Waking up stressed: How to deal with morning anxiety
Waking up in the morning should be a time of feeling relaxed, rested, and ready to take on the day. Sadly, there are those who wake up feeling anything but energised.
Most people have busy, sometimes stressful, events and life situations at one time or another. It’s totally normal to wake up a bit stressed before an exam or job interview. But when those feelings start to pop up at the beginning of most days, there might be a more serious underlying issue.
Morning anxiety is not a very nice way to start the day. But it can have more far reaching health consequences that overshadow the negative effects on just one morning.
Some people may feel like they experience anxiety in the morning for no reason at all. In this article we’ll explore, however, some of the common underlying causes of the condition, and why morning anxiety can become a major hindrance to the rest of your day.
First, let’s narrow down the symptoms you may experience when you wake up, that can be attributed to anxiety specifically.
What are the signs I might be experiencing morning anxiety?
Occasional feelings of anxiety are a normal occurrence in life. But excessive, persistent thoughts and feelings of worry, or repeating fears about certain life situations are signs you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
A sure sign of diagnosable anxiety is worry that is intense, out of control, and out of proportion to the situation. It’s important to distinguish something like feeling nervous the morning of a performance or competition, as opposed to chronic stress over ordinary, routine events.
Physical effects of anxiety in the morning to look out for include things like rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, feelings of weakness, or even gastrointestinal discomfort.
Mentally, those experiencing anxiety in the morning may have trouble concentrating, feel a sense of danger or dread, be unable to stop worrying, or feel an urgent need to avoid a certain situation or group of people.
There are five major types of anxiety disorder, and any of these could contribute to feelings of anxiety when you wake up. They are generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
Each of these anxiety disorders may contribute differently to feelings of anxiety when you wake up in the morning. For example, someone with social anxiety may wake up with such negative thoughts before a large group event; a person dealing with PTSD may simply wake up having had a dream that triggered feelings of anxiety related to a past event.
If your morning anxiety develops into feelings of panic, we’ll also cover what to do about it in this article. Now we’ve put some potential names to what your experience may be classified under, let’s take a look at some of the potential risk factors and causes for morning anxiety.
What causes morning anxiety?
There are dozens of elements that can lead to anxiety, either individually, or in combination. Here we will explore many of the most common causes of anxiety, as well as other risk factors that can lead to the condition.
First, there are lifestyle factors that can contribute to an increased risk of developing anxiety. Children or adults who experience traumatic events have a higher chance of developing anxiety at some point. Stress, whether from work, relationships, or other life situations, can often build up to become a trigger for anxiety.
Having other members of the family who experience anxiety disorders can increase your own chances of developing symptoms. There are people with certain personality traits that are more susceptible to suffering from anxiety.
Stress and anxiety have a highly reciprocal relationship with other mental health disorders, such as depression and insomnia, as well as with physical health issues. Heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and many other medical conditions can be linked to anxiety disorders.
Drugs (prescription or otherwise) and alcohol misuse or withdrawal are another known cause of anxiety, and can worsen symptoms for those already diagnosed with the condition.
These triggers can be involved with any of the major types of anxiety disorders. But why do some people in particular experience a spike in these negative feelings and reactions when first waking up?
Why is my anxiety worse in the morning?
While anxiety upon waking is not an individually diagnosed condition, it is a common phenomenon among individuals dealing with stress or anxiety. One area of the literature focusing on this involves the cortisol awakening response.
The research around the cortisol awakening response has focused on people who have personality traits linked to possible future health risks, such as neuroticism. Because increased cortisol levels are linked to the physiological response to stress, it is thought that there is a relationship between morning cortisol levels and morning stress and anxiety.
Stress levels in the morning may depend on events coming up that day. This is less feasible if morning anxiety occurs on a regular basis, however. Negative habits and thought patterns can also result in a routine of worrying about the day ahead upon waking, meaning the body may simply get used to waking up in an agitated state, because that’s what normally happens.
Waking up to immediate feelings of anxiety, fear, or agitation is something nobody wants to have to deal with on a regular basis. To that end, let’s next explore some of the research-based treatments that have been proven as effective ways to suppress morning anxiety.
Morning anxiety cures and treatments
If the anxiety you experience in the morning (or any other time) begins to interfere with your life – whether it’s work, your family, or other activities – it is definitely advisable to organize a visit with a doctor.
Medical professionals will likely use one of the following mainline therapies to treat the common forms of anxiety disorder, possibly even a combination of the two.
The most effective therapy for mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety involves prescription medications. Newer antidepressant agents are shown to have a safe adverse effect profile and are easy to use to treat anxiety disorders.
Without mentioning specific medications, there are several prescription medications which have been shown to be effective in reducing anticipatory anxiety, avoidance behaviors, and other symptoms of comorbid conditions such as depression.
Certain medications will also greatly help to prevent your anxiety progressing into panic attacks. As mentioned, panic disorder is a separate entity to anxiety conditions, which we will cover shortly.
The most comprehensively studied mode of psychological therapy for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of treatment can be effective both in individual and group settings, however in the case of anxiety it is most often delivered on a one-on-one basis.
Cognitive behavioral therapy employs a variety of strategies aimed at isolating and challenging an individual’s specific misconceptions and maladaptive responses to their generalisations. A range of personalized, specific learning experiences are curated to take the patient through the following process.
First, the individual must monitor their automatic negative thoughts. Next, they will learn to identify the connections between these problematic ‘cognitions’, the effects they have, and the resulting behaviors.
Then, the patient will examine the evidence for and against the case that their subconscious thoughts are distorted. Following this, they learn to replace these over-dramatized thoughts with explanations more grounded in reality. Finally, the therapy will aim to help hunt down the underlying beliefs and causes that make one distort their experiences in the first place.
This type of therapy is also used in patients with sleep disorders. As we’ll see in the following section, sleep pathologies can contribute to symptoms of morning anxiety, stress, and tiredness.
Please note that if your anxiety becomes overwhelming to the point of experiencing thoughts or behaviors of self-harm or suicide, it is critical to seek emergency medical care immediately.
Next, here are a bunch of great habits and tips to compliment these treatments, which will help you reduce and prevent instances of morning anxiety.
Healthy habits to prevent and reduce anxiety in the morning
So, in addition to professional methods of treating your morning anxiety, there are a lot of different lifestyle changes you can make in order to increase your chances of waking up fresh and relaxed, rather than stressed or worried.
Reduce your caffeine intake
That morning cup o’ joe might not be doing your anxiety any favors. In studies of different groups – patients with anxiety disorder, patients with panic disorder, and subjects without either condition – there were significant differences in the reaction to caffeine.
While the patients with panic disorder did display altered reactivity, such as increased physical tiredness, it was those with generalized anxiety disorder who showed the most abnormal responses to caffeine. These included increased skin conductance level, blood pressure, and self-reported agitation and sweating.
Consider swapping out your morning coffee for herbal tea or lemon water, or decaf if you can’t go without the taste. Also try to avoid caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks to limit any negative effects caffeine might have on your anxiety symptoms.
Improve your sleep habits
There’s no waking up on the right side of the bed without a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, for many people, that’s easier said than done. Insomnia is one of the most frequently reported mental health complaints, and it rarely appears in isolation.
One quarter of those suffering from insomnia also have anxiety disorder, and the two conditions impose complex effects on one another. It is a mistake to view insomnia as a secondary symptom of anxiety, and vice versa.
Other factors involving sleep can affect anxiety. Another study found evidence that going to bed later and having an irregular sleep pattern are associated with negative health outcomes.
As we mentioned earlier, cognitive behavioral therapy can help markedly improve the effects of insomnia, helping to get a much more restful sleep. There are also many natural sleep aids available. If you’re curious, take a look at our list of the best natural sleep aids.
Move more, worry less
One of the best habits you can get into to relieve stress and anxiety and improve your health is physical exercise. The research shows both aerobic and resistance exercise to be useful adjunctive treatments for anxiety disorders, especially when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.
One study found that exercise significantly reduced anxiety symptoms. This study consisted of a 12-week program with several weekly sessions of 30 minutes. Still more research has found that these benefits are effective for many individuals up to 12 months after completing the exercise program.
So, whether it’s a walk around the block, a visit to the gym, or a guided home workout on YouTube, find a way to get your physical activity levels up and exercise for mental health. It can help quell those morning anxiety symptoms.
Try some herbal remedies
There are many natural products and herbal remedies on the market that can act as calming agents to help you relax and de-stress. Whether it’s a cup of chamomile tea before bed, some drops of lavender oil on your pillow for a relaxing sleep, or a capsule with a combination of lemon balm, passionflower and other herbs, there are many options to help relieve the stress and anxiety of everyday life.
Assess alcohol and drug use
Alcohol and anxiety have a complex relationship. If you suspect – or are actually diagnosed with – an anxiety or other mental health condition, it is critical to cut down or eliminate alcohol intake. Not to mention, that alcohol and other drugs can have adverse interactions with any prescription medications you may be required to take as part of a treatment plan.
Many other techniques exist to help reduce feelings of anxiety. Mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and hypnotherapy are all used to help people suffering from these mental health challenges. Do your research and don’t hesitate to seek a professional opinion on which might be the best alternative approaches to compliment your treatment plan.
While there’s no bulletproof way to predict whether you are likely to develop an anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to nail the early signs of anxiety before they develop. Engage in the steps above, stay involved in the activities and groups which make you feel good, and remember to seek help as early as possible.
In certain cases, morning anxiety can develop into something more serious. The next section will discuss panic disorder, and what to do should you experience an acute event when you wake up.
What should I do if my anxiety leads to morning panic attacks?
Sometimes, extreme anxiety can lead to panic attacks. These are sudden, unexpected bursts of anxiety, including physical symptoms affecting the cardiorespiratory, neurological, and gastrointestinal systems.
Some notable symptoms include hyperventilation, heart palpitations, or even chest pain. Nausea, sweating, disorientation and dizziness can also occur. While these symptoms are not necessarily dangerous, they can be terrifying. Most panic attacks last for five to 30 minutes.
If you experience repeated episodes of panic attacks, you may have panic disorder. This is an anxiety-related syndrome that affects up to five percent of the population at various stages of life. An unfortunate side-effect of panic attacks is that they can create their own sense of anxiety around fearing that a certain situation will bring on another attack.
Experts have some recommendations on what to do if you experience a morning panic attack. First, it is important to confront the event rather than try to distract yourself. This will give you a chance to discover that nothing bad happens as a result of the panic attack; the symptoms will pass.
It can be helpful if you have someone with you to let them know straight away, so they can be with you for reassurance and support. There are also breathing techniques you can employ, such as slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Closing your eyes can also be beneficial.
Feeling lethargic is a normal feeling following a panic attack. The one thing you definitely don’t want to do is ignore your panic attacks, without seeking medical advice. Don’t forget the plethora of online and phone resources at your disposal; there is always someone willing and able to provide help and advice.
We hope this article has been informative for anyone who experiences morning time anxiety. The good news is that there are a lot of options to help reduce or even eliminate this inconvenient (and sometimes scary) phenomenon.
If you have experience with anxiety in the mornings, or even panic attacks, let us know in the comments the best solutions or tips you’ve used that have helped.
Jesse Hyson is an accredited exercise and sports scientist. He is currently completing clinical residency for a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at Charles Sturt University, Australia.