Reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Anxiety is a tough disorder to live with. It can sap your energy, magnify the stress already present in your life and make you short with loved ones.
And worst of all, it can seem like an endless march of the same negative thoughts — starting from the moment you wake up.
Morning anxiety is no laughing matter. While any anxiety symptoms are bad, anxiety that starts from the moment you wake up can make the rest of your day twice as taxing, and the things you enjoy doing far less fulfilling.
The keys to defeating morning anxiety may lie in what you do the night before, or the week before, or even what you do in the morning itself. We’ll get to that. We’ll also explain why morning anxiety occurs in the first place.
But before we do that, let’s cover some basics about anxiety disorders.
Morning anxiety is a specific type of anxiety, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that you have an anxiety disorder.
Just because this morning was a particularly anxious one, doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder.
Whether or not you have an anxiety disorder depends on factors like the frequency of those feelings (is it every morning?).
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that what we call anxiety disorders are actually a collection of medical conditions that share a common trait: intense feelings of anxiety, severe unease or panic.
Anxiety isn’t all in your head, either. Physiological symptoms may include insomnia, feeling wound up or on edge, a difficulty concentrating, a restless feeling, fatigue or muscle tension, uncontrollable worry or frequent irritability.
Further symptoms may include heart palpitations or an elevated anxiety heart rate, as well as higher levels of blood pressure in the early morning.
Oh, and according to most anxiety resources, a little anxiety here and there isn’t a disorder — you have to experience excessive anxiety most days of the week, for at least six months in order to qualify for an anxiety disorder prognosis. If you do, you may have generalized anxiety disorder.
And believe it or not, it’s actually quite common. Estimates say 30 percent or more of American adults will experience a form of anxiety disorder in their lives.
Generalized anxiety disorder is just the primary version of the disorder, which can be mild to moderate, and span months or years.
Anxiety’s exact causes aren’t fully understood, but we do know that imbalances of brain chemicals like serotonin are part of the equation, much like with depressive disorders and other mood disorders and mental disorders.
One of the most prominent reasons for morning anxiety may simply be a lack of sleep. A 2016 study of university students, for instance, found a “clinically significant” relationship between insomnia and sleep disorders — and an increased likelihood of anxiety levels.
But information collected by Wake Forest University (WFU) suggests a more prominent factor in the morning anxiety equation: the stress hormone, cortisol.
In individuals who frequently experience stress, cortisol levels in the body are observably higher in the morning. This could be seen as a benefit in some cases, because people who experience worry often feel a higher degree of control from worrying (think of it like a hyper focus).
Unfortunately, this cycle can also have severely negative impacts. Ongoing anxiety has the potential to lead to other long-term health issues like migraines, heart disease, ulcers and even things like eyesight issues. There's even more of a connection between anxiety and migraines than you may initially realize.
What’s causing the insomnia, the cortisol spikes and the general increase in anxiety may be a variety of things — concerns about work, about finances, about family members and loved ones. Anxiety could be caused by fears about the future or intrusive thoughts about the past.
You could be experiencing morning anxiety due to problems with your job, a big project, arguments with a partner or any other situation where heightened stress is a factor.
The good news is that, typically, you can reduce morning anxiety by taking some control over how these things affect your morning routine. Let’s look at some ways to do that.
Avoiding morning anxiety can be done, but it requires some focus on your part — particularly with regards to your habits.
One of the first things you can do is begin to limit your exposure to early morning stressors right after you wake up.
Jumping right into emails from your boss, social media or just reading the news and watching news TV may be causing you stress and anxiety first thing in the morning.
When you condition your body to expect that, it leads to expectations (and the anxiety that comes with them).
Instead, consider replacing these activities with exercise or meditation, which can break the habit loop and offer mental focus and endorphins to replace those cortisol spikes. These things can also elevate your mood.
You can also try decreasing your morning anxiety by preparing for it the night before. Look at what’s planned for the next day before bed, and address the things that cause you concern the night before, so that you wake up prepared and in control.
There are resources for all of these things, including anxiety podcasts, meditation and breathing apps, exercise trackers and even to-do lists that may help you organize your morning anxiety coping system.
You might also consider talking to a healthcare professional about online therapy and medication options.
Try as you might to stay in bed forever, morning always comes eventually. And if you experience morning anxiety, experiencing it can seem inevitable as the sun rising.
What you can do in addition to preventative measures and lifestyle changes, though, is change the way your brain chemistry is when you do wake up.
The solution may be medication. Antidepressant medications help you regulate brain chemical imbalances.
For instance, if your serotonin levels are off, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, might be the solution.
Other medications, like selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), work similarly to SSRIs, but instead focus on the regulation of norepinephrine (a similar but different brain chemical).
These are often effective for patients when typical SSRIs fail.
Our guide to how to calm anxiety may answer lingering questions about other treatment options if you want to dive deeper, but for now, one of the best recommendations we can make for anxiety when you wake or before you go to bed (or any other time, really) is to consider therapy.
Therapy is designed to take the isolation out of the symptoms of anxiety you’re experiencing — it’s an effective foundation for talking out those struggles associated with anxiety, with the goal of creating a coping plan that may include relaxation exercises and relaxation techniques like deep breathing, or physical activity during the day to keep your brain and body healthy.
And studies show that anxiety disorders respond well to therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people gain control over anxious moments by learning to recognize behavior patterns and providing them with the tools to cope accordingly — like self-defense training for your mental health.
We explore CBT’s benefits in more detail in our guide, what is cognitive behavioral therapy?
Therapists and therapy professionals might also suggest changes to your lifestyle or relationships, and they may suggest ways to address other common stress factors like career or bedtime habits that may impact your morning mental health.
A word of caution: you might be asked to cut back on certain self-medication habits. That might include alcohol or drugs during the day or night, but it also might address lesser-known culprits like your caffeine intake, which could be amplifying your wired feelings.
Morning anxiety is a complicated problem — one that isn’t going to be dealt with by smashing your alarm clock.
It may take more than a few muted notification settings to clear up (though we’re always in favor of that).
We mentioned the common treatments for anxiety earlier, and while these suggestions are backed by science, they’re not individually tailored to your needs — yet.
Feeling anxious isn’t who you are. It’s a problem you haven’t yet figured out how to solve, but it doesn’t mean you can’t with the right help.
The way you get there is with the help of a medical professional. Consulting one should be your first step if you’ve been experiencing stress, anxiety or any other issues for a prolonged amount of time.
Finding the right mental health professional to help you is important.
You might also want to take a look at our mental health resources guide, which has plenty of helpful information about the questions you may still be asking.
Dr. Angela Sheddan has been a Family Nurse Practitioner since 2005, practicing in community, urgent and retail health capacities. She has also worked in an operational capacity as an educator for clinical operations for retail clinics.
She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, her master’s from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and her Doctor of Nursing Practice from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. You can find Angela on LinkedIn for more information.
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