As a person who’s dealt with anxiety since I was a kid, I find that I’m often most anxious first thing in the morning. When I open my eyes, all of the worries and potential stressors that await me flood my mind. The pit in my stomach makes me want to stay in bed as long as I can so I don’t have to face the day ahead.
Of course, this avoidance only exacerbates what I’m feeling. What alleviates it is just the opposite: Getting up on the earlier side so I have time for my morning routine. These days, that’s making an iced coffee, taking my dog for a walk, following a short workout video, writing my to-do list for the day and ― when time permits ― meditating and journaling.
“Morning routines are powerful and set our pattern for the rest of the day,” Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and well-being consultant in Britain, told HuffPost. “A worry-filled morning will often flood into an anxious afternoon.” Conversely, starting the morning with intention creates a sense of calm and confidence that makes the rest of the day seem more manageable.
So how do you create those morning rituals that will quiet your racing mind and stick with them? Below, experts offer some helpful advice.
How to start a solid morning routine
Consider how much time you can realistically carve out for yourself.
“We all have a period of the morning that we have some level of control over,” Chambers said. “For some people, that may be an hour, for others, it may be 20 minutes.”
For example, if you have young kids or a long commute to the office, you may have less time to work with. So figure out what’s realistic for your circumstances.
Waking up earlier may help your mornings feel less frazzled. That said, you shouldn’t force yourself into becoming an early riser at the expense of getting a full night’s rest. Remember that sleep plays a pivotal role in your emotional regulation.
“Often we hear of routines that start in the early hours of the morning,” Chambers said. “For some people, this is a high-energy time and a perfect time to start your routine. But if you’re limiting your sleep or you just don’t function well so early, it is going to be detrimental.”
Experiment to figure out which rituals work best for you.
Finding out which morning routine additions alleviate your anxiety may take some trial and error. What works for your partner, friend or that random influencer you follow on Instagram may or may not work for you.
“Think about your biggest stressors and problems that trigger your anxiety, and then consider what really helps in these situations,” Chambers said. “Then look to those activities and experiment. There are many ways and methods to exercise, plan, journal, listen and read, and some will feel just right for you.”
Make it easy and enjoyable so you stick with it.
You don’t need to come up with some elaborate 20-step process to reap the benefits of a morning routine (but, hey, if you want to, more power to you).
“Morning routines are most effective when we enjoy them and they are easy to integrate into our lives,” Chambers said. “They are not about completely changing what we do, but adding small, positive changes that compound together.”
“Morning routines are most effective when we enjoy them and they are easy to integrate into our lives.”
One way to make the morning smoother? Do some preparation the night before, like laying out your workout clothes, whipping up a make-ahead breakfast or putting your journal by your coffeemaker.
“Leave things to trigger you to remember, make what you need accessible and craft a space where it is possible,” Chambers said.
But know that you’re not going to execute your routine perfectly every day ― and that’s OK.
You might be on a roll for a couple of weeks and then fall off for a few days. If you mentally prepare for these hiccups, you’ll be less likely to beat yourself up when they happen.
“It’s easy to move into judgment and criticism of yourself when things don’t go as you would have wanted or when you don’t immediately want to jump out of bed in the morning to start a new routine,” said marriage and family therapist Lynsie Seely of Wellspace SF in San Francisco. “Expect that there will be difficult moments and connect with your internal voice that offers kind words and encouragement along the way.”
And when you do follow your routine, give yourself some praise.
“Celebrate a little,” Chambers said. “Similarly, when you miss it, be kind to yourself and get prepared for the following morning.”
Some habits worth trying to incorporate into your morning
We asked mental health professionals to recommend some practices that help soothe anxiety. Try out a few of these and check in with how you feel afterwards — but know that it may take some time to see the benefits. Then you can determine if you want to add any to your a.m. routine.
1. Start your day by drinking water.
Before you have your tea or coffee, hydrate with a glass of a water as soon as you wake up.
“It gives us increased cognitive function, allowing us more clarity of mind, can elevate our mood and energy, and promotes more balanced emotional regulation and takes less than a minute,” Chambers said. “And it’s a great habit to stack your next part of the routine into, and you can even prepare your water the evening before.”
2. Walk outside.
Taking a walk outdoors is a calming, grounding way to begin the day.
“It is also great as it gets sunlight into our eyes, stimulating serotonin, which boosts our mood,” Chambers said. “It also ignites our senses, as the wind hits our face, sounds of the environment fill our ears and we smell the external world. It makes us mindful and eases our worries in the process.”
3. Practice gratitude.
Take a moment to reflect on all of the good in your life. You can list a few things in your head, share them with a partner or child, or write them down in a journal.
“Start your day with a grateful heart before you even get up from bed,” said Renato Perez, a Los Angeles psychotherapist. “Start naming all the things you’re grateful for. This could be done through prayer or simply a list you say out loud to the universe or Mother Nature.”
4. Try to avoid checking your phone first thing.
Those work emails, text messages, Instagram notifications and news alerts can wait a bit. If you charge your phone by your bed or use it as an alarm clock, you’re going to look at it right when you wake up. Before you know it, you’re sucked in and two minutes of scrolling turns into 20. Try charging your phone across the room so it’s not within reach. Or charge it outside of the bedroom and use an alarm clock instead.
“I see so many people who immediately check their work email in the morning, which automatically puts them in ‘work mode’ and makes them feel anxious about the day ahead before they even get out of bed,” said Gina Delucca, a clinical psychologist at Wellspace SF. “Similarly, some people hop on social media or start reading news articles while lying in bed, which may trigger anxiety by reading or seeing something negative or scary.”
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid your phone altogether, which just isn’t realistic for most of us. “But I definitely recommend giving yourself some peace and quiet in the morning before the daily grind begins,” Delucca added.
5. Take some deep breaths.
When you’re anxious, you might notice your breathing is quick and shallow, rather than slow and deep.
“This is a part of our body’s natural stress response, and it coincides with a few of the other physical sensations you may notice when you feel anxious — like rapid heart rate, dizziness and upset stomach,” Delucca said. “While we don’t have voluntary control over some of these bodily sensations, we do have control over our breathing, and we can use our breath to help induce a more relaxed state.”
“Morning routines are powerful and set our pattern for the rest of the day.”
Those deep, nourishing inhalations and exhalations stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, producing a sense of calm.
“To begin, try to spend a few minutes each morning sitting or lying in a comfortable position, closing your eyes and taking a few slow, controlled, deep breaths,” Delucca said. “Try breathing in through your nose and then breathing out through either your nose or mouth. When you inhale, imagine that you are filling up a balloon in your abdomen rather than just breathing into your chest.”
“There is no better way to quiet the mind than by practicing meditation,” Perez said. “Start small — two to three minutes — and increment every week.”
When your mind wanders away, which it inevitably will, gently bring it back to your breath.
You can sit in silence, listen to relaxing music, do a guided mediation through an app like Calm, Headspace or Insight Timer, or find one on YouTube
You can also try repeating a mantra — “I am safe, and I will be OK,” is one Delucca suggested. Or do a body scan: Start at the top of your head, bringing awareness to each body part and releasing tension from that area as you slowly work your way down to your toes.
7. Eat a nourishing breakfast.
“Our mood is highly influenced by what we eat,” Chambers said.
Opt for a balanced breakfast that contains protein, healthful fats, fiber and complex carbohydrates — think a vegetable omelet with avocado toast or oatmeal with nut butter, berries and chia seeds. Refined carbohydrates, such as doughnuts and sugary cereals, can lead to a blood sugar spike and crash, “causing challenges with emotional regulation, which may leave you feeling anxious,” Chambers added. (That said, if the occasional croissant or chocolate chip muffin brings some joy to your morning, it’s totally fine. Food is meant to be enjoyed, after all.)
8. Read a few pages from a book.
Rather than reading news or catching up on your social media feeds early in the morning, Perez recommends picking up a book that inspires you and reading for a few minutes ― even just five pages.
“Find a book that really speaks to you and makes you feel good,” he said.
9. Move your body.
It could be yoga, walking, running, dancing, cycling, strength-training or even stretching.
“When you exercise in the morning, you may notice improved focus and energy during the rest of the day, as well as better sleep at night, which can also help to tame anxiety,” Delucca said. “In addition, exercising in the morning can enhance your mood by giving you a boost of endorphins and a sense of accomplishment at the start of your day.”
It’s worth noting that some people report that certain workouts, especially very intense ones, actually stoke their anxiety rather than reduce it. So just be aware of that.
“We react differently to exercise, and it is a stressor,” Chambers said. “Exercising with too much intensity for some people can lead them to become fatigued and more likely to feel anxious.”
10. Do some visualization.
A visualization practice can help you set the desired tone for your day. If you’re feeling anxious and distracted, perhaps you’d like to feel calm, focused and empowered instead. Seely recommends calling on a memory that evokes that feeling for you. Tune into the small details and sensations of the experience.
“For example, if I’m visualizing a memory where I hiked up to the peak of a mountain and I’m overlooking the summit, I might notice the details of the incredible view, the sounds of nature around me, the feel of my muscles after climbing the steep terrain, the smell and temperature of the air, the sensation of feeling accomplished, proud, unstoppable,” she said. “Really getting into every sensation of the memory helps your body to soak in the experience and primes your physiology for that particular state of being ― in this example, empowered and ready to take on the day.”
And if you can’t think of a specific memory, allow yourself to daydream and build the desired experience in your imagination.
How to stick to your morning routine
You may think your biggest stumbling blocks are a lack of willpower or hitting the snooze button half a dozen times. But often it “comes down to a lack of clarity with the routine,” Delucca said.
“You’re more likely to follow through on behavior change when you set clear and specific goals versus vague aspirations,” she added.
So instead of saying something general, like, “I want to work out in the morning,” make the goal more concrete: “I’m going to do a virtual yoga class at 7:30 a.m. after I finish my tea.”
Delucca also recommends getting up around the same time each day and outlining what specific activities you want to incorporate into your routine and in what order. It may help to write them down.
“When you do something repeatedly in the same order, you can eventually develop a habit,” Delucca said. “When a habit is formed, you’re not solely relying on how you feel in the moment in terms of your mood, motivation or willpower. Habits feel automatic without any guesswork as to what you should do next.”
She offered the example of taking a shower. You likely shampoo, condition, shave and wash your body in a specific order without giving it much thought.
“It’s automatic because the routine is clear and you’ve created a habit in which one action flows directly into the next action without any questioning,” Delucca said. “So, try to be as specific and consistent as possible when creating a morning routine. Each activity will serve as a cue for the next, and with time, your morning routine will flow.”