Not a morning person? There still might be a good reason to get up and at it when it comes to booking time with your therapist.
A new study found that patients actually made more progress in overcoming anxiety, fears and phobias when they went to psychotherapy in the morning versus the afternoon. In fact, a test of panic symptoms revealed that patients had nearly 30 percent more improvement after an a.m. appointment than an afternoon session.
It’s not about whether or not you’re a morning person or a night owl, study author Alicia E. Meuret, a clinical psychologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told The Huffington Post. The new data suggests morning therapy sessions are aided by higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that our bodies naturally release throughout the day.
The regular release of cortisol plays a role in ramping up metabolism and your immune system to get your body ready to go for the day, she explained. But more cortisol is released in the morning.
“There is already good evidence that learning is facilitated in the morning. There is also good evidence that cortisol facilitates learning,” she said. But this study is the first to suggest that your morning cortisol boost may also help you better face ― and deal with ― your fears and anxieties.
Morning is the best time to learn
The study included 24 patients who had previously been diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia, meaning they had experienced panic attacks and avoided places or situations out of fear of having a repeat episode.
The individuals each attended weekly therapy sessions for three weeks and a fourth follow-up session two months after the initial three sessions. Some patients attended only afternoon sessions, some patients attended only morning sessions and some patients switched between the two.
Patients went through “exposure therapy” in which they confronted situations that would typically cause them to panic or be afraid. By facing a scenario that would typically cause anxiety for longer and longer periods of time, the patient learns to overcome their phobia, Meuret said.
After each session in the study the patients ranked several measures of stress and panic. A clinician also rated each patient’s behavior during the session.
While patients made improvements across all measures no matter the time of day, the researchers noted that morning patients’ panic symptom severity improved 28 percent more.
How this could apply to other types of therapy
While the results provide the strongest evidence yet that this type of therapy works better in the morning than later in the day, it doesn’t mean that ALL therapy necessarily works better earlier in the day, Meuret said.
“But, generally speaking psychotherapy is about learning new information,” she said. “And [other previous] memory studies suggest that learning is better in the morning.” So it makes sense in theory that other types of psychotherapy would also be more effective in the morning, but additional studies are needed to answer that questions for sure.
An important caveat: This research isn’t to say that other factors like the body’s natural circadian rhythm, quality of sleep and attention levels don’t play in to how effective a therapy session will be, Meuret added. Skipping a bunch of sleep also affects memory and learning, so the therapy boost you may get from an early morning session might not be as much if you’re exhausted, she explained.
It’s definitely something to keep in mind next time you’re scheduling time with your therapist.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.