While trauma can manifest itself at any time of day depending on a person’s triggers, Anjali Gowda Ferguson, Ph.D., LCP, a licensed clinical psychologist and trauma expert, notes that one possible reason it can show up in the morning specifically is due to an increase in cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone). That heightened stress after waking up can exacerbate trauma responses and behaviors.
As for how exactly trauma shows up in the a.m., it depends on the person. “Trauma is a subjective experience, and how we process and heal from trauma can look very different from the next person,” Dr. Ferguson says. As such, trauma symptomatology will also differ from person to person.
Below, Ferguson shares four common ways trauma can show up in the morning, along with tips for revamping your morning routine.
1. Scrolling social media and comparing
One possible impact trauma can have on your morning is the urge to scroll through social media. And not just for entertainment (we’re looking at you, TikTok cat videos), but to compare our lives to those we follow. “If a child grew up in a household that experienced neglect or emotionally inconsistent responses where an emphasis was placed on competition and performance as a determination of worth, [they] can be more prone to socially compare themselves,” Dr. Ferguson says.
Social comparison, she explains, is a social psychological theory that suggests we all have an innate need to compare ourselves to others. “In some cases, we upwardly compare [ourselves] to others,” she says. For instance, we might aspire to be like someone else, or view that person as having more. “In other cases, we [downwardly] compare ourselves—that is, we compare to others worse-off than ourselves.”
Both of these forms of comparison, Dr. Ferguson adds, can motivate behavior and mood. Used positively, she says, comparison can help motivate growth and positive changes within ourselves. For instance, let’s say your friend shares their fitness routine on social media, inspiring you to stick to your exercise goals. Conversely, comparison can lead to viewing yourself as less-than, negatively impacting your self-esteem.
2. Criticizing the way you look
Past trauma from childhood or adulthood around body image can also affect how you see yourself in the morning (and all the time). “Body image concerns, which can manifest in a multitude of ways, can result from experiencing relationships in which body image was tied to self-worth,” Dr. Ferguson says. “In cultures where a promotion of body image is viewed as a form of success, an emphasis may be placed on children/individuals to present in a certain light. These messages can become maintained through societal influences and may even be self-reinforced over time.”
Dr. Ferguson says this can lead to becoming preoccupied with how you look so much that it consumes your thoughts from the moment you wake up and in every interaction throughout the day. It can also make it challenging to decide what to wear in the morning because you may feel nothing looks good on you.
3. Putting off tasks
If you grew up in a highly critical household, you learned to fear failure and criticism. Dr. Ferguson says you may have developed an avoidance response style, which involves procrastinating or avoiding things you need to do as a way to cope when you’re feeling overwhelmed. That can include avoiding morning work emails or self-care and hygiene tasks such as getting out of bed and getting ready in the morning.
4. Pushing yourself to the limits
For others, unresolved trauma can manifest itself as over-functioning, meaning you push yourself to your limits by over-performing tasks such as exercising too much or committing to too many appointments. Maybe you start working immediately after waking up because you have so much on your plate. Dr. Ferguson says that over-functioning stems from neglect in childhood, typically when parents were unavailable or unable to meet a child’s needs. “Here, children grow up being parentified and having to take on adult roles early in development,” she says. “These processes can continue well into adulthood.”
How to revamp your morning routine
There are things you can do to transform your morning experience. First, Dr. Ferguson recommends doing a self-assessment by evaluating what parts of your morning routine. Identify which parts aren’t serving you and clarify what you’d like to change. For instance, maybe you wake up feeling really tired and that impacts your desire to work in the morning.
From there, Dr. Ferguson recommends setting some goals for your morning ritual. Ask yourself: What do I want to get out of my morning? If I could design it in an ideal world, what would it look like?
Next, identify any barriers that prevent you from taking on your ideal morning routine. For example, going to bed late, oversleeping, being short on time, adding too much to your morning to-do list, or spending too much time on your phone in the morning can impact your morning routine. “Once you identify what is keeping you from achieving your goals, you can develop a system to address those needs,” Dr. Ferguson says. That may look like setting a limit on evening TV to ensure you go to bed at a reasonable time or giving yourself a 15-minute limit to morning phone scrolling.
Lastly, work on healing the unresolved trauma driving the behaviors you want to change. Dr. Ferguson encourages contacting a mental health provider if you need guidance and support with this process. “Are there certain relationships or patterns you notice in your history that may have contributed to this response style?” she says. “Healing is being able to name the traumas and understand that working through them is a lifelong and fluid journey.” In other words, be gentle with yourself and take your time.