Waking up with anxiety
Have you ever suddenly jolted awake in the middle of the night with your heart pounding? Or do you wake in the morning feeling a sense of dread, or immediately overwhelmed by stress? When we go to bed we expect – or at least hope – that we’ll wake refreshed and ready for the day ahead. If that doesn’t happen, any anxious thoughts, emotions and physical sensations of panic we experience can linger on, continuing to affect us through the rest of the day.
It’s easy to feel dominated and upset by the physical and emotional symptoms of waking up with anxiety. They might seem all encompassing. You might believe you’re starting the day on the back foot, and approach it with a negative frame of mind as a result. This could become a self-fulfilling prophecy!
You may not be able to control the anxiety you feel on waking, but you do have power over how you react to it – choosing not to let it define or ruin your day.
Don’t try to block the feelings out. It may seem like a logical response to try and ignore them, but dismissing them could actually make them loom larger in your mind. If someone tells you that you absolutely mustn’t think about a pink elephant for the rest of the day, what immediately pops into your mind?
Don’t avoid the thing that’s making you anxious. If you know what triggered your rude awakening, trying to avoid it will be an unhelpful strategy. For example, if there’s a meeting that you’re dreading you may be tempted to cancel it to spare yourself the stress, especially if lost sleep has made you tired and you’re not at your best. Ask yourself: what would the impact of cancelling the meeting be? Would it delay something that needs to be done? Annoy your colleagues? Create more stress in the long-term? If the meeting is rescheduled for a later date, are you likely to feel anxious again beforehand – maybe even more so? This could become a vicious cycle.
Examine your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Sitting with your anxiety and examining it could help to take some of its power away. Even if it seems as though it came out of the blue, there’s probably a reason why you woke up feeling anxious or panicky. This might be a specific event such as a meeting or an exam that’s preying on your mind, or you might be overwhelmed with the number of tasks on your to-do list, or have a lot of worries and concerns.
Accept the anxiety. Recognise that your body and brain are just doing what they need to do – or what they think they need to do! – to prime us for tackling the threats and challenges that we’re facing in our lives. Anxiety is a natural and involuntary response to stress, which we explored in a previous blog. Panic sensations such as a racing heart or rapid breathing feel unpleasant, and can be distressing – but they’re harmless. You could try some breathing techniques if you need to calm your symptoms.
Challenge your thoughts. It’s useful to recognise that we can change how we perceive the anxious thoughts we’ve woken up with, and that this will have an impact on the emotions and feelings we have during the rest of the day.
Identify the thoughts at the heart of your anxiety, and look at them in detail. For instance: • “I’m never going to get everything done on my to-do list” • “I look terrible in the outfit I’ve chosen for the party and everyone will laugh at me” • “I’m going to say stupid things in this meeting and my boss will fire me”.
Is there any evidence that these things are true? Or is anything out of perspective? Are you catastrophising, assuming the worst? Making negative predictions, or beating yourself up unnecessarily?
Then try to come up with more balanced thoughts to replace the negative ones. For instance: • “I have loads to do and it seems daunting, but while I won’t get it all done today I will eventually get through my tasks” • “I don’t feel very self-confident at the moment, but the party will be full of supportive and kind friends and I deserve to have a good time there” • “I’m not as well prepared for the meeting as I’d like to be, but I know my area inside out and always have something useful to contribute”.
Waking up with anxiety is something that happens to us all every now and again. But if you find it’s happening frequently, or anxiety or stress are having an impact on your daily life, CBT can help you manage your symptoms and feel more like yourself again.