Anxiety isn’t picky. It can creep in at any time of the day ― even first thing in the morning. And before you know it, you’re fretting about the future when your present day hasn’t even started yet.
“Although there can be an almost infinite number of reasons why some people wake up anxious, at some point the mind starts traveling out into the future, whether that’s a few minutes into the future or decades,” Mark W. Driscoll, licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, told HuffPost. “Although that can seem productive — like we’re just trying to work something out or solve a problem ― it has the consequences of feeding and amplifying an already difficult to experience emotion.”
Luckily, there are several techniques you can practice to help you better deal with whatever it is that’s causing you worry. Below are some research and expert-backed tips to try if you wake up feeling anxious:
Put your devices on silent and keep them out of sight.
Late-night news notifications, celeb tweets or a conversation in a group text can all wait till morning. All of these alerts keep your brain buzzing, and make it harder for it to reach a state of relaxation. Plus, the blue light from screens can disrupt your sleep, and it can also prevent your body from producing melatonin, a hormone that’s key for a regulated sleep cycle. It’s well-established that poor sleep quality is closely linked with feelings of anxiety. You deserve a rest, as do your devices.
Set out your clothes for tomorrow.
Your closet might be packed with items you love ― but all of those options can lead to decision fatigue, or the exhaustion and stress that’s associated with having too many options to choose from. Getting dressed in the morning sounds like a simple task for any adult, but for some, it really can be wearing. If this sounds like you, try setting out your outfit the night before to see if doing so can help combat some of that morning stress. This process is you looking out for your future self, alleviating some of the jitters that come after sunrise.
Allot yourself some chill time.
Rather than jumping into bed for shuteye seconds after you finish up a work email, give yourself some relaxation time free of to-dos (and phones). Your body and brain will benefit from a wind-down period, which would ideally be an hour before your bedtime, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Relaxation reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that can increase your blood pressure and heart rate. Relaxation techniques like meditation, gentle movements like yoga and simple exercises like deep breathing can all help cut out the cortisol and promote better sleep. Whatever works for you to take some chill time for yourself, do it.
Try some mental exercises.
Instead of focusing on all you have to tackle the next morning, practice some mindful exercises. You can even turn it into a game: Try to recall as many dog breeds as possible, or mentally walk yourself through every room of your childhood home. This practice can help you keep anxious thoughts away while getting you one step closer to dreamland.
Reflect on the positive aspects of your day.
Especially if you’re a worrier, training your brain to think about positive events instead of dwelling on negative ones can help you feel less anxious. The action distracts your brain from spiraling down a dark hole, and can make you feel more optimistic. If negative thoughts creep in while you’re trying this, don’t panic: Let them pass through and return to sunnier thinking.
“The idea is to get out of your mind and into your present moment experience with soothing activities and to keep bringing your mind back to the activities when it wanders to worry thoughts or thoughts about the future,” Driscoll said, adding that journaling about your worries before bed isn’t a great idea. “A lot of people mistakenly believe that it helps and it usually has the effect of reinforcing and strengthening worries.”
Hit play on a relaxing song.
This tip is oddly specific, but research suggests that this song — which researchers dubbed “the most relaxing song ever” — can help you enter a state of relaxation. In a study of the song’s effect, some people even reported feeling sleepy after listening. But if that doesn’t work, put on a tune that personally soothes you.
In The Morning
Let your phone be.
Do yourself a favor and resist the urge to see if an overseas client responded to your email. Just as your devices can stress you out before bed, they can frazzle your brain first thing in the morning. Instead of waking up to a list of things you’ve missed or need to tackle, allow yourself to just be in the present moment of your morning.
Reframe your anxiety by acknowledging it.
“Noticing that you’re anxious, responding to it in a way that says, ‘It’s bad. I hate this emotion. What if it never goes away? I have to get rid of it,’ has the effect of intensifying the emotion and keeping it around,” Driscoll said.
When you do this, anxiety becomes something else to be anxious about. “A way to let go of the struggle is to build skills in service of acceptance and acknowledgment of the emotion,” he added. “Remember that acceptance is not the same thing as approval of or liking anxiety. Practice acknowledging anxiety by saying, ‘Yes, I am feeling anxious right now.’”
Schedule some time just for yourself.
Ditching your morning phone habit may give you the extra time you need to start your day off right, but if you really want to soak up your free time, consider setting your alarm a little bit earlier. Having some time to yourself to engage in activities that can benefit your brain ― like reading the paper or meditating ― can set the tone for the rest of your day. Those extra minutes are beneficial even if they just allow you to feel less rushed as you prepare yourself for the day.
You don’t even have to get out of bed for this one. Breathing is a power tool in reducing anxiety because it calls upon your body’s relaxation response. Try inhaling to the slow count of four, noticing as your belly, ribcage and chest fill with air, then slowly exhale for the same count. You can use this trick at any time of day to find some relief.
Move your body.
You don’t have to go to a workout class to reap the anxiety-relieving benefits of exercise (though, if you enjoy a sweat session first thing in the morning, by all means, keep it up). Maybe you can squeeze in a walk around your block, or perhaps you can practice some yoga in your living room with the help of a favorite app or video. Just getting some physical movement into your morning can help you feel more calm.
Remember that anxiety is a normal human emotion to feel.
Bottom line: Don’t shame yourself for how you feel. Driscoll said anxiety exists for a reason, and you don’t need to brush it off as a problem that’s “all in your head.”
“There are legitimate problems in people’s lives setting off anxiety,” he said, adding that behavioral therapy practices and mindfulness-based stress reduction “have some of the strongest evidence bases out there for helping people let go of the struggle with anxiety.”
So while this list provides a bunch of useful techniques that can work for one person, another may need more professional support to start feeling relief and that’s OK.
“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In May, we’re covering anxiety in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.