Anxiety has a very unwelcome way of popping up when you least expect it. It could happen at a party, just when you were starting to have a good time. Or in the middle of the night, making it that much harder to get a blissful eight hours of sleep. And, for some, anxiety has a habit of rearing its ugly head in the early morning—just to make sure your day starts off on a really stellar note with a dose of morning anxiety.
Divya Robin, EdM, MA, MHC-LP, a psychotherapist and mental health educator, defines morning anxiety as a form of anxiety (different from dread) that features increased worry, rumination, catastrophic thinking, or feelings of stress in the morning.
Why—why?!—does morning anxiety happen? And how do you get rid of it? Here, Robin and Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, give all the need-to-know facts, including strategies for managing morning anxiety.
What morning anxiety looks like
There's a difference between waking up and being in a bad mood because you don't feel like going to work and having actual morning anxiety. Here are the morning anxiety symptoms, according to Dr. Saltz:
- A rush in adrenaline, such as a racing heart or increased jitteriness.
- Increased blood pressure.
- A sense of worry for no apparent reason.
- Feeling on edge, but you aren't sure why.
- Exhaustion even though you've just slept.
Why do I get anxiety in the morning?
As for why anxiety can strike in the morning, Dr. Saltz says there are a few factors at play that could cause morning anxiety.
1. You have higher amounts of stress hormones in the morning.
"There's actually a physiological reason why some people experience anxiety in the mornings," Dr. Saltz says. "For one, it's when cortisol levels are naturally at their highest." She explains that cortisol is often called "the stress hormone" because high levels of it can lead to feeling stressed.
"There's nothing you can do to stop cortisol from raising slightly in the morning—that's biologically what happens—but there are steps you can take to lower your cortisol overall so that it doesn't peak as high," Dr. Saltz says. (Don't worry, we'll get to it!)
2. Coffee can lead to feeling anxious.
What you eat or drink in the morning can also lead to increased feelings of anxiety, according to Dr. Saltz. "The first thing many people do in the morning is drink a cup of coffee. Caffeine, particularly for people who already have anxiety, can definitely worsen the symptoms of that" and even contribute to anxiety-related acid reflux.
She explains that caffeine can lead to feeling jittery and having an increased heart rate. "Then our brain tries to come up with a reason to explain why we feel that way: I'm feeling jittery. I must be worried about X." Dr. Saltz says this happens so quickly that it can feel like we have the thought first and then the physiological reaction, but it's actually the other way around.
3. Sugar is another culprit.
What are you normally eating for breakfast? If you're going for something that has lots of simple sugars or carbs (like a smoothie bowl or toast), the quick energy spike could ultimately affect your morning anxiety. "Right after you have an insulin burst, blood sugar levels drop, and that can make your anxiety feel worse," Dr. Saltz says, adding that this can lead to feeling fatigued or on edge for seemingly no reason. Your blood sugar is also at a natural low point in the morning (since, you know, you haven't eaten since the night before), which can contribute to feeling anxious.
4. Morning anxiety could also be a sign of having general anxiety disorder.
If you experience morning anxiety several times a week, Dr. Saltz says you likely have generalized anxiety disorder, which she says is extremely common. (This means that you are consistently experiencing symptoms of anxiety over at least a six-month period.) If this is the case, the key will be finding ways to quell your anxiety as a whole.
If you suspect that you have generalized anxiety disorder, consider seeking help from a mental health professional who can help you develop a treatment plan that's right for you.
5. You're chronically stressed.
"If you are overly stressed, your body will produce more cortisol," Dr. Saltz says. That means the morning peak is going to be higher than it would be otherwise. Again, the only way to get to the root cause of this is to take steps to minimize the stress in your life.
How to prevent morning anxiety
Anxiety is a frustrating condition, especially when it pops up first thing in the a.m. As mentioned above, if you have chronic anxiety or a diagnosed anxiety condition, you'll want to work with a mental health practitioner to find the right treatment for you. But if your morning anxiety is more of an occasional annoyance, here are some tips that could help cut down on its occurrence.
1. Take measures to minimize overall stress.
If you have generalized anxiety disorder or are overly stressed, Dr. Saltz says it's important to take steps to manage it, which could include the help of a therapist. "Meditation, regular exercise, and having an overall healthy diet all play parts in minimizing overall stress," she adds.
2. Exercise in the morning.
Exercise is a big tool in your morning anxiety-busting toolbox, which makes it worth reiterating its importance. Moving your body in the morning is especially helpful for combating morning anxiety and stopping you from holding fear inside because it helps lower your already heightened cortisol levels, Robin says. If you’re pressed for time in the morning, no worries. Robin adds that even 15 minutes of movement in the morning can help.
3. Cut back on caffeine and sugar.
Because these are two culprits that often cause physiological responses that mimic anxiety, cutting them out or reducing your intake could help. Look for breakfast foods rich in protein and healthy fats (the latter is especially good for brain health) that won't spike insulin levels, like eggs or a green smoothie, and consider switching your regular latte for a milder form of caffeine, like matcha or tea.
4. Get enough good quality sleep.
Dr. Saltz says not getting enough quality sleep1 can also lead to feeling anxious when you wake up. Again, it's because those pesky cortisol levels come into play; not getting enough sleep can raise them higher.
5. Consider taking magnesium or melatonin supplements.
If you're having trouble getting good quality sleep, speak with your doctor about whether they recommend taking magnesium and melatonin supplements or increasing the levels of magnesium and melatonin-rich food. "Melatonin signals that sleep time is approaching, helping us to fall asleep,” behavioral sleep specialist Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN previously explained to Well+Good about the difference between magnesium and melatonin, while magnesium plays "a critical role in regulating the central nervous system and is believed to reduce stress and improve sleep.”
Can magnesium actually improve sleep and reduce anxiety? A recent meta-review of literature on magnesium and sleep found some evidence of an association between magnesium levels and sleep quality but determined overall that more high-quality studies were needed. A meta-review on magnesium and anxiety3 came to the same conclusion: that some subjective studies show a potential link but that more evidence is needed.
6. Start the morning with gratitude.
The way you begin your morning sets the tone for the day, which is why Robin encourages starting the day with gratitude and positivity. “Keep a notebook by your bed and write down five things you are grateful for right as you wake up,” she says. “This can train your brain to focus on positive reframes in the morning versus immediately jumping to worries.”
7. Give yourself more time in the morning.
If you’ve ever woken up late and had to quickly pull yourself together and rush out the door, you know all too well that being in a hurry can exacerbate morning anxiety. To prevent this, Robin recommends setting your alarm earlier than you need to—give or take 30 minutes earlier—to give yourself plenty of time to flow through your morning ritual and avoid triggering those panic feelings.
8. Do things that make you feel happy.
Again, what you do upon waking up sets the tone for your morning and the rest of your day. So, another way to stop morning anxiety in its tracks is by doing something that makes you happy. “Create a ritual with a positive association to replace the one of worry and panic,” Robin says. Maybe you light your favorite candle to burn as you get ready for the day, or you watch an episode of your favorite sitcom as you eat breakfast to start the day with laughter.
Calming techniques to implement when morning anxiety strikes
If preventative measures aren't doing the trick, here are some tools to grab from your toolbox when you need to reduce morning anxiety in the moment.
1. Take some deep breaths.
This might seem like an "easier said than done" situation, but Dr. Saltz says doing breathing exercises for anxiety truly can help calm the mind and body. "If there's something you're worried about on your mind that pops up while you're taking your deep breaths, acknowledge it and let it pass; don't try to push it away," she says.
2. Write down everything you're worried about.
In morning moments when you feel consumed by everything you have to get done that day, Dr. Saltz says it can help to write them down. "Some people keep a 'worry journal' for this purpose," she says. "Once they write it down, it's out of their mind, and they can move on with their day." This can also help you identify anxiety traps or your common thought patterns that trigger anxiety. It can also help, she says, to make a to-do list so you know exactly when you're going to get everything done. That way, you're not spending your morning trying to figure it out in your head.
3. Distract your mind.
“When you are fixated on your worries, it will only make the worries feel bigger,” Robin says. So, instead of allowing your mind to go into full-on worry mode in the morning, she advises doing something to distract your mind, such as reading, making your favorite breakfast, or even squeezing in a few minutes of engaging in a hobby you enjoy.
4. Try morning mindfulness exercises.
Related to breathing exercises, encouraging your body to focus on the present and not ruminate on the future with mindfulness can help you cope with anxiety. Try out these micro-meditations for a fast-acting dose of calm.
How do I stop morning anxiety?
Morning anxiety can feel frustrating and overwhelming. But knowing the everyday factors that can contribute to it can help you take back control of how you feel and not just accept it as something you have to live with, like those with high-functioning anxiety. As always, if the above strategies are not helping you get your morning anxiety under control, seeking the help of a professional is a great idea. Here's to actually enjoying our morning routines again.
- Bassett, Sarah M et al. “Sleep quality but not sleep quantity effects on cortisol responses to acute psychosocial stress.” Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands) vol. 18,6 (2015): 638-44. doi:10.3109/10253890.2015.1087503
- Arab, Arman et al. “The Role of Magnesium in Sleep Health: a Systematic Review of Available Literature.” Biological trace element research vol. 201,1 (2023): 121-128. doi:10.1007/s12011-022-03162-1
- Boyle, Neil Bernard et al. “The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress-A Systematic Review.” Nutrients vol. 9,5 429. 26 Apr. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9050429
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