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How to calm morning anxiety if your stress levels spike when you wake up

It’s a familiar sensation: you wake up with a jolt, your heart pounding and your forehead damp. But this isn’t for any particular reason; the day ahead contains no particular, known threat. It’s what’s known as morning anxiety, a highly unpleasant sensation you’ve somehow normalised to yourself, despite its damaging effects.

‘Morning anxiety isn’t technically a term recognised within mental health but is a phrase commonly described by anxiety sufferers,’ says psychologist Dr Marianne Trent, Clinical Psychologist with Good Thinking Psychological Services and author of The Grief Collective. ‘It’s typified by a sense of unease and sometimes overwhelm about the day ahead or even our actions in the days and weeks previously.’

While there are no formal stats around morning anxiety (due to it not being a specific medically-recognised condition), recent figures from Cambridge University found that anxiety has trebled in the past decade within the UK, particularly among adult women in the younger age brackets. The condition affects 30% of women aged 18-24 years old, and 22% of women aged 25-34.

Of course, feelings of anxiety are something we all get from time to time. So, first off, how do you know if your morning anxiety is a sign you suffer from medically-recognised anxiety (also known as ‘generalised anxiety disorder’ (or GAD) or else that it’s a passing, uncomfortable feeling?

‘It’s of less concern if it is specifically linked to big or novel event such as an interview, presentation or date and might also feature some excitement too which can feel a lot like anxiety too,’ explains Trent.

She adds: ‘When things become more problematic is when the feelings of anxiety are about events which happen everyday for example, your daily commute, a routine meeting with your supervisor or discussing finances with your partner. Generalised anxiety disorder will usually impact upon someone’s well being and functioning. People often report that their number of perceived problems are high. Over time, they may even start to feature traits of risk to themselves too.’ According to Trent, GAD tends to be diagnosed after symptoms have lasted for six months or more, while ‘morning anxiety’ might be a more transient experience that does not fall under the bracket of GAD.

So what causes the more ‘transient’ form of morning anxiety, that’s not generally linked to GAD? It can be caused by hormonal imbalances or seasonal factors. ‘For some people they can notice that their anxiety heightens a week or so before their period begins. Increased anxiety can be a feature of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Some people with Seasonal Affective Disorder report that as well as their mood taking a dip that their feelings of anxiety and unease are elevated.’

Talking of seasons, we’re now firmly ensconced in the festive season - and this can come with a whole host of potential factors causing morning anxiety: like ‘hangxiety’, another non-medically-recognised (but nevertheless widely reported) experience describing feelings of anxiety after an alcohol-fuelled night out.

“Where alcohol, drugs and other coping mechanisms are involved we can also expect that more people will wake with feelings of remorse, regret and trying to work out what they have done and how others might have perceived and judged it. Therefore, occasions such as festive parties and get-togethers can sometimes lead to people experiencing an increase in anxious feelings in the morning,” says Trent. So, while anxiety itself is, by its very nature, groundless, there may be very real factors motivating your morning anxiety.

Having said all this, as anyone who’s experienced morning anxiety will know, it is a troubling experience with significant consequences for your mental wellbeing – and even if it ‘only’ seasonal, that’s still a substantial chunk of your life. Knowing the causes of your unpleasant feelings won’t do much to counteract its unsettling effects.

Of course, it does happen that your morning anxiety is part of a wider mental health condition, six months is a long time to suffer in silence – and you should never have to. It’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you think this might be the case.

But, if your morning anxiety is restricted to the odd, highly-unpleasant experience, or happens seasonanally, what are the proactive solutions to help you work through it? We consulted Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, who shared her advice.

Get meditating

The links between meditation and reduced anxiety are widely acknowledged. Nor does it have to be a substantial time commitment: a study from the University of Waterloo found just 10 minutes of daily meditation can alleviate repetitive, anxious thoughts. And this strategy is just as effective when employed by morning anxiety sufferers, says Touroni: “Meditation allows the mind to relax and unwind so that you start the day feeling fresh and focused. It will also give you some insight into what emotional state you’re in so you can plan your day in a way that is sensitive to that.” Try downloading the CALM or Headspace apps to help you get started, or access the NHS meditation guidance.

Take a mindful walk during the day

Taking mindfulness into our daily lives can be a handy coping mechanism for battling all types of anxious feelings – and a great place to start is on our commutes, says Touroni. Try switching from taking public transport to travelling on foot for at least part of your journey – preferably through a local part or green space, and use this time to take a mindful walk. “Take note of all the different colours, textures, smells and sounds. This awareness allows us to step back into our body to feel more grounded instead of engaging with anxious thoughts.If you work from home, try doing this while practising daily errands instead, such as heading to the supermarket or gym.

Exercise in the morning if possible

Channel that frantic morning energy into your favourite workout, whether that’s a steady jog around the block or a sweaty HIIT class. This won’t just reap benefits for your physical health; exercising is yet another well-documented anxiety alleviator. A study published earlier this year found that both moderate and strenuous exercise alleviates the effects of those who suffer moderate or high levels of anxiety. “Exercise doesn’t just benefit our physical health, it can also provide us with a much-needed mood boost,” says Touroni. “When we exercise, our body releases feel-good hormones which trigger positive feelings in the body. The body also becomes better at managing cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone, which can lower our anxiety and stress.”

Don’t skip breakfast – and nourish yourself for the rest of the day, too

Skipping breakfast is a definite no-no for morning anxiety sufferers, says Touroni – as multiple studies have linked missing out on your first meal of the day with poor mental health, including a heightened risk of depression and anxiety. More generally, anyone trying to counteract anxiety symptoms should be prioritising a balanced, healthy diet.

And how to know if you need to seek professional help…

“If you feel like your anxiety is starting to interfere with everyday life, it’s important to seek out support,” says Touroni. “The sooner you get the appropriate support, the better your chances of making a speedy recovery.”

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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