The Surprising Trick That Helped Me Finally Master My Morning Anxiety

Photo: Getty Images/Jacoblund
I am not, by any means, a morning person.

I’m actually the polar opposite—mornings crush me. Ever since my earliest days in undergrad, I’ve struggled with acute morning anxiety. At my best, I’ll wake up and internalize all my worries, mentally running through my to-do list over and over again until, well, I actually do it. But at my worst? It’s not very pretty. Think: crying spells, panic attacks, and/or emergency phone calls to my therapist to talk me out of another mental spiral.

This is what my mornings were like for years. Waking up was a roll of the dice—I never knew what I was going to feel.

It came to a head one morning while I was showering before work in mid-July. As I shampooed my hair, I just couldn’t stop fretting. The anxious thoughts kept rolling in about, quite literally, everything: my career path, my sister in Boston, my dog in New Jersey, how I could possibly make it through another hectic day, etc., etc.

As I stepped out of the shower, I knew I needed to get out this headspace ASAP before my brain completely sabotaged the rest of my day. So on a whim, I grabbed the book on my bedside table and just read, in my towel, for 15 minutes.

And you know what? It helped. A lot. The deluge of thoughts and feelings of panic had dwindled almost entirely. My thoughts re-focused. It was as if, in those 15 minutes, I had forgotten what had riled me up in the first place.

I shouldn’t be so surprised. According to Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, anxiety often manifests as an onslaught of future-oriented worries. Finding a way to stop that seemingly endless flow of distress and self-doubt can be very helpful to grounding yourself. “Anything which helps your mind stay rooted in the present and even absorbed in other content can help diminish anxiety—such as reading,” she says.

As quite possibly the world’s biggest bookworm, it made sense. Books have always been my best escape. I was a voracious reader in elementary and middle school, devouring every Judy Blume story I could get my hands on. My obsession only blossomed in high school when I was introduced to the classics; I even have a Kate Chopin quote tattooed on my forearm as tribute to first reading The Awakening in eleventh grade.

But managing anxiety doesn’t just have to be through reading—that’s just what works for me. Morning anxiety looks different in everyone, and these grounding exercises are extremely personalized. Neuropsychologist and licensed clinical psychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, recommends figuring out what works best for you with the help of an expert. “If morning anxiety is something you are experiencing on a regular basis with no known trigger such as a big speech, job interview, international flight... you should seek the help of a therapist to learn ways to manage your anxiety,” she says.

Need some ideas? Dr. Hafeez suggests exploring meditation and mindfulness routines. Since morning anxiety is often triggered by an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, taking a few minutes to center your thoughts can help you relax at the start of the day. “Meditation involves focusing your mind on your experiences while observing your thoughts in the present moment,” she says. “This practice helps you understand the roots of your anxiety and helps gradually let them go.”

Making an actual to-do list (not just a mental one) can help, too. “Having it written down and checking it off as you carry on with your day can ease your stress with each responsibility you do as well as ensure the list gets completed,” Dr. Hafeez says.

But for me, reading has become my go-to grounding exercise. Just before getting out of bed each morning, I’ll grab whatever book is on my bedside table (currently Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep which, oddly enough, soothes me in a weird, twisted sort of way) and do what I love the most for just 15-20 minutes. This clears my mind and settles my nerves enough to tackle the day ahead. And on the days where my anxiety still manages to creep in (trust me, it still happens), I allow myself to pause, find the next chapter in my book, and reroute those negative thoughts and emotions.

Looking for more ways to soothe anxiety? Saying no can help. Setting healthy boundaries (and sticking to them!) can benefit your mental and emotional health. 

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