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Feeling anxious when you wake up?

May 7, 2024

Anxiety affects everyone differently, but some people find that they’re more likely to feel anxious when they wake up. This could look like instantly feeling a sense of dread as soon as they open their eyes, or being woken up prematurely by anxious thoughts and struggling to get back to sleep.  

Why do I feel anxious when I wake up?

At the start of a new day, there can be anticipation about what’s to come. You might wake up and immediately begin to worry about the day’s challenges - a deadline, a meeting, a difficult conversation with someone - which can leave you feeling nervous and apprehensive.  

Equally, if you’re dealing with a stressful situation in your life, you might find that you’re constantly dwelling on it. If you go to bed worrying about the situation, these thoughts are likely to keep you up or come to the forefront of your mind when you wake up.  

There’s also a scientific reason why we might feel more anxious when we wake up. It’s thought that our cortisol levels are higher during the first hour of our day. In case you were wondering, cortisol is a hormone that our body releases when it perceives that we’re in a stressful situation.  

Cortisol can bring on anxiety symptoms (read about these here), such as a racing heart and tense muscles, which might explain why people who have an anxiety disorder or are experiencing stress find that their symptoms are stronger in the morning.

Certain substances can affect anxiety too. Alcohol is a depressant, so if you’ve been drinking the night before, this can affect your mood. Food and drink that contain caffeine and sugar can also amplify anxiety symptoms, such as a pounding heart and feeling shaky.  

The physical and emotional symptoms of waking up with anxiety can feel all encompassing and it’s easy to feel upset by this. You might believe that you’re starting the day on the back foot and approach it with a negative frame of mind as a result.  

Although you might not be able to control whether or not you feel anxious when you wake up, you are in charge of how you react to it - you can choose not to let it ruin or define your day.  

Managing feelings of anxiety when you wake up

Allocate worry time

If you’re used to waking up with anxiety, your brain might begin to associate this time of day with feeling anxious. To break this association, it can be helpful to introduce ‘worry time’; an allocated period where you allow yourself to go over your worries. When a worry pops up during the day, file it away and make a note to think about it later on during your worry time.

Worry time shouldn’t last for more than 30 minutes and you should avoid the morning when cortisol levels are likely to be higher and bedtime when negative thoughts could keep you up. You can also benefit from creating new positive associations in the morning, such as getting up and doing something relaxing (we’ve listed some ideas further on).  

Examine your thoughts, feelings and emotions

Understanding why you’re feeling anxious is important. Even if these feelings seem to have come out of the blue, there’s probably a reason why they’re happening. Perhaps something’s been playing on your mind, you’ve been overwhelmed with tasks lately, or you’re struggling with your mental health. Identifying where these feelings are coming from can help you to make a plan for how to tackle the situation and reduce your anxiety.  

Face what’s making you nervous

If you’re worried about something in particular, for example a meeting at work, it might be tempting to cancel it. However, if what you’re nervous about will need to be carried out another time, delaying it can just prolong the worry. This can become a vicious cycle where you worry about an event and then put it off with no resolution. Instead of avoiding the situation, it’s best to face it and get through it.

Challenge your thoughts

Identify the thoughts at the heart of your anxiety, for example ‘I am going to look stupid in my meeting and my colleagues will judge me’. Ask yourself whether there’s any evidence that this is true. Or, are you catastrophising, assuming the worst or just beating yourself up unnecessarily?  

Once you know what’s bothering you, try to come up with a more balanced thought to replace the negative one. This could be ‘I’m not as well prepared for the meeting as I’d like to be, but I know my area and I will aim to make useful contributions.’  

Find ways to relax

Bringing relaxation into your morning routine can help you to stay calm and reduce feelings of anxiety. You could involve some movement, such as a walk or a gentle yoga session. Alternatively, it might be an activity that allows you to pause and unwind, like meditation, mindfulness or a breathing exercise.  

Breathing techniques are a powerful tool when you feel anxious. Focused breathing can help to ease your symptoms; it slows your heart rate, relaxes your body and brings your attention to the present moment. Try breathing in slowly and deeply through your nose, then breathe out slowly and deeply through your mouth. It can be helpful to count from 1-5 on each breath.

Try talking therapy

Waking up with anxiety is normal every now and then. However, if you find that it’s happening regularly, or that stress and anxiety are having an impact on your daily life, you may want to consider talking therapy.  

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for anxiety, sleep problems and other common mental health disorders. CBT helps you to challenge unhealthy thinking styles and behaviours and gives you tools to stay in control of your mental health. At ieso, we offer typed CBT where our patients ‘speak’ to a therapist by typing back and forth via our secure online platform. Our appointments are flexible and remote, so you can have a session from the comfort of your own home.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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