How to stop anxiety in the morning

Anxiety can affect the best of us at any time, but what happens when it kicks off at the start of the day?  How can we stop anxiety in the morning?  This article looks at how to stop morning anxiety using simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) techniques to get your morning off to a better start.

First things first, its helpful for us to understand just what and why we experience anxiety in general.  Anxiety, and its’ counterpart Fear are embodied emotional-physical responses which evolved in response to threat in our environments.  When activated it gives us all of the physical resources needed for us to deal with the danger that is in front of us.  You may have heard about the fight or flight response, this is two of the anxiety based threat responses – we fight the danger or we escape from it.  For our ancestors, if we were faced with a danger in our environment, the threat response would kick in, we would experience the emotion and we would be primed to respond appropriately.

Anxiety manifests in lots of ways.  Because we are being primed to deal with a perceived danger, our brains send a signal to our adrenal glands which activate a stress hormone called cortisol and the motivational hormone adrenaline (epinephrine).  As these race around the body, they signal organs and muscles to get ready to fight or flight.  The heart beats faster, muscles get tense, we breathe more shallow and rapidly.  Digestion slows down as blood flows away from the stomach and into the main muscle groups, giving us that “butterflies” sensation.  The changes in our breathing lead to increased oxygen being held in the body and brain, leaving us feeling dizzy and lightheaded.  All designed to keep us alive and totally appropriate in a real threat situation.

Why do we get anxious in the morning?

So the question is, if there are no threats in the morning, why do we feel any anxiety in the morning at all?

There are a couple of reasons for this.  I’ll start with a little known physiological feature we have which is called the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR).  Basically, shortly after waking up, our body experiences a significant increase (around 50%) in the stress hormone cortisol.  It peaks around 30 minutes after waking up , which means that for the first 30 minutes of our day we are already at the peak natural level of stress, regardless of whether there is a threat or not.  Now, even though the Cortisol awakening response is a completely natural spike in stress hormone, studies have shown that there are some external factors which lead to even bigger CAR spikes.  The CAR response is higher on workdays compared to non-working days (who would have guessed, eh?)  It is is also higher when we have been experiencing general worry and stress, being overworked and experiencing acutely stressful life events.

So the CAR tells us why experiencing some degree of anxiety in the morning can be normal.  However, this doesn’t tell us why it is problematic for some people compared to others.  To understand this we need to consider how we respond to the anxiety emotion itself.  What goes through your mind when you notice that emotion of anxiety is present?

When we have been struggling with anxiety, when we view it as problematic or unwanted in some way, we will tend to think of it as being a threat to us in some way.  When our morning anxiety shows up, rather than us recognising that it is a normal part of us and will come and go throughout the day, we instead have thoughts like, “Oh no! It’s back! I need to get rid of it.”  When we appraise our anxiety as a threat, this activates the threat response leading to (guess what?) even more anxiety.  Not only that, but the way that the threat response works is that it organises our reality to focus solely upon the perceived threat, leading to changes in our attention, behaviour, thoughts and emotion which keep the emotion going.  Our hard-wired capacity to do whatever it takes to survive beyond the threat means that we see more of the threat, feel more anxiety about the threat, worry about what will happen if the threat doesn’t go and imagine a future consumed by it.  As such, our whole reality becomes consumed by our anxiety, when we perceive it as something which is a threat in itself.

The diagram below shows how activation of the threat system organises our experience…

diagram showing how threat organises the mind

So, how do we stop anxiety in the morning?  The solution may seem counterintuitive, but based upon the above  the following should now make sense.  In essence, we need to change our relationship to the anxiety itself.  Rather than us reacting to it as though it is a danger to our wellbeing, our functioning for the day ahead, and as a problem in itself, we instead need to learn how to drop the struggle.  A picture tells a thousand words as they say, to to illustrate what I mean by dropping the struggle, take a look at this fantastic video by ACT practitioner and author Russ Harris:

Here’s the easiest technique that we can use to stop us getting caught up in the morning anxiety struggle: Dropping Anchor. When we use dropping anchor, we are not trying to change or get rid of any aspect of our experience. We instead take some time to notice things as they are, right now. We will notice our environment, sights, sounds smells, etc. But we will also take some time to just notice our internal world too. We will no doubt notice all of the thoughts that pop up when we experience the morning anxiety, e.g., “I need to get rid of it”, “My day will be ruined”, “What is wrong with me?” We will also notice the emotion itself, but rather than get involved in our usual response to viewing anxiety as a threat, we instead explore it, be present with it and be willing to experience it just as it is, without our minds making it bigger and more problematic.

Here is one of many dropping anchor videos available of youtube:

To in addressing our topic of learning how to stop morning anxiety, we have covered just why anxiety is a normal, physical experience for us and that it is our response to it that makes it problematic. Why not try practicing with the dropping anchor exercise next time the anxiety comes up? For more generalised anxiety or other situation specific anxiety types, take a look through the rest of the articles on this site.

by George Maxwell
BABCP Accredited CBT Therapist, EMDR practitioner and Positive Psychology Coach.

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