The first rays of sunlight should signify a fresh start – at least if we go by the Disney manual to life! – but for many of us, mornings bring about anxiety instead. It’s not all that shocking when you consider the mountain of activities there are to get through, but you might be surprised to learn the root cause of morning anxiety is hormone-based. The bright side? We can do something about it.
Breaking free from the cycle of dysregulated hormones can be challenging, especially when many of us are actually using worry as a means of feeling in control of our lives. Seems counterintuitive, but for many of us, it’s our brain’s way of trying to control a scary situation. The problem, however, is that the only thing our excess stress is having any effect on is our health! Beneath the surface of these early morning worries lies a complex interplay of hormones, neurobiology, and stress responses – before we can figure out how to send them packing, let’s take a look at what’s actually happening:
Cortisol is Released: At the heart of morning anxiety is cortisol, often labeled the "stress hormone." This vital hormone is responsible for regulating various bodily functions, including the sleep-wake cycle – but many of us are suffering from too much of the stuff! Cortisol levels typically follow a natural circadian rhythm, peaking in the early morning hours to help wake the body and prepare it for the challenges of the day, but those of us experiencing stress when we wake are often dealing with a heightened cortisol surge, contributing to those feelings of anxiety.
The Circadian Rhythm Dysfunction: Our bodies operate on a circadian rhythm, an internal clock that influences sleep-wake cycles and hormone production – it affects everything from our sleep quality to our appetite, energy and even weight. The early morning cortisol spike is a natural part of this rhythm, signalling the body to awaken and engage with the day. With heightened stress levels, this surge may become more pronounced, potentially triggering or exacerbating morning anxiety.
The Amygdala's Role: The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, plays a crucial role in the anxiety response. When the brain perceives a threat or stress, the amygdala signals the release of stress hormones, including cortisol. For some, the morning can be a vulnerable time when the amygdala is more sensitive, heightening the emotional response to stressors and contributing to morning anxiety.
The Influence of Sleep Quality: The relationship between sleep quality and morning anxiety is symbiotic. Chronic stress can disrupt sleep, leading to fragmented rest and insufficient rejuvenation. Conversely, inadequate or disrupted sleep can exacerbate stress and anxiety. This bidirectional relationship underscores the importance of addressing both stressors and sleep hygiene to alleviate morning anxiety.
Lifestyle Factors: Beyond hormonal influences, lifestyle factors can significantly contribute to morning anxiety. Poor dietary choices, lack of physical activity, and excessive caffeine intake can impact cortisol levels and exacerbate stress. Adopting a holistic approach that addresses both hormonal balance and lifestyle factors can be instrumental in managing morning anxiety.
So, now that we know what’s happening, what can we do about it? That’s what we’re here to share – oh and the best part? These solutions are free and can be done from the comfort of your own home!
Establish a Calming Morning Routine
Start your day with intention by incorporating calming activities into your morning routine. Whether it's gentle stretching, deep breathing exercises, meditation, or a leisurely walk, dedicating time to activities that promote relaxation can set a positive tone for the day. Creating a routine establishes a sense of predictability, counteracting the unpredictability that often accompanies anxiety.
- Morning Stretching or Yoga: Engage in gentle stretching or a brief yoga session to awaken your body and release tension. This can improve flexibility, enhance blood flow, and contribute to a sense of physical and mental well-being.
- Gratitude Journalling: Start your day by jotting down a few things you're grateful for. Cultivating a gratitude practice can shift your focus to positive aspects of life, fostering a more optimistic mindset.
- Hydration Ritual: Begin your day with a refreshing glass of water. Hydration is essential for overall wellbeing and can help kickstart your metabolism, leaving you feeling more energised.
- Mindful Breakfast: Take time to savour a nutritious breakfast without distractions. Whether it's a nourishing bowl of oatmeal or a vibrant smoothie, mindful eating can enhance your connection to food and reduce stress.
- Nature Connection: If possible, spend a few moments outdoors. Whether it's a short walk, tending to plants, or simply enjoying the fresh air, connecting with nature can have a calming effect on the mind.
- Digital Detox: Delay checking emails or social media until later in the morning. Give yourself a tech-free window to focus on self-care and avoid the immediate stresses that can come with digital communication.
- Prioritise One Task: Identify one key task for the day and prioritise it. Tackling a significant task early on can provide a sense of accomplishment and reduce the overall stress associated with a busy day.
- Music or Calming Sounds: Create a playlist of calming music or nature sounds to accompany your morning routine. Listening to soothing sounds can have a positive impact on mood and stress levels.
- Reading or Listening: Dedicate time to reading or listening to something uplifting. Whether it's a few pages of a book, a motivational podcast, or soothing music, this can contribute to a positive mindset.
- Connect with Loved Ones: Send a message or make a quick call to a loved one. Connecting with others, even briefly, can provide emotional support and set a positive tone for the day.
Mindful Breathing Exercises
Practice mindful breathing to bring your attention to the present moment. Deep, intentional breaths can activate the body's relaxation response, counteracting the elevated cortisol levels associated with morning stress. Try diaphragmatic breathing or guided mindfulness meditation apps to guide you through calming breathwork, helping to ease anxiety and promote a sense of balance.
Gradual Exposure to Stressors
If specific stressors trigger morning anxiety, consider a gradual exposure approach. Break down tasks or situations causing stress into smaller, manageable steps. By gradually facing and overcoming these stressors, you can build resilience and reduce the overwhelming impact of morning anxiety. Celebrate small victories along the way to reinforce a positive mindset.
Positive Visualisation Techniques
Engage in positive visualisation exercises to redirect your focus from anxiety to a more optimistic outlook. Picture a serene place or visualise successful outcomes for your day. This mental shift can help break the cycle of worry and cultivate a positive mindset, empowering you to face the day with confidence and resilience.
Establish a Consistent Sleep Routine
Quality sleep plays a crucial role in managing stress and anxiety. Ensure you are getting sufficient, restful sleep by establishing a consistent sleep routine. Maintain a regular sleep schedule, create a calming bedtime ritual, and optimise your sleep environment. A well-rested mind and body are better equipped to handle stress, reducing the likelihood of morning anxiety.
You’ll also want to pick a wind-down activity to set the tone for sleeping, rather than engaging in stimulating activities like scrolling social media or watching videos. Be sure to leave around 30 minutes to undertake this pre-sleep ritual. Here are some of our favourite picks:
- Listen to a meditation audio or some calming music
- Read a book
- Try some deep breathing activities
- Try stretching or some light yoga poses
Just be sure to steer clear of blue light – this means no phones or computers for at least a couple of hours before bed. Blue light wreaks havoc on your circadian rhythm, setting us up for poor sleep quality and an exhausting day ahead. This is because it decreases your body’s melatonin, a hormone which plays a major role in regulating your sleep cycles. Without adequate levels of this stuff, you’ll find it hard to fall asleep and hard to wake up. Sound familiar? If you’ve got a pre-sleep phone-scrolling habit, this could be the culprit for your sleep woes.
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