiety isn't the same as run-of-the-mill stress, which is what a lot of folks experience as they get ready for a busy day ahead. Stress occurs when we don't have enough resources to deal with the demands of our day, explains Rosmarin. Say, for example, you have a work presentation due in four hours, but you estimate it will take you at least six hours to finish it. Or you have to pay a $500 bill, but you have only $300. Those scenarios would trigger stress.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a very real feeling of dread that is caused by a perceived danger, says Catherine M. Pittman, licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and author of Rewire Your Anxious Brain. Anxiety, which induces intense mental and physical symptoms, is much more severe than stress, adds John Tsilimparis, MFT, Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, author of Retrain Your Anxious Brain, and host of Mindfulness for the Soul podcast.
“We’re definitely in that systemic, sustained level of anxiety right now,” says Ashley Ertel, LCSW, a therapist with Talkspace. “For people of color like myself, this is a fear and anxiety that we’ve had for a long time. But I also think that for our allies and everybody else, anxiety is so heightened. For anybody who’s finding it really difficult to get up and get going today, therapy is an excellent option."
Why You Wake Up With Anxiety
There’s no definitive explanation for what causes morning anxiety, but psychologists have theories.
When you first wake up, your defenses are down, which means you are much more vulnerable to an ambush of negative thoughts, explains Tsilimparis. These thoughts, if not properly managed, could lead to anxiety.
Anxiety originates in the amygdala, a section of the brain that regulates emotions, Pittman explains. One of the amygdala’s jobs is to register danger, and when it IDs a threat, it mobilizes the body into “fight or flight” mode to help you combat the danger (fight) or run to safety (flight). Your heart starts pounding, blood flows to your extremities, and your thinking skills may become impaired. The thing is, your amygdala can’t distinguish between an immediate danger (like having a gun pointed at you) and perceived danger (like knowing the world is full of forces that threaten your safety)—it activates the same physiological responses either way.
So waking up and immediately worrying about your day, or other chronic stressors in your life, can jolt your amygdala into “fight or flight,” and that, in turn, leads to anxiety.
Morning anxiety (and anxiety in general) is also sometimes caused by certain medical conditions, like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes, says Pittman. Another possible culprit? Benzodiazepines, a class of anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Klonopin. Taking benzos at night may help you sleep, but when these drugs wear off come morning, your anxiety could rebound, says Pittman. Lack of quality sleep can also exacerbate morning anxiety, and for some people, too much caffeine could contribute, says Tsilimparis.
How to Cope With Morning Anxiety
Waking up with anxiety really sucks, especially when it feels like there’s so much to be worried about. But there are ways to cope, practice self-care, and protect your mental health.
“For people of color especially, it’s important to look for resources specifically for us,” Ertel says. “We live in a world and a culture that wasn’t created for us, and it’s easy for therapists to have all the right intentions but not have the understanding.” You don't necessarily have to find a therapist, she adds. “There are tons of podcasts that are specifically for mental health in the black community,” such as Between Sessions, Celeste the Therapist, and Naming It. “Seeking resources like that whether in your community or on the internet can be really helpful because it helps you connect to something that is relatable,” Ertel says.
Most of us use our phones as alarm clocks, which means that the minute we wake up, we’re confronting an inbox of unread emails and a barrage of depressing Twitter alerts. That can be a recipe for morning stress and anxiety. As an alternative, stash your phone in another room at night and rely on a manual or digital alarm clock instead, suggests Rosmarin. This isn't about burying your head in the sand: The emails and headlines will still be there but you’ll give yourself a little time to center yourself and practice self-care before addressing them.
That last one is hard, we get it. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had success telling someone to stop checking their phone and they just stop doing it. I would replace that habit with something else that is actually beneficial and brings value to your life,” says Ertel. “Move Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter so they’re not on your home screen. In the front of your phone, maybe have some other apps that help you with mindfulness or meditation or breathing. You can also take a photo every day of something that inspired you or made you smile and you can look through those photos in the morning.”
If you constantly feel overwhelmed first thing in the morning, try shifting your routine to include stress-relieving activities—like meditation or exercise—before you jump into work or other demanding tasks. “Doing a morning meditation is really important for me to start my day off on the right foot,” says Ertel. “Headspace is offering free services for health care workers and also anybody who is currently unemployed. Even if it’s only for 5 to 10 minutes to set your intentions for the day, starting off with some sort of clarity is really important.”
“Another thing that is really helpful for myself and a lot of other people is making a list of all the tasks that actually have to get done today,” says Ertel. “For people who are not currently working, creating that routine—even if it’s not a meeting you have to do for work but a walk you take at a certain time—is important.”
Your mind can’t be in two places at once, so if your head is swimming with morning anxiety, try grounding yourself back in the present moment, suggests Tsilimparis. Ideas: Run your fingers along the teeth of your house keys, hold an ice cube, or stretch your limbs one by one. You can also spend a couple minutes taking stock of your surroundings, focusing intensely on what you hear, smell, see, and feel around you, he adds.
Exercise lowers your baseline level of stress, says Rosmarin, so incorporating regular movement into your routine can help you better manage morning anxiety. If you’re feeling extremely anxious, stop what you’re doing and go for a 15- to 20-minute brisk walk, run, or bike ride. This will help calm your amygdala and could give you a quick boost of feel-good endorphins, says Pittman.
Slow, controlled breathing can combat morning anxiety by calming your central nervous system and rebooting your rational mind. Tsilimparis recommends the “4-7-8” technique. Here’s how it works: Put your hand on your stomach and inhale deeply for four seconds, watching your stomach and chest rise. Hold your breath for seven seconds; then slowly exhale for eight seconds (or longer). As you breathe, recite positive affirmations to yourself—like “I'm going to have a good day no matter what,” “I deserve compassion,” or “My anxiety is justified.” Perform five cycles of the 4-7-8 pattern in the morning, and then repeat again in the afternoon and again in the evening, suggests Tsilimparis.
Releasing your anxious feelings on paper (or into the notes section on your phone) can promote self-awareness and shift your mind from being a victim of your thoughts to being an observer of your thoughts, explains Tsilimparis. You don’t have to do this first thing in the morning; it’s effective any time of the day.
There’s only so much in life we can control. Distinguishing between stressors that you’re able to change (like getting out of a toxic relationship) versus what’s out of your hands (like worrying about whether or not you’ll get furloughed at work) can help you focus your efforts on resolving the former and relieve yourself of any stress associated with the latter, says Pittman.
“When anxiety gets to the point where it’s interfering with your ability to function, that’s when it’s time to reach out for some help,” says Ertel. Feeling somewhat stressed in the morning is totally normal, but if that stress is so overwhelming that it impairs your day-to-day life—say, you’re so anxious that you can’t go to work, or care for your kids or if it’s causing you serious mental anguish—seek professional help. “There's no reason to suffer,” says Tsilimparis.
Jenny McCoy is a freelance journalist in Boulder, Colorado.
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