Anxiety in the morning? Why it happens and what to do about it, according to a mental health pro

Can you get rid of that morning anxiety that keeps lurking?
Can you get rid of that morning anxiety that keeps lurking?
Anh Nguyen/Unsplash

Have you ever woken up feeling low, anxious, heart racing, dreading the day that’s about to come? Most of us have at least once or twice.

It’s totally normal to wake up anxious or panicked sometimes, says Natalie Wallace, a behavioural therapy clinician at Behavioral Associates in New York. Occasional morning anxiety may stem from a nightmare you just had, or could be related to nerves about a big event coming up at work or in life.

Heck, if you don’t wake up anxious in the days, say, before your wedding or a career-changing project, then congrats! You’re one of the few extremely well-adjusted people on Earth. So don’t get too worked up about a one-off nerve-ridden morning. Generally, the anxious feelings in those very particular types of circumstances will pass, and you probably won’t feel that way for long.

But for some people, morning anxiety is more than occasional. And if it’s becoming a regular occurrence in your A.M. routine, then it’s time to face it head-on and come up with coping and prevention methods that work for you — like the techniques ahead.

Why do I feel anxiety in the morning in the first place?

FYI, “morning anxiety” is not a formal medical diagnosis. But it’s common (and normal) to feel anxious at particular times of the day occasionally, or when you have something big to deal with in the day ahead.

Usually, the anxiety stems from bad thoughts about the day to come. “A lot of times we have distorted thoughts about the reality of our days and of our situations,” Wallace says. “So when you start to ruminate about how bad something is going to be, how stressed you’re gonna be, and how tired you are, that is going to ramp up that insecurity.”

There probably isn’t more to anxiousness in the morning than that, though. Meaning: While it may feel as if you’re particularly off mentally/emotionally first in the morning, your body likely isn’t going through any sort of physiological change while you’re sleeping that causes you to feel panicked when you wake up. It’s possible that levels of certain hormones (like the stress hormone cortisol) are higher in the morning, but scientific evidence to support that these hormonal fluctuations cause heightened anxiety in the morning is lacking.

Ultimately, know that you’re *not* alone if you ever imagine how terrible the day will be and feel like You. Just. Can’t. Again, it’s normal to have one of those days every once in a while.

READ MORE: Is There A Difference Between Panic Attacks And Anxiety Attacks?

Okay, but what if I feel anxious, like, *every* morning?

If you wake up feeling anxious most days, it’d be wise to get in touch with a therapist. Consistent anxiety — no matter what time of day it shows up — can point to generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), Wallace notes.

And it’s normal for GAD to show up at consistent times. Some people who have GAD may feel anxious only in the mornings. “Typically, it’s right before people go to bed and when they wake up in the morning,” Wallace says. “I’ve also had people report that those are the worst times [for anxiety].”

Why? Having anxiety in the morning tends to interfere with your mood and attitude for the day to come, and having anxiety right before bed can interfere with sleep and then also set you up to still feel on edge when you rise. Your anxiety may also dissipate as the day goes on.

What are the morning anxiety signs to look out for?

Number one on the list of symptoms: racing thoughts. Mentally, you’ll feel as if there are problems you need to solve or that you can’t possibly solve, and your mind will try to create solutions, Wallace says.

The anxiety these racing thoughts create can also lead to physical symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Tense muscles

While it may feel as if the physical symptoms start first (e.g., the nausea hits and then your anxious thoughts start), that’s not the case, Wallace says.

In addition to racing thoughts, if you’re regularly experiencing any of the following emotions or behaviours when you wake up, there’s a chance you have generalised anxiety disorder that’s presenting in the morning:

  • Overthinking worst-case outcomes constantly
  • Worrying about things that are out of your control
  • Blowing a scenario out of proportion with reality
  • You’re terrified of making the wrong decisions
  • You’re unable to let go of a worry

“With generalised anxiety, your thoughts are racing, and you’re trying to come up with solutions to problems that may not be realistic or might even be catastrophic,” she says. “And then those physical symptoms can come up — heart racing or fatigue, for example. When all of this is going on in your body, you’re exhausted.”

READ MORE: “Here’s Why I Recommend Yin For Anyone Suffering From Anxiety”

Okay, so what can I do to *stop* feeling anxious in the A.M.?

If you feel anxious on some mornings when you have big events or things on your mind, here are five ways to cope that you can do on your own:

  1. Get a good night’s sleep as often as you can.
  2. Exercise regularly. Wallace suggests doing 30 minutes of exercise in the morning, which can release endorphins that help alleviate the anxiety and may make you feel calmer.
  3. Practice regular self-care methods in the morning to help calm you, like taking a calming shower or going for a walk before you start your day.
  4. Have a morning routine, which may help reduce the anxiety you might have about the unknown that day and help you avoid anxiousness associated with feeling frazzled in the morning.
  5. Give yourself time to relax and wake up before checking your phone, email, or the news.

If morning anxiety is just a one-off thing for you, another solution (should it come up again) is to think realistically about the day you have before you. Remember that whatever you’re worrying about isn’t as big a deal as you’re making it out to be in your head.

But if you are dealing with anxiousness in the morning all the damn time and think you might have clinical anxiety, the first thing to do is to make an appointment with your doctor, who can refer you to a therapist. Therapy can help you learn to cope with your anxiety. While it might not put a stop to your anxious thoughts completely (in fact, it probably won’t), therapy can teach you ways to make the anxiety go away faster.

“Psychotherapy is very helpful to reframe thoughts about your day and about the stress,” Wallace says. “You’re trying to create a routine that is more sustainable and manageable. Psychotherapy can also teach you to break those thoughts saying you’re going to wake up feeling anxious the next day because you woke up feeling anxious today, which only perpetuates the morning anxiety.

This article was originally published on 

Image credit: Anh Nguyen/Unsplash

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